Saturday, July 8, 2023

Paul Hansbury's "Belarus in Crisis"

Paul Hansbury works with a number of Belarusian organizations, including Sense Analytics, a political consultancy, and the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, a think tank. He also teaches International Relations. He was educated at Birkbeck, University of London (BA) and St Antony's College, University of Oxford (MSc, DPhil).

Hansbury applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia-Ukraine War, and reported the following:
We begin mid-word, on page 99, and the reader has to trail back to the previous page to complete the unexpected adjective describing Belarus’s long-serving dictator – supplicant.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly thirty years, heavily reliant on Russia for political and economic succor. This page is part of a discussion about the loans Russia gave to support Belarus’s economy after the latter’s political crisis in 2020. This passage explains that, unhappy with Belarus’s profligacy, it made economic sense for Russia to pursue deeper economic integration with Belarus as a form of control. It also suggests that Russia was not fully committed to Lukashenka at a time of political turmoil in Belarus, and that the Kremlin might have thrown its weight behind a rival Belarusian political actor were they proposing economic policies it deemed more favorable. The page goes on to show the extent of Russia’s control over the banking sector in Belarus, noting that Russian entities own three of the seven ‘systemically important’ banks in Belarus.

Page 99 brings out a key theme in the book: the enormous extent of Russia’s influence in Belarus. On this page the economic relationship is being assessed, but elsewhere the book discusses Russia’s dominance of the information space and other forms of political control. In the popular imagination, Belarus’s dictator is little other than Vladimir Putin’s puppet and the country no more than a Russian protectorate, and this page gives some evidence for that belief in terms of economic dependency.

The page is less representative of the book as a whole, though. Belarus in Crisis is focused on the street demonstrations that almost toppled Lukashenka after a rigged presidential election in 2020. It takes the story of Belarus’s political crisis through to the country’s involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian war (in February 2022, some of Russia’s forces invaded Ukraine from Belarus). The reader of page 99 might think the book is about economics, which is hardly so.

This unrepresentativeness stems from the book’s structure. The book comprises a chronological narrative, interspersed with ‘interludes’ which illuminate a particular aspect of the country. Since page 99 falls on an interlude (‘The Economy’), it perhaps won’t give the reader a strong idea of the main narrative – although the page does make a number of important points and supports them with arguments and evidence.

Even in the interlude on the economy there are more piquant passages, such as those discussing Belarus’s role in the illegal EU tobacco trade, as a small arms dealer, or profiteering on Russian hydrocarbons. I think, therefore, that Belarus in Crisis gives a mixed performance on the Page 99 Test.
Visit Paul Hansbury's website.

--Marshal Zeringue