Following famous words of my professor Anis Bajrektarevic that: “the Atlantic Europe is a political power-house (with the two of three European nuclear powers and two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, P-5), Central Europe is an economic power-house, Russophone Europe is an energy power-house, Scandinavian Europe is all of that a bit, and Eastern Europe is none of it.”
, I wanted to examine the standing of my own place of origin in the ‘new European constellations’. What happens to a country which suddenly is free to govern its own territory and people? What is the biggest fear? Is it the inability to satisfy its population or a threat from the former conqueror? Should a country opt for the ‘shock therapy’ or experience gradual changes? How to deal with the privatization of state-owned institutions? The following lines objectively question how the well-being of the East-European nation has changed in 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the course of the country’s integration into the EU. The authoress also answers whether a small country like Latvia can actually preserve both its political and economic sovereignty. On a bigger scale, the findings suggest that the well-being in the Latvian SSR was better than it is today, while others strongly disagree. Furthermore, the authoress concludes that Latvia had to sacrifice its economical sovereignty in order to preserve its political independence. Is any other choice conceivable, now or in future?
* * * *
The Republic of Latvia is a small country situated on the Baltic coast, in Eastern Europe. The estimated population of 2012 slightly exceeds 2 million. 60% of the population is ethnic Latvians, while a significant part, i.e. 27.3%, is Russian, demonstrating the legacy of the past. (Eurostat, 2012)
Just slightly over 20 years ago Latvia was under the Soviet rule and Communists were the ones who had the power to make decisions. The government of Latvia was not recognized by the international community. The nation itself experienced the Soviet economic and political system. In other words, during the time of occupation, Soviet Union introduced the Russian language into all aspects of everyday life. The intelligence was deported and a 5-year economy plan led to empty store shelves and starving people. Even though the productivity of the agricultural sector was high, all harvest was transported to other Soviet territories. Nevertheless, industrial capacity was significantly improved, employment was high, education was for free, and most of the basic needs of the nation, such as housing, were satisfied.
Latvia’s de facto sovereignty was recognized in 1991, and the first years of independence were spent developing a functioning state. The most difficult tasks facing the government were the creation of administrative bodies, reforms in the health and education sector and also a much needed shift from a planned economy to a market economy. When a political stability was reached and reforms initiated, the nation became increasingly concerned about the preservation of its statehood, so in 1995 the Latvian authorities adopted a statement defining foreign policy goals. They argued that the sovereignty can be strengthened through early integration into the European and world-wide security and political and economic structures. Latvia became a member state of the UNO in 1991, and joined the EU and NATO in 2004. (Jundzis, 2010)
However, clear existence goals for the country were absent for the first decade of independence. While political sovereignty was at the top of the agenda, the majority of the society believed that the continuous increase of average human well-being and a long-term conservation of cultural heritage and Latvian language should be the goals. Even though the initiated reforms strived for improved living standards, similar to those of many Western countries, and increased individual freedom and protected rights, many question whether these reforms and integration into the EU have supported the achievement of one of the main goals – improved human well-being in Latvia. (Pabriks & Purs, 2001)
The Human Development Index, published by UNDP, assesses the long-term progress of human development regarding a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. The overall human development value in Latvia has been positive as the HDI value has risen from 0.693 (1990) to 0.805 (2011). Hence, the statistics rank Latvia among other high human development countries. (UNDP, 2011)
The majority of indicators, compared from 1990 to 2010, have followed a positive trend. Very often the development was slow during the first years of independence when the reforms were launched. Years later, in the 21st century, especially after Latvia’s accession to the EU, human well-being improved more rapidly until the crisis in 2008 which resulted in its decrease. Nevertheless, improved absolute numbers should not be overestimated.
The previously centralized health sector has experienced notable reforms in the last 20 years; thus, the health condition of the inhabitants of Latvia has improved. The system was decentralized; hence, it entitled the foundation of private health care institutions; thereby, the health care became more accessible and more qualitative, as displayed in Figure 1. Furthermore, as the health expenditure of the state’s budget has increased and the money from European funds can also be received, new technologies have been implemented. At the same time, more and more people are unable to afford the health care services due to the growing prices.
One can say that in the Soviet Latvia general care was easily accessible, but, when it came to a very specific treatment, it was challenging to find a proper physician. On the plus side, nowadays there are various physicians specialized in their fields; however, sick people might have to pay for treatment out of their own pockets in order to receive help without waiting. Consequently, many people are unsatisfied with prices of medical care in Latvia. On the bright side, the quality of care provided has definitely improved over the past 20 years.
Despite advancements and reforms in the health care system, demographics are in recession, which is a serious threat to the country’s succession. A natural decrease of population due to lower fertility rates and a considerable migration outflow (especially within the first years of the collapse of USSR and after Latvia’s accession to the EU) has contributed to the fact that the population has decreased from 2.67 million in 1990 to 2.24 million in 2010. As a consequence of smaller number of new-borns and rising life expectancy, the population is aging, which imposes an increasing burden to the economically active part of the population to finance the retired people.
Unfortunately, not only is financing the retired people a serious issue, but also a complete burden to costs of primary goods which have increased. Thus, paying for one’s own needs is becoming harder. The results of surveying 130 people suggest that in the Latvian SSR more than 60 per cent of the representative sample had funds to pay for all basic needs, such as food, housing, health care, education. Currently, less than 40 per cent of respondents have means to pay for all these needs. The proportion of people who can finance their needs just partially has risen from 29 to 47 per cent.
Even though the absolute income has increased, the amount of people earning less than the subsistence minimum is rising, especially in the rural areas. It has to be mentioned that the content of Latvia’s subsistence basket has not been revised since the first year of renewed statehood; thus, in reality, it does not contain all goods and services required for living decently. Furthermore, since the accession to the EU, prices have risen rapidly. For instance, total housing costs have increased significantly – in the USSR the rent and public utilities were highly subsidized by the government, whereas in 2005 the average housing costs amounted to 80 US dollars and 170 dollars in 2009. (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2011) These costs are borne by the private sector and the burden is becoming heavier due to lower income compared to the costs themselves. The situation is even worse, considering the fact that the proportion of overcrowded households is one of the highest within the EU. If people lived in and paid for apartments so that they were not characterized as overcrowded, the housing costs would be even higher compared to their income. Many people agree that they enjoyed much better housing conditions when they were a part of the communism country.
Similarly, the respondents of the survey mentioned that the Soviet Times guaranteed a certain security regarding employment. The majority of the economically active population was employed in the Latvian SSR compared to the 16 per cent unemployment level in 2009. (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2011) Even though the absolute remuneration was considerably lower in the Soviet times, it had more purchasing power. On the other hand, the labor market is becoming more knowledge intensive, and the workers – more educated and better specialized in their professions. Working conditions have also improved significantly, partly because of the regulations of the ILO.
Transformation to knowledge-based economy has been supported by the development of the education system which is highly recognized by international surveys. High literacy and enrollment ratios are requirements for the nation to educate people who can efficiently participate in such natural resource-scarce economy. Smart people are one of Latvia’s major assets. Nevertheless, the state has to further advance its education system, as remarks from the Soviet system are still present (books, teaching concepts, teachers etc.). Furthermore, the government has to understand the role of education expenditure. Ongoing budget cuts on education sector deteriorates the quality, as teachers and professors lose their motivation and pupils and students become more motivated to enroll in universities abroad.
The EU has provided significant advantages to the Latvian population, especially the youth which now is eligible to study permanently or temporarily at foreign universities, enjoying the same terms and conditions. Also, to the people who are entrepreneurial, open-minded and have a certain understanding of how to take an advantage of new business opportunities. The EU has also contributed to the modernization of hospitals, schools and the infrastructure. Furthermore, the EU sets standards as well as observes the development of human well-being; therefore, Latvia is motivated and under a pressure to demonstrate continuous advancement. As a result, the nation believes that the health and education systems have been improved and provide higher quality and accessibility. Nevertheless, given their income level, they are discontent with the prices of the tertiary education and specialized health care services. On the other hand, the Soviet government paid for housing, education and health care thus more resources were available for food items, leisure time, clothing, and also the employment ratio in the Latvian SSR was close to 100 per cent. Therefore, there are people who believe that the communism times ensured better well-being. In addition, the equality within the population was much higher. However, as very often respondents mentioned, everybody was equally poor. Nowadays, the income polarization is a significant issue.
To complete the picture about human development trends in Latvia, which have followed different directions, it is worth referring to the final question of the conducted survey. It asked the respondents when, in their opinion, the well-being was the highest: in Soviet Latvia, in Latvia before joining the EU or in Latvia which is a member state of the EU. As the graph illustrates, the opinions vary – approximately every third of the respondent pool shares a different view, which simply further proves the finding that there are indicators which have improved along the movement towards Europe and there are aspects which so far the sovereign Latvia has not been able to offer its people as it was done by the USSR.
In order to succeed and reach the well-being benchmark set by the Union, first of all, a sustainable economic growth is needed, resulting in means which could shift into a social system. Additionally, the political powers have to cooperate with the society ‒ finding a common ground, establishing goals that are seen as important and beneficial to the state itself and its population. It is of utmost importance to assure that the population lives decently, meaning, their basic needs, such as food, housing and health care, are satisfied. It should be the main goal of the government, thereby increasing the satisfaction and loyalty of the population to the state. Hence, the society would be willing to contribute to the development process, also by properly paying taxes.
Furthermore, lessons from the past should be learned. One of the main arguments for Latvia entering the EU was the economic advancement. As tariff and non-tariff barriers would be abolished, the trade between the EU and Latvia, especially the export originating from Latvia, would further increase. Productivity would be increased when people started working into more productive sectors. Furthermore, fixed and human capital investments were expected to be attracted via low labor costs, the adoption of EU legislations and additional privatizations. Investments would initiate an upward growth spiral. Nonetheless, skeptics argued that not every person residing in Latvia would benefit. Citizens who benefited the most would be young people, as they would enter better paid jobs, whereas the pensions of retired people would not increase as rapidly as the prices of goods and services. Latvian farms would face serious hardship due to a surplus in the market resulting from foreign competitors that are subsidized by their own governments. (Memo, 2000) They were right. The EU has suppressed the Latvian economy as a result of shutting down industrial plants, uncontrolled FDI inflows, enabling cheap credits, a significant inflation and price increase, and foreign companies creating a competition which small Latvian companies and farmers cannot defeat. The smaller economy led to an increasing budget deficit, external borrowing and, finally, budget cuts demanded by the IMF and the EU, which have harmed the population as their adjusted income is not as high as living costs. One can say that Latvia traded a part of its economic sovereignty in order to ensure its political independence and the population is paying the price.
However, the people living in Latvia have been willing to pay this price for the sake of Latvia’s sovereignty. In a survey, carried out by the national news portal TVNET, it was asked what the biggest threat to Latvia’s sovereignty is. 53 per cent of the 5311 respondents indicated Russia and unknown money influx as the biggest danger. Contrary, just seven per cent perceive integration into the EU and NATO as imminent danger to Latvia’s independence. (LETA, 2004) On one hand, if Latvia had not joined the EU, the threat imposed by a money influx would have been limited, but political independence would have been significantly less insured, suggesting that preservation of economic and political sovereignty is impossible for a small country like Latvia. In words of my former professor: ‘difference between a dialectic and cyclical history is a distance between success and fall.’ (Bajrektarevic, 2012)
If Latvia had not joined the EU in 2004, it could have taken its time to develop the industries which correspond to the society’s interests, not to the EU regulations. In addition, the migration outflow would have been smaller; therefore, people who are desperately needed in Latvia to cultivate the economy would have been available. Hence, the money influx into an economically stronger country would not have resulted in such a crisis. In this case Latvia would have experienced a slow and stable economic and social welfare growth. However, at some point in time, say 10 years later than the original accession date, Latvia should have joined the EU, as it is too small to be acting alone on the global stage. Latvia does not have significant raw materials or highly developed industries; thus, it lacks international power. Its needs and ideas are heard and pushed forward only in cases when stronger partners share the same interests. The EU is a platform where Latvia can find like-minded countries; therefore, it can find “allies” and together strive for developments and economic and political stability.
As for the Latvia’s situation in the EU, in 2014, Latvia is expected to join the Eurozone if it fulfils the requirements. At the moment, it is believed that Latvia will succeed and be allowed to join, but opinions whether the country really needs to adapt the Euro vary. In September 2012, the public opinion on the Euro adaptation was record low, as only 13% of Latvians support the idea. Being a member of Eurozone would further disable Latvia to control its monetary policy and raise the prices which would not correspond to the income earned by a less productive workforce and industries compared to the ones in other EU states. Therefore, many experts believe that Latvia should postpone its adoption of the Euro until the future of the Eurozone is clearer and Latvia recovers from the economic recession and advances its production regarding productivity and value added.
Once Latvia substitutes its Latvian Lats for the Euro, it will be economically even more dependent from the EU and its regulations, but it would also present new trade opportunities for Latvian companies and therefore cultivate the economy and increase human well-being. The state would also become more creditworthy to foreign investors. Nevertheless, one should not forget how the FDI affected the economy three years ago. Swedish banks, which acquired Latvian banks, issued loans excessively and irresponsibly during the pre-crisis period; thus, fuelling unsustainable and imaginary private consumption and property prices in the country. Sweden’s position, demanding severe budget cuts that affected education and the health sector, was indicative of their fear of losses in case the loans issued decrease in value due to devaluation. Latvia has to be well prepared before welcoming Euro as a replacement for its Lats, which was only reintroduced in1993.
Bajrektarevic, A. (2013), Of 9/11 and 11/9 – How did Europe become itself? Taylor & Francis, UK
Bajrektarevic, A. (2012), Future of Europe Europe’s World, Brussels
Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia (2011), Materiālā nenodrošinātība Latvijā. Riga: 2011.
Jundzis, T. (2010), Latvijas Valsts Atjaunošanas Parlamentārais Ceļš, 1989-1993. Rīga: Latvijas Zinātņu akadēmijas Baltijas stratēgisko pētijumu centrs.
LETA (2010. gada 11. 3), Ielādēts 2010. gada 19. 5 no KAS JAUNS: http://www.kasjauns.lv/lv/news/sia-vares-dibinat-ar-viena-lata-pamatkapitalu&news_id=18184
LETA (2004, November 14), Muciņš skaidro izmaksu pieaugumu veselības aprūpē. Retrieved April 9, 2012, from TVnet:
Memo, M. (2000, July 13), “Will Joining EU and NATO Benefit Latvia?” Retrieved March 12, 2012, from The Baltic Times:
Pabriks, A., and Purs, A. (2001), Latvia: The Challenges of Change. London: Routledge.
Paiders, J. (2002), Nē Eiropai! Vai Latvijai ir nākotne ārpus Eiropas Savienības? Rīga: JPA.
Rajevska, F. (2005), Social Policy in Latvia. Oslo: Fafo.
Tragakes, E., Brigis, G., Karaskevica, J., Rurane, A., Stuburs, A., and Zusmane, E. (2008), Latvia: Health System Review. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from European Observatory of Health Systems and Policies:
UNDP (2011). Human Development Report 2011: Latvia. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from HDR: http://hdrstats.undp.org/images/explanations/LVA.pdf
Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh
On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.
Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.
The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.
This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.
Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?
The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.
It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.
On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.
Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.
In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.
In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.
Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus
The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.
The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.
It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.
The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.
The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.
In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.
Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.
Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.
With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.
The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.
The Western stance
The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.
Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.
Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.
The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.
The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.
Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.
Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.
Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.
Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.
The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”
The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.
Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.
But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.
The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.
Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.
After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.
Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.
Author’s note: first published in dailysabah
An Impending Revolution
Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.
The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.
On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.
European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.
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