Although one of the criticisms of Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko is that his government handled the Covid-19 pandemic badly, the topic has been notably absent from public debates. It’s this dismissive stance towards the coronavirus that the authoritarian leader and the protesters calling for an end to his time in office have in common.
During the recent demonstrations following the presidential election, the crowds in Minsk didn’t seem to care about social distancing, very few masks were seen, and Lukashenko himself regularly displayed his defiance of Covid dangers – remember that he even ordered a big victory parade on 8 May. Although one should nonetheless note that Belarus is dealing with outbreaks of the virus better than the neighbouring countries.
For a brief moment, at least, the pandemic was relegated into the background, and we were back to the well-known scene of freedom-loving masses toppling “the last dictator in Europe” – Minsk as a new Kyiv.
However, this joyful enthusiasm for democracy implies its own blind spot. We should, of course, support the protests: Lukashenko is an eccentric authoritarian leader, a slightly ridiculous figure who runs his state with an iron fist, arresting opponents, allowing very little freedom of the press, etc. However, he cannot be dismissed as simply a failure. What he achieved was economic stability, safety and order, with a per capita income much higher than that in the “free” Ukraine, and distributed in a much more egalitarian way. But one of his most important profitable enterprises – getting cheap oil from Russia and reselling it to the West – is now over because of low oil prices. So his time has run out.
The ongoing protests in Belarus are catch-up protests, the aim of which is to align the country with Western liberal-capitalist values. But the problems will come after the protesters claim victory for democracy and the first wave of enthusiasm is over. The final outcome might well be a new, more national-conservative figure – something like a Belarussian version of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski. That is to say, one should bear in mind the reason for Lukashenko’s relative popularity until recently: he was tolerated, accepted even by some circles, precisely because he offered a safe haven against the ravages of wild liberal capitalism (corruption, economic and social uncertainty).
The protests which have been shaking the world the last couple of years clearly oscillate between two types. On the one side, we have the catch-up protests which enjoy the support of Western liberal media: Hong Kong, Minsk etc. On the other side, we have much more troubling protests which are a reaction to the limits of the liberal-democratic project itself: The yellow vests movement in France, Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion. The relationship between the two resembles the well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. The upshot of which is that in a race between the two, the fleet-footed Achilles cannot ever overtake the tortoise. No matter how quickly Achilles closes each gap, the slow-but-steady tortoise will always open new, smaller ones and remain just ahead of the Greek hero.
Now let’s replace Achilles by “forces of democratic uprising”, and the tortoise by the ideal of “liberal-democratic capitalism”: we soon realise that the majority of countries cannot come too close to this ideal, and that their failure to reach it expresses weaknesses of the global capitalist system itself. All these countries can do is the risky move of reaching beyond this system, which, of course, brings its own dangers.
Plus we are forced to realise that, while pro-democracy protesters strive to catch-up with the liberal-capitalist West, there are clear signs that, in economy and politics, the developed West itself is entering a post-capitalist and post-liberal era – an era that is dystopian in nature, of course.
Greece’s former minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis, recently pointed out a key sign of things to come: when news of historic recessions in the UK and US broke, the stock market experienced a record high. Although part of this can be explained by simple facts (most stock market highs belong to just a few companies which thrive now, from Google to Tesla), the general tendency is of the decoupling of financial circulation and speculation from production and profit. Netflix is exemplary here: while it loses money, it continues to expand. The true choice is thus: what kind of post-capitalism will we find ourselves in?
As for democracy, let’s just take a look at the cover stories in our media. In Poland, liberal public figures complain that they are becoming spectators at the dismantling of democracy. In the US, Barack Obama warned that Donald Trump presents a grave threat to democracy itself, while Trump is giving signs that he will not recognise the result of presidential elections if it is not in his favour – does this not sound like Lukashenko?
So let’s wish all the luck to protesters in Belarus: if they win, Covid-19 concerns will return with a vengeance, with all other pressing issues from ecology to new poverty. They will need luck – and courage.
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