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Whither Belarus?

A Virtual Special Issue of Europe-Asia Studies, with articles selected by Dr Matthew Frear

In the quarter of a century that followed his first election (1994), President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been dubbed the ‘last dictator in Europe’ in an ‘outpost of tyranny’. As a subject of academic research, Belarus often represented an overlooked corner of the post-Soviet space. Europe-Asia Studies, however, has been publishing articles about developments in the country for just as long as Lukashenka has held power.

Belarus has burst into the public consciousness worldwide in August 2020. Lukashenka claimed re-election for a sixth term under conditions that, as has become the norm, were neither free nor fair. The candidate who had emerged as Lukashenka’s leading opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was standing on behalf of her husband, a well-known YouTube vlogger who had been arrested by the regime. Blatant electoral fraud, coupled with ongoing economic difficulties, as well as a poor initial response from the authorities to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in the largest protests post-Soviet Belarus has ever witnessed, with tens of thousands of citizens taking to the streets nationwide in over 30 towns and cities. The regime responded to these protests with a brutal crackdown, which saw the internet cut off, thousands of arrests, and widespread accusations of torture in prisons. This repressive climate pressured Tsikhanouskaya herself to go into exile in Lithuania. Amidst regime brutality, demonstrations and strikes continued across the country, bringing out many constituencies that have been traditionally seen as the president’s supporters, such as factory workers. Lukashenka has made baseless claims of Western interference to stoke a colour revolution in Belarus, dismissing protestors as ‘sheep’ being shepherded by outside forces. Meanwhile, there are concerns about the possible intervention of Russia in any potential crisis that might unfold. A clear, well-informed understanding of Belarusian politics and society has in this sense never been more necessary: this pressing demand can be answered by looking at a curated range of articles published over the past 25 years by Europe-Asia Studies.

The scholarly research presented in this Virtual Special Issue offers critical background on how Belarus got into the situation that it is in today. The list of articles that we are making available to our readers includes works by some of the leading experts on Belarus, and some of the research works featured here are the most-cited articles about the country. They cover the roots of the authoritarian regime built around Lukashenka and discuss its key features (Eke & Kuzio 2000; Ioffe 2004; Marples 2005), looking at a variety of markers defining Belarusian authoritarianism, including its political economy (Ioffe 2004; Yarashevich 2014), its ideology and national identity discourse (Burant 1995; Leshchenko 2005), and populist tendencies (Eke & Kuzio 2000; Matsuzato 2004). This Virtual Special Issue explains how, over the years, the regime adapted its power strategies in its incessant bid to keep Lukashenka in power, hence providing context to how Lukashenka has got into his current difficulties and explaining why he is no longer perceived as being able to deliver on his promises.

The literature featured in this Virtual Special Issue does not ignore the Belarusian opposition, from youth movements (Nikolayenko 2015) to online techniques of protest (Lysenko & Desouza 2015). The latter have come to the fore again this summer, with the use of the Telegram messaging site to coordinate protests. These articles also investigate the early foreign policy developments of newly independent Belarus (Burant 1995), and offer insights into the successes and failures in the stalled creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus (Deyermond 2004). Over the past two years, the Union State has emerged once more as a contentious point in Belarus-Russia relations, and closer integration might be a price that Lukashenka may have to pay in return for substantive Russian support in propping up his regime through the current crisis.

This Virtual Special Issue offers readers a solid foundation for their understanding of developments in Belarus since independence, as the country continues to negotiate a critical juncture in the evolution of its politics and society.

Europe-Asia Studies

Europe-Asia Studies is the principal academic journal in the world focusing on the history and current political, social and economic affairs of the countries of the former 'communist bloc' of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Asia. At the same time, the journal explores the economic, political and social transformation of these countries and the changing character of their relationships with the rest of Europe and Asia. From its first publication in 1949, until January 1993, the title of Europe-Asia Studies was Soviet Studies. The Editors' decision to change the title to Europe-Asia Studies followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. It reflected the belief that countries of the former 'Soviet bloc' would gradually become more closely linked with both Europe and Asia, while continuing to present distinctive topics for research as a consequence of their specific experience. In 2007 the Editors took a further decision to extend the journal's scope to include China and other Asian countries that are or were under communist rule.

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