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Belarus moves into uncharted territory

As public's trust withers, Lukashenko might be forced into reforms to his Soviet-style autocracy.

“If Russia gives Belarus loans, that will definitely be a loan collateralized by Belarusian enterprises,” said Romanchuk. “That’s the time that Lukashenko will be forced to sell valuble assets … that cost billions and billions of dollars.”

This option carries significant political risks, as well. Russian leaders do not hide their antipathy for Lukashenko. The Kremlin may use its added economic leverage to pressure the Belarusian leader, or even drive him from power.

Lukashenko has modeled himself as a champion of Belarusian independence; returning the country to the folds of its former colonial masters in Moscow could be met with a strong public outcry. Even in apolitical Vitebsk, just miles from the Russian border, this issue elicited objections.

“Of course I’m against selling anything to Russia,” said Sergei, a local schoolteacher who otherwise supported the government. “They’ll have to find another way.”

But right now, the government faces a more pressing issue: growing public discontent over the devaluation. Though this is not a threat at the moment, it may become one in the future months.

Belarusians are said to be passive or disinterested in politics. And most of the country’s political opposition is in jail or being tightly controlled. But every group has its breaking point. At a tractor factory last week, workers reportedly staged a short work stoppage to express their displeasure. Elsewhere, however, people say that they are unhappy but wary of speaking out, for fear of inviting harsh official reaction.

“Lukashenko won’t allow anyone to demonstrate over such issues,” said Slava, the student in the Vitebsk beer garden. “Police would crack down in three seconds.”

“But if it were possible to protest?” he added. “Sure, I’d go onto the street if there were someone to lead me.”