Elections in Belarus — home to what is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship — are pretty much a foregone conclusion. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron fist for 26 years.
But this coming presidential race on Aug. 9 is shaping up to be anything but predictable. Frustration has mounted with Lukashenko over rampant corruption, economic stagnation and, most recently, his cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus (he recommended vodka and a dip in the sauna to ward off the virus). That frustration has been boiling over not only in urban areas like Minsk, but also in Lukashenko’s traditional rural strongholds
Belarusians have come out in droves to sign petitions to allow opposition candidates to register for the election. Several prominent candidates have been arrested and imprisoned. In the aftermath, one unlikely political newcomer has emerged: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old language teacher and the wife of one of those jailed candidates, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.
The mother of two has drawn increasingly large crowds at her rallies across the country. She’s also joined forces with two other women to form an unprecedented female trio challenging Lukashenko’s grip on power. One of those women, Veronika Tsepkalo, is the wife of a former ambassador to the U.S. whose attempts to register for the election were rejected.
Amid the political jockeying, Lukashenko claimed to have thwarted a foreign plot to destabilize the country by arresting over 30 members of the Wagner Group, a quasi-private Russian military contractor that dispatches mercenaries to war zones in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Experts speculate the Wagner operatives were probably just passing through Belarus to get to those hotspots, and that the arrests were part of a well-worn playbook to show that Belarus needs a strongman like Lukashenko to ensure its security.
Yet for all the hype that the newly empowered opposition has stirred in the media, Lukashenko’s sixth term is all but assured after the government-orchestrated election. Still, the recent protests suggest his hold on power is fraying. And even if Lukashenko wins at the ballot box, his government could still be in danger of collapsing if a mass uprising erupts in the wake of blatant vote-rigging.
“Society is discontent. People want change,” said Katia Glod, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, during a July 15 webinar hosted by CEPA. “This desire runs through many generations — from very young generations to the older generation.”
The discontent is evident in the president’s overall approval ratings. Although no independent polling groups are allowed in the country, Glod estimates that Lukashenko’s support hovers at around 20%.
“Lukashenko is in a lot trouble,” Glod said. “The economy is doing very badly.”
“But on the other hand, of course his state apparatus is still working very well,” she added, citing his security forces’ long history of cracking down on dissent.
Roughly 700 protesters and activists have been detained since May, according to the human rights group Viasna. Over a dozen journalists have also been arrested, including several from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which says one of its journalists was beaten by riot police who left him handcuffed and kneeling on the floor of a police van, bleeding with a broken nose, as he was taken to a precinct station.
Glod said the arrests and assaults show that Lukashenko “certainly still has the means at the moment to resist the popular opposition to his rule.”
To that end, Tikhanovskaya has sent her two children abroad, fearing for their safety. Still, she has persisted in her maverick presidential bid. One of her rallies in the capital of Minsk drew thousands of supporters on July 18 in what many said was the largest opposition gathering since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.
Lukashenko is “obviously nervous because it’s not the usual opposition we’re talking about,” said Vytis Jurkonis of Freedom House during the CEPA webinar.
Jurkonis conceded that “the repressive apparatus in Belarus is so strong that the opposition might be crushed.”
“The worst that might happen is the feeling of defeat. I think the energy out there is already signaling to us that it’s not the usual day for Belarusians and for the regime,” he said.
That’s why he believes the fundamental challenge for the international community will be figuring out “how to respond to that energy.”
Jurkonis said that will involve supporting civil society, NGOs and independent media, but “it’s not only enough to give one grant or another.”
“The minimum task is to express our solidarity and be vocal about what is happening, but on a more practical note, I think we need to get out of this geopolitical dilemma — Russia or Europe, and then Lukashenko or opposition — because what we are witnessing today is a huge amount of people out there in the streets and on the social networks which are not necessarily the usual suspects of this traditional opposition.”
To that end, moderator Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at CEPA, criticized what he called the West’s either-or approach to Belarus and the mentality that if “you push Lukashenko too hard, you push him into the arms of Russia and therefore you should be nice to Lukashenko and get him out from Moscow. But then on the other hand that means he beats up the opposition, so you should be nasty to Lukashenko to stop beating up the opposition — but then you go back to the first question of, ‘Oh dear, we’re being nasty to him, so we’re pushing him to Moscow.’ And it goes round like a sort of pinball machine.”
Indeed, for years, Lukashenko has deftly played the West and Russia off each other to extract concessions from both sides.
CEPA panelist Brian Whitmore, director of the organization’s Russia program, described Lukashenko as a “world championship gamer” in this geopolitical struggle (also see “Belarus’s Balancing Act: ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ Walks Fine Line Between Russia and the West” in the December 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
As Russian President Vladimir has pushed to form a closer economic and political union with Belarus in recent years, Lukashenko has pushed back. He’s been courting investment from Europe and even China to wean the country off Moscow’s largesse (half of Belarus’s trade is with Russia).
He’s also reached out to the Trump administration to mend ties. In February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus, where he said the U.S. could provide the country with 100% of its oil and gas needs — capitalizing on Moscow’s earlier decision to cut energy supplies as part of its pressure campaign on Lukashenko. And in April, Trump announced the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since relations broke down in 2008.
German Marshall Fund senior fellow Jonathan Katz told our reporter Deryl Davis that Lukashenko is a wily character who cannot be trusted. At the same time, he “is no dummy.”
“He can see [from examples in Georgia and Ukraine] that Russia and Putin are willing and ready to act when their interest is at stake,” Katz said in our December 2019 article, arguing that Lukashenko’s Western charm offensive is born of genuine fears that Putin seeks to absorb Belarus.
He warned, though, that Lukashenko is both “trying to play ball with the Kremlin, but also trying to find outside levers to decrease the pressure from it” — an increasingly precarious balancing act as Moscow tightens the economic noose around Belarus.
During the CEPA panel, Lucas said it’s important for outsiders to re-examine “the real relationship” between Russia and Belarus. “On the surface it looks very close, with intelligence cooperation, economic cooperation, the perpetual discussion of maybe a common currency,” he said. “In truth, it’s a much more nuanced and complicated relationship.”
Whitmore compared it to a “dysfunctional marriage,” claiming there is a lot of personal animosity between Lukashenko and Putin.
“Lukashenko looks at it as transactional. ‘I will be your friend if you pay me.’ And Putin looks at it as imperial. ‘I am the czar and you’re a provincial leader and you will do as I say,’” Whitmore explained, arguing that Russia is now trying to make the relationship more imperial — for example, by seeking to establish a new airbase in eastern Belarus — while Lukashenko is resisting such efforts.
Whitmore added that the relationship between Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime and average Belarusians is also changing.
The old social contract you had was that you had a minimal standard of living based on Russian subsidies in exchange for a passive acquiescence politically,” he said. “Well, living standards have been falling as Russia has cut subsidies…. And so this has upset this social contract. Lukashenko’s absolutely inept handling of COVID-19 also certainly hasn’t helped matters here.”
Moreover, Whitmore says the opposition itself is evolving. After witnessing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in nearby Ukraine and fearing a power vacuum if Lukashenko leaves that Moscow would be all too happy to fill, the opposition seemed to accept Lukashenko as the “lesser evil.”
But today, those fears don’t seem as potent.
Jurkonis said Belarusians are “simply tired of Lukashenko.”
“We need a leader,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if they have relations with Russia.”
That desire for change has propelled the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also helping her unlikely rise was the reported chauvinism of Lukashenko, who dismissed the idea that a woman could ever become president. She “would collapse, poor thing,” he told factory workers on May 29.
Two months later, Lukashenko now finds himself pitted against not one but three women.
They include Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova (the campaign manager of another jailed candidate) and Veronika Tsepkalo (whose husband was denied registration for the election and has since fled the country).
“We want to live in a free state where no one is afraid to speak freely,” Tsepkalo recently told Robyn Dixon of The Washington Post. “Where no one is afraid, where there is the right to free meetings on the street, where you don’t think about what to say because tomorrow you may be behind bars.”
The women don’t have a specific agenda. If elected, Tikhanovskaya has pledged to release political prisoners and hold a new election that includes all opposition candidates.
None of the CEPA panelists, however, were particularly optimistic that would happen given Lukashenko’s penchant for vote-rigging.
They said the key will be what happens the day after Lukashenko’s “victory.”
There is always the possibility of a mass uprising challenging the results — and a brutal response by security forces. Some have even speculated that Russia would prefer Lukashenko to lose in the hopes that a pliable new president would come to power.
Whitmore floated another extreme scenario whereby Putin eventually takes matters into his own hands if Lukashenko wins but does not bend to his will.
He predicted that at first, the Kremlin will try to intimidate Lukashenko, who, weakened by the elections, will need the Russians more than ever.
“And Putin’s going to say to him, ‘You be a good
obedient little boy or I’m going to make trouble for you,” Whitmore said. “The next step up the ladder is some kind of orchestrated regime change.”
If that fails, Whitmore said we could see a Russian military invasion.
While other panelists dismissed the notion of Russia — which is itself battling the coronavirus and the global plunge in oil prices — invading Belarus, Whitmore insisted that, “We’d be ridiculously Pollyannish to take an invasion off the table. There is no country other than Ukraine that Russia views as more vital to its strategic depth — i.e., pliant regimes on its Western borders.”
So what should the West do in response to any possible Russian aggression after the elections in Belarus?
“We need to send a very, very clear and unambiguous message to Moscow that as distasteful as we find the Lukashenko regime … we also regard Belarus’ sovereignty and independence as absolutely sacrosanct, and any efforts to undermine that independence will be met with a very clear response,” Whitmore said, “be it sanctions or otherwise.”
He added that the West needs to support the rising new generation of Belarusians agitating for change and work with Belarus to create an economy that’s less dependent on Russia. He also noted that economic assistance to Belarus and sanctions on those who violate human rights are not mutually exclusive policies.
“I think we have to find a way to thread this needle. It ain’t going to be easy, but God if you want an easy job, go sell shoes.”
Whitmore said it’s imperative that “we walk and chew gun at the same time” because Belarus is integral both to the security of key NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as to U.S. efforts to project democratic values.
But ensuring the security of allies and promoting democracy abroad haven’t exactly been priorities for another president facing a tough election battle: Donald Trump.
In fact, Trump has routinely defended Putin despite widespread consensus that Moscow interfered in America’s 2016 election — and is likely to try to do so again in 2020.
And if Trump wins re-election in November, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll make a dramatic U-turn and start confronting Putin, defending traditional allies or pushing for democracy and human rights abroad.
On that note, it was telling that as the CEPA panelists debated the dynamics between Lukashenko and Putin, Trump’s name did not come up once during the entire hour-long discussion.
In a recent op-ed in The Hill, though, CEPA senior fellow Janusz Bugajski argued that Putin is adopting a more muscular foreign policy to divert attention from economic problems at home. And he’s succeeding because the West is so focused on its own problems.
“Western capitals are preoccupied with the health crisis and its economic repercussions. In addition, the U.S. confronts social and economic convulsions in the midst of a deeply divisive election,” Bugajski wrote. “Putin will urgently seek a foreign fait accompli, especially as he may face a more combative administration if former Vice President Joe Biden becomes president. Although the U.S. national security team has pushed back against Russia’s aggression, Putin perceives Trump as more accommodating. And if Trump is reelected, Putin will seek a grand deal that will acknowledge Russia’s new conquests.”
It remains to be seen if Belarus will be one of those conquests.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Editorial intern Cami Mondeaux contributed to this report.