Over the past year, the development of Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime has accelerated towards totalitarianism.
The government sees no reason to stop this development and is encroaching on all possible areas, including people’s private lives, their employment, their travel abroad, their education or their historical memory.
The Belarusian political scientist Artyom Shraibman analyses how the elements of classical totalitarianism are being expanded by those of a dictatorship in the digital age and whether this process can be stopped at all.
At the end of 2022, I described in detail in a dekoder article the numerous characteristics of the totalitarian system that applied to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime at the time. It was not only about the extent of the far-reaching repression that Belarus had not experienced since the Stalin era, but also about other, less obvious features. Pro-government activists and professional informers now took part in the repression and informed those in power who they should keep an eye on.
Lukashenko enshrined in the constitution a new organ of power appointed without elections, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly – a kind of hybrid of the Soviet plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese National People’s Congress. In addition, a system for checking the political integrity of new recruits was introduced throughout the country. A note of disloyalty or participation in protests will no longer get you a job in the state sector.
In the course of 2023, there were increasing signs of a movement towards totalitarianism. This trend was recognisable as a reaction of the authoritarian organism to the shocks of 2020, but had then developed according to its own logic. The process works exactly according to the Orwellian formula “the purpose of power is power”. Located in a space without borders, authoritarian power sees no reason to pause and penetrates into areas of social life that it previously did not touch. Here, the Belarusian state finds new niches in which to introduce prohibitions, including in people’s private lives, children’s education, historical memory and freedom to work and travel.
Digital dictatorship and barriers to exit
For three years now, the Belarusian secret services have been expanding their access to all possible databases containing personal information. Immediately after the 2020 protests, the government fed the information from all of the country’s video surveillance cameras into a system that allows wanted persons to be quickly identified using facial recognition software. At the end of 2022, the intelligence services were given the right to permanently access virtually any electronic database. In theory, this decree by Lukashenko gave the siloviki the opportunity to have permanent access to the databases of hospitals, banks, mobile phone providers, courier and shipping services, not just on request – in other words, full control over the digital footprint of every Belarusian resident. In August 2023, Lukashenko signed a decree granting the security forces access to the management system of all banking transactions in the country. The secret services are given the power to block any payment for up to ten days if there is suspicion of a violation of the law.
Another classic feature of totalitarian systems is the restriction on citizens leaving the country. The Belarusian system does not yet have foreign passports and exit visas, as was the case in the USSR, for example. Nevertheless, Belarusians travelling abroad are checked much more conscientiously. Since spring 2023, following a drone attack on a Russian aircraft at the Belarusian airfield of Matsulishchi, the siloviki have been randomly checking the mobile phones of people entering and leaving the country at border crossings. If they find anything illegal, they arrest the person. Priority is given to those who have already been arrested for political reasons, as well as citizens who have a connection to Ukraine: who travel there frequently, have a Ukrainian passport or a residence permit.
In May 2023, a law was passed authorising the KGB to restrict a person’s departure “in the interests of national security” for a period of six months. Since November, some state employees, heads of state-owned companies and all siloviki have only been allowed to leave Belarus with the consent of their superiors.
Historical revision as part of the ideological doctrine
A year ago, we wrote that the Belarusian regime’s evolution towards totalitarianism remains incomplete because a key component is missing: a mobilising ideology that permeates the entire public space, the education sector and propaganda. This assessment is still valid. However, individual components of a fully-fledged ideological foundation are becoming increasingly clear, at least in the creation of an official historical narrative and, with its help, in the indoctrination of pupils.
In this mixture of Soviet and pro-Russian historical narrative, Belarusian statehood was only possible thanks to the anti-Western alliance with Moscow. The heroes of Belarusian history who fought against the Russian Empire and who were officially honoured until recently have now been declared enemies. These include, for example, the leaders of the anti-Russian uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kastus Kalinouski. In May 2023, the head of the presidential administration, Igor Sergeyenko, proposed removing these people from the pantheon of national heroes, as well as the magnates from the Radsiwill dynasty, under whom the Belarusian territories in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania experienced cultural and economic prosperity from the 15th to 17th centuries. Igor Sergeyenko compared Kalinouski with Stepan Bandera, the central anti-hero of the Kremlin’s historical narrative.
Any historical discourse centred on political necessities needs an external enemy
Since September 2023, these views have been reflected in the Ministry of Education’s new instructions for history teachers in Belarusian schools. Literary works by Belarusian classics that praise the fight against Russian imperialism are labelled “extremist” and banned. Novels that paint a positive picture of Kalinouski are banned from the curriculum. The government also changed the regulations for tourist guides and the organisation of exhibitions in museums. Museum staff come into conflict with the law during guided tours if they deviate from the official historical narrative.
Any historical discourse that is geared towards political necessities needs an external enemy. For Lukashenko’s regime, Poland is such an enemy, an eternal coloniser of Belarusian soil and oppressor of Belarusian culture. The government even had a feature film produced, On the Other Side of the River (Russian: Na drugom beregu) – about the suffering of the inhabitants of western Belarus under Polish rule in the period between the First and Second World Wars. In autumn 2023, this film was shown to pupils and students throughout the country as a compulsory event.
People are a resource, wishes don’t count
Due to the demographic low – i.e. the low number of young people of working age – and the mass exodus of skilled workers abroad in recent years, the Belarusian government is facing the problem of a serious labour shortage, particularly in the medical sector. The totalitarian logic of the regime’s further development dictates a relationship to people as an economic resource, the management of which does not necessarily require consideration of citizens’ personal priorities.
Another part of the fight against the demographic problem is the conservative turn in dealing with family, LGBT and gender
In September 2023, Lukashenko ordered that university graduates be given more jobs. To this day, Belarusian students who have studied at state expense must work off their studies for two years after graduation at a place assigned by the state (so-called raspredelenije). Graduates are often assigned to places in the countryside in order to solve the problem of a shortage of skilled labour. It is possible to free oneself from this allocation by paying a high compensation sum to the state, which exceeds the cost of the studies.
Lukashenko has now stipulated that the duration of the compulsory assignment will be extended and the rule will apply to all graduates, regardless of whether they studied at their own or at state expense. Since October 2023, young doctors must now complete their studies for five years after completing their specialist training.
Another part of the fight against the demographic problem is the conservative turnaround in dealing with family, LGBT and gender. Unlike the Kremlin, the Belarusian government had never attached great importance to these issues, but now it is addressing them. A course on traditional family values is to be introduced in schools, which is being developed by the General Prosecutor’s Office. The regime has also announced that “propaganda” in favour of LGBT and childlessness will soon be banned. The siloviki have begun to track down and persecute expressions of “non-traditional” values in the media – it hit an advert with a man in a dress, or a blogger and singer wearing pink clothes. One after another, Belarusian civil servants are calling on women to have more children and to start having them earlier.
Is a reduction in repression conceivable?
There is no clear answer to the question of which direction a regime like the Belarusian one will take in the future. Personalist regimes are heavily dependent on the fate of their ruler. And even if history knows of successful cases in which the regime has replicated itself under a successor (Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Syria), there are also numerous counter-examples, such as Stalin’s USSR or Maoist China. The institutional framework of these regimes remained intact after the leader’s death, but the brutality of repression and the totality of state control diminished significantly. The Belarusian case also stands out because the stability of the Minsk regime depends on the support of Moscow’s patron. The war and Putin’s age increase the degree of unpredictability here.
A reduction in repression is also conceivable under Lukashenko’s leadership. After all, he has already done this in the past in order to reactivate relations with the West. Today, however, a release of political prisoners would hardly be sufficient for a complete normalisation, considering the aftermath of 2020, the artificially created migration crisis at the EU’s external borders, the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in 2021 and the involvement in the Russian war. In the event of an unfavourable outcome of the war in Ukraine for Russia or a crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations, Lukashenko could well signal a willingness to engage in dialogue with the West again and reduce repression in the country in return.
The siloviki could get out of control at some point and jeopardise important interests of the civilian bureaucracy
A second way to achieve the same result could be that the repression exceeded the limits acceptable to the system. At the end of the 1930s, Stalin’s Great Terror in the USSR ended not because Stalin sought dialogue with the West, but because it had become unbearable for the party nomenklatura to live in fear; the repression had destroyed too many of its own people. This scenario is not impossible for Belarus; the siloviki could get out of control at some point and affect important interests of the civil bureaucracy.
However, the degree of repression, which can be regulated for tactical reasons, is by no means the only component of this system. Stalin’s regime remained a totalitarian dictatorship even after the Great Terror. It remained because it was maximally centred on the psychology of the communist leader and was the most comprehensible form of government for him. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the elements of totalitarianism that Lukashenko has revived. It is convenient for him to govern just such a state, which is increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet system in which he grew up.
It is difficult to imagine an incentive that would make Lukashenko reverse this process: to dissolve the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly elected by no one, to deprive the secret services of the powers of totalitarian surveillance of society, to abandon the pro-Russian historical narrative, to abolish the compulsory assignment of graduates or the verification of political loyalty when taking up employment. Dismantling all these attributes of the regime will probably be the task of the next Belarusian government.