Europe’s Last Dictatorship - U.S. Democratization Efforts in Belarus

Term Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Introduction

2. Portrait of Soviet Belarus

3. The End of the Soviet Era in Belarus

4. Democratization in Belarus
4.1 U.S. Democratization Efforts
4.2 European Democratization Efforts

5. Explaining the failure of Belarusian Democracy
5.1 Assessment of Internal Factors
5.2 Assessment of External Factors

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

With the end of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc states were left with an uncertain political and economic future. During the following decade, most of them succeeded in the establishment of some level of democracy and when the European Union opened its doors to new members in May 2004, many Eastern European countries joined the Union after having struggled to fulfill all membership requirements. Yet, there remains democratically uncharted territory on Eastern Europe’s political map. One of these blank spots is the Republic of Belarus, which both politicians and researchers alike have referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe.[1]

Since its official establishment in 1991, Belarus has struggled with the implementation of democratic policies. The republic is a nominal democracy and was pursuing liberal reforms after gaining independence, however, since his election in 1994, its current president Alyaksandar Lukashenka, was repeatedly able to expand his almost autocratic powers. The fact that most other countries in Eastern Europe have democratized more or less like textbook examples makes Belarus’ autocracy a true exception. In this paper, the question will be answered why democratization has so far failed in post-communist Belarus.

To answer this question thoroughly, it is indispensable to portrait the pre-transitional history and political climate in communist Belarus (section 2.), as well as the actual transition process starting in 1989 (section 3.). The research then turns to the question of how and to what extent external actors, especially the U.S. and Europe, engaged in democratization efforts (section 4.). Eventually, the analysis of external and internal factors will answer the central question of why democracy failed in Belarus (section 5.). It will be determined whether international efforts have been made effectively and correctly, and also, which domestic factors averted a move towards democracy. The results found in this research indicate that international actors failed to recognize Belarus’ exceptionalism among democratizing Eastern European countries and therefore virtually missed the crucial period in which democratization was still a political possibility for Belarus. Most importantly, however, internal factors were most significant in the authoritarian development of Belarus. Weak traditions of democracy, statehood, and national identity made and continue to make the Belarusian people an easy target for dictatorial rule.

The evaluation of the transitional process in Belarus will be based on primary sources such as official documents published by U.S. and European government authorities. Furthermore, press releases, scientific journal articles, news articles, and information from book chapters will complete the picture.

2. Portrait of Soviet Belarus

Much of today’s democratic deficit in Belarus can be attributed to the country’s turbulent history.[2] Belarus’ longest period of independence in 1918/19 lasted less than a year, while for the most part during the last centuries Belarusian national identity was suppressed by Russian and Polish competition over the country. Unlike other Eastern European nations, Belarus did not enjoy a truly formative period of political independence between the two World Wars, indeed the varying periods of foreign occupation slowly eroded its national identity. During the second World War, Belarus was almost completely destroyed and occupied by Germany, but then experienced a post-war economic boom and urbanization under Soviet rule. This experience led many Belarusians to believe that only close ties with Russia would bring prosperity and progress. The Russification of Belarus in terms of language, politics, and economy was therefore initially welcomed, until the ailing Russian economy began to affect Belarus in the mid 1980s. Once the country was affected by more than 70 percent of the nuclear fallout after Chernobyl in 1986, the growing discontent with the state of the Soviet republic made way for a larger movement of political opposition. Two years later, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), the country’s first independent political movement, was created. However, due to Belarus’ deficits in national identity, the BPF never experienced such broad-based support as it was observed with opposition groups in other Soviet states.[3]

3. The End of the Soviet Era in Belarus

With the crumbling of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the former Soviet states slowly began the process of democratization. “The period immediately preceding, and the two or three years following the collapse of the Soviet Union was the time when the nation came closest to recovering and asserting the non-Russian side of its identity”.[4] However, due to domestic preconditions and certain external factors, Belarus was one of the states that did not experience a major surge in democratization during this phase. On August 25, 1991 the country declared its independence and started to put in place liberal reforms, but in reality the old Belarusian elites still sought to revive the Soviet Union. Democratic reformer Stanislav Shushkevich was elected Supreme Soviet chairman, or president, but soon found himself surrounded by communists, such as Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich who simply resigned from the Communist Party but still intended to reunite Belarus with Russia. It proved to be problematic that, although Shushkevich was indeed a reformer, he had still been elected under Communist rule. The legitimacy of his leadership was questioned and provided ideal ground for his Communist opponents to undermine his authority. In January 1994, Shushkevich was kicked out of office after a series of corruption charges, while Prime Minister Kebich was hoping to be the incumbent. “Over the next two or three years, the western orientation of the BNF [Belarusian National Front] and Shushkevich was effectively defeated by the pro-Russian tendency, which has dominated until the present”.[5]

The country was thrown into a state of disarray in which democratic reforms where even harder to implement than before. Unsurprisingly, the pro-Soviet reactionist Alayksandar Lukashenka seemed to be a promising politician who would bring back the kind of order and stability that many still associated with the Soviet rule. He won the 1994 presidential race, leaving behind Vyacheslav Kebich and other contenders by a wide margin.[6] In the following years, however, President Lukashenka did far more than just restore order and satisfy the needs of nostalgic voters, but rather seized government in an authoritarian style and sweepingly began to monopolize power in his hands.[7]

In 1996 a disputed referendum substantially increased executive powers and extended the President’s term until 2001, while leaving the legislature virtually powerless. Lukashenka „marginalised all political opposition and abandoned economic reform efforts, and focused instead on rebuilding traditional economic links with Russia“[8]. He was reelected in highly manipulated elections in 2001. After two constitutionally approved terms in office, Lukashenka managed to push through a constitutional referendum in October 2004 that allowed him to stay in office for any unlimited number of electoral terms.[9] The latest elections of March 2006 were once again not recognized by the international community because they and the campaign process surrounding them failed to meet any standard for free and fair elections.[10]

4. Democratization in Belarus

Anti-democratic domestic policies like those mentioned above and undiplomatic official statements kept Belarus’ relations with international organizations and Western governments cool at best. Although the U.S. and the European security community have frequently declared their desire for a democratic Belarus, dialogue on a governmental level was virtually made impossible by the election of Alayksandar Lukashenka and the establishment of his authoritarian regime. The U.S. government, the OSCE, Council of Europe, and the EU unanimously condemned the disputed 1996 referendum, blatant electoral fraud, and the constitutional amendment of 2004. Nevertheless, they actively engaged in democracy assistance wherever possible. In the following section, the democratization efforts of various actors will be described.

To a certain extent, it remains unclear how effective measurements taken by European organizations really were, even if they did not lead to the development of democracy. In a study on the ‘freezing of the Greek association with the European Economic Community, Van Coufoudakis points out that we cannot be sure that changes in non-democratic countries are made in response to international pressure.[11] Just like in the case of Greek and the European Economic Community, it remains difficult to analyze the intertwined actions of domestic and international democracy promoters in Belarus.

4.1 European Democratization Efforts

Sanctions and Membership Conditionality

Overall, European democratization efforts in post-communist states have been evaluated as successful. In 1993, the Council of Europe set out membership conditions for all former Soviet state that until then had been only implicit. These included free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and also freedom of the media, minority rights, and signing the European Convention on Human Rights. In the case of Belarus, the transitional process seemed to get under well way during the first few years of independence, as it quickly wanted to join Western political organizations. In 1994, the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs even predicted that Belarus would fulfill EU membership requirements by the year 2005. In the light of this positive development, the European Community and Belarus signed an individual Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and Belarus granted guest status in the Council of Europe. At this point, no indicators reflected what major change was to disrupt European - Belarusian relations. That same year, Lukashenka won the presidential elections and from then on, Belarus took a different road towards regime building. The halting Belarusian approach of liberal democracy discouraged European organizations in their efforts.[12]

One of the turning points that shaped Europe’s negative view of Belarus was the 1996 referendum. In response to that, the Council of Ministers implemented a number of sanctions against Belarus. The newly established PCA was renounced, Belarus was divested of its special guest status in the Council, and bilateral contacts at the ministerial level were discontinued. Furthermore, technical assistance programs were cut with the exception of programs that directly benefited the Belarusian people or certain regions.[13] This happened for instance the EU TACIS program that supported the country with up to 14,6 million € annually in aid and assistance from 1991-1995. Its money flows were discontinued in 1996 as a result of Lukashenka’s policies. Since then money has been distributed carefully through civil society building programs to individual organizations that support liberal democracy.[14]

Table 1: EU assistance to Belarus 1991-2005 (in millions of €)[15]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Even though European organizations did not consider Belarus a membership candidate after the election of Lukashenka, they would have liked to see some level of membership interest in Belarus, as this would have opened new means to apply pressure and conditionality on Lukashenka. Unfortunately, ties to the West never seemed of great importance to Lukashenka, but instead, he turned towards Russia and sought to establish ties on the governmental level.[16] Also, it was almost impossible to apply normative pressure in order to influence the country on a governmental level, as Lukashenka refused to admit that the political development in Belarus was worrisome and frequently claimed that Belarus was simply misunderstood by Western Europe.[17]

Democracy Promotion

As conditionality and sanctions proved to be ineffective and the political development in Belarus became unacceptable for Western standards, the European community broke off most of its contact with Belarusian officials. In addition, due to the fact that most Belarusian non­governmental organizations were declared illegal in the 1990s, it was made even harder for European organizations to get their foot in the door.


[1] for example “Bush Calls Belarus Europe's Last Dictatorship,“ - Wires, Friday, May 6, 2005. or “Rice: Belarus is ’dictatorship’,“ - World, Wednesday, April 20, 2005.

[2] The Economist Intelligence Unit (2005). Country Profile 2005: Belarus,, (accessed February 17, 2005), p. 4.

[3] Ibid., p. 4-5.

[4] White, Stephen, Elena Korosteleva, and John Löwenhardt (2005). Postcommunist Belarus. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] White, p. 7.

[8] The Economist Intelligence Unit, p. 5.

[9] U.S. House (2004). Belarus and its future: Democracy or Soviet style dictatorship?. Hearing, Subcommittee on Europe of the Committee on International Relations, March 31, 2004, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, p. 2.

[10] for example “US rejects Belarus poll results,“ BBC News online, Monday, March 20, 2006. or “U.S. calls for new Belarus vote,“ - World, Monday, March 20, 2006.

or “Lukashenko scorns international criticism,“, March 21 2006.

[11] Coufoudakis, Van (1977). The European Economic Community and the ’Freezing’ of the Greek Association 1967-1974. Journal of Common Market Studies 16(2), p. 130.

[12] Davidonis, Ramunas (2001). The Challenge of Belarus, and European Responses. Occasional Papers 29, ,

Western European Union. The Institute for Security Studies, Paris, p. 23

[13] Ibid., pp. 23-24, 29.

[14] Europa: Gateway to the EU (n.d.). The OSCE Assistance and Monitoring Group (AMG). (accessed March 22, 2001).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Davidonis, p. 22.

[17] Ibid.

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Europe’s Last Dictatorship - U.S. Democratization Efforts in Belarus
Durham University
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