If one were to listen solely to Slavic media outlets, their view of the world would be vastly skewed. Slavic news tends to paint the Western world as morally flawed, and its leaders as weak. The leaders of Russia and its allies, on the other hand, are painted as benevolent, strong leaders with only the well-being of their people in mind. Of course, the propagandistic nature of Russian and other similar media outlets is a well-known fact across the Western world. For instance, it was just recently reported by Sputnik news, among other Russian news agencies, that Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko promised the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, humanitarian aid to help his citizens through their grueling civil war.
This is a particularly troubling story to be spun by Russian propaganda. It paints President Lukashenko as a sympathetic and powerful figure, eager to give aid to fellow Slavs. However, this could not be farther from the truth. For those not familiar with Eastern European politics, Lukashenko (fittingly sporting a Stalin-styled mustache) is widely regarded as “Europe’s last dictator.” The human rights violations he’s presided over only aid in proving his moniker. In 1996, he became a true autocrat, using a referendum to dissolve the Parliament and increase his power. He’s used this power to decrease free speech, imprison and torture political opposition, and subject the citizens of Belarus to a false presidency and real dictatorship.
But for all his multiple offenses, no one in the media seems to notice his crimes. His small country is dwarfed by the omnipresence of Russia and Ukraine, their feud and infamous Russian hackers silencing all other misdeeds. Yet his grip is so firm on the country’s rule that his neighbor, Putin, steals his dictatorial ideas and implements them himself in Russia.
Recently, Belarus celebrated its freedom day, and thousands took the opportunity to go out on the streets to protest their president, in defiance of the country’s ban on protests. Hundreds were arrested the same day, often being beaten and intimidated by police. Media within the country is similarly controlled, with opposition radio being shut down and reporters being imprisoned or sent running from the country.
In other words, Lukashenko behaves as his Soviet predecessors did, freely and without fear of retribution from the West. Russia has historically supported him through a cheap supply of oil. In addition, his populace is already poor and suffering from a stagnant economy. More contraction of GDP from Western sanctions or other economic blights should mean relatively little.
However, in January 2017, Lukashenko signed a tax into law on those who haven’t worked half a year and are not officially registered as unemployed: a so-called “parasite” tax of 250 U.S dollars (the average income in Belarus is about 380 dollars). This was the last straw for many of Lukashenko’s supporters—older, more conservative voters who didn’t have the money for this tax that was so reminiscent of the Soviet era. And so they took to the streets, sparking months of protests until he postponed the tax. Nevertheless, this did little to calm protests throughout the rest of the year, leading to the Belarus Freedom Day protests and arrests.
Lukashenko knows his country is struggling. Furthermore, as Russia grows more prominent in world affairs, Putin’s distaste for Lukashenko has become clear via cuts to Belarus’s supply of Russian oil. Additionally, the Russians tried to install a military base in Belarus back in February of 2017. Lukashenko resisted.
The Belarusian president has been making increasingly more overtures towards the European Union. He seems to be realizing that few in Europe support the idea of a Soviet-style leader next door, and that his people would protest less if Belarus was part of a stable economic union with the considerably wealthier Western European countries. The EU seems willing to accept Belarus into the fold, considering its dropped sanctions in 2016.
Belarus joining the EU would be a great economic move for its people. The populace in Belarus is extremely poor, and Belarusians suffer from social and political oppression. Joining the EU would not only increase their economic well-being, but it would also likely increase their sociopolitical freedom due to the Union’s requirements for entry. Furthermore, it would separate the small country from its big brother to the east, giving the country some autonomy and freedom to make its own future in a post-Cold War world. Not only would Russia be deprived of a valuable ally, but a valuable puppet.
But the biggest problem with Belarus joining the EU is that its citizens may not be so willing to join the economic conglomerate. Eight percent of its population is made up of ethnic Russians, and most citizens speak Russian in addition to Belarusian. The perceived ties to its sister country are a stronghold on both the country’s leaders and its citizens, and make it doubtful that most will be in favor of joining the West anytime soon. As Putin grows more powerful and Russian propaganda endears him more to Russian-speaking people, the probability of Belarus breaking away from Russia grows smaller and smaller. And as Slavic, state-run media continues to perpetuate the myth of its strongmen as benefactors, Russian and Belarusian citizens will only support their dictatorial leaders even more.