“The time for joking is over,” the Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman wrote on 22 June. “This spiral of escalation is leading the country towards blood.” Since the 18 June arrest of Viktor Babariko, a former banker turned opposition presidential candidate, on charges of money laundering and witness tampering, Belarus – a post-Soviet nation of more than nine million, sandwiched between Poland and Russia – has been in uproar.
As unrest simmers, President Alexander Lukashenko, the cartoonish former collective-farm chairman who heads the country, is facing the greatest challenge to his presidency since first coming to power nearly three decades ago. He has since won five successive elections, only once with less than 80 per cent of the vote. Belarusians will vote on 9 August in a sixth poll, the result of which is all but a foregone conclusion. Yet the detention of several opposition candidates and the authorities’ heavy-handed response to ensuing protests indicates that Lukashenko is far from unperturbed about seeing off his challengers.
Though political protests are still rare in Belarus, Babariko’s arrest brought demonstrators on to the streets across the country. As police moved in, detaining more than a hundred people, Lukashenko began dropping dark hints about how he might cling on to power. He advised Belarusians to recall the 2005 Andijan massacre, when Uzbekistan’s security forces shot hundreds of protesters in the streets.
For a while, Lukashenko’s Belarus was a modest post-Soviet success story. Cheap Russian oil, refined in Belarus and resold to Europe, enabled the president to re-create some of the comfortable certainties of the Soviet Union. Belarusians continued to be guaranteed jobs, housing and services by an economy still largely run on Brezhnev-era lines. The state’s fragile institutions were dismantled, replaced by a politics reduced to little more than Lukashenko’s buffoonish persona. Even today, Belarus has no ruling party, no parliament of note and few other prominent politicians. Cabinet ministers are little more than bureaucratic placeholders, expected to surrender the spotlight to the president many refer to as Batka, or “daddy”.
The good times didn’t last. As Russian aid dried up and debt levels mounted, Belarus fell into what Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian-born researcher of the country’s political economy at University College London, terms “a slow-motion crisis”.
“Belarusian GDP is the same today as it was in 2010, and real wages are 70 per cent of what they were a decade ago,” Giczan told the New Statesman. “Ten years of economic stagnation have been devastating for Lukashenko’s public image. The social contract has simply stopped working.”
For many Belarusians, the final straw was Lukashenko’s response to Covid-19. Trusting his populist instincts, the president recommended a series of folksy remedies for the coronavirus “psychosis,” including tractor driving, vodka and visits to the sauna. His refusal to introduce a self-isolation regime, and his insistence that Victory Day parades and football matches go ahead as normal earned Belarus worldwide ridicule, though did bring unprecedented attention to the Belarusian Premier League, for a time the only professional football played in Europe. His country now boasts one of the worst per capita case counts in the entire world.
According to Shraibman, the political analyst, Lukashenko’s performance during the pandemic was “a powerful indicator of how autocracy doesn’t work. Ordinary people began to see the consequences that one-man rule can have.”
Ahead of August’s presidential election, all indications are that Lukashenko’s popularity has sagged. Poor results in unscientific online surveys have spawned a new epithet for the president: “Sasha 3%”. More grounded estimates place his support at around 30 per cent, though reliable figures are thin on the ground in a country where independent polling is heavily restricted.
With dissent brewing, the vote has attracted an unusually high number of opposition candidates. Aside from the jailed Babariko, himself a high-profile philanthropist and one of the country’s richest men, opposition candidates include Sergei Tikhanovsky, an anti-corruption YouTuber running on a platform of crushing the “cockroach” president. Tikhanovsky has also been detained by the authorities.
Babariko’s candidacy has gathered an unprecedentedly high 435,000 signatures, around 5 per cent of the population, illustrating the depth of discontent with the existing order. His base is the usually apolitical middle classes nurtured under, but now disenchanted by, authoritarian rule. Lukashenko actually losing a fair election remains inconceivable, however, given his tight control of the state machinery, analysts stress. More likely is a summer of protest and escalating clashes between the opposition and the state.
“If the regime refuses to allow Babariko to run, then that would trigger a court battle and more protests,” says Shraibman. “If, in the end, the authorities announce that Lukashenko has won another massive victory, then that will likely cause both sides to escalate the situation.”
If it does, Russia’s position is crucial. The two countries, although nominally committed to ever-closer union by a 1999 treaty, have something of a love-hate relationship. Lukashenko himself is widely disliked in Moscow as a fickle and demanding partner who is known to be uneasy about surrendering sovereignty to his more powerful neighbour.
Though the opposition has been at pains to stress its friendly attitude towards Russia, the Kremlin will likely work to prop up Lukashenko rather than risking an unknown successor. “Russia wants a weakened Lukashenko to stay in power,” says Minsk-based journalist Franak Viacorka. “It is much better from Moscow’s perspective to keep a difficult but predictable Lukashenko in office, and force him to accept deeper integration with Russia.”
Lukashenko appears to be girding himself for the fight of his political life. He has bumped up pensions to stir up his elderly base and issued a whirlwind of threatening rhetoric, mass arrests and mobile phone signal blackouts at protests. Though observers stress that authorities would likely only resort to full-blown repression if all else fails, inside Belarus the mood is increasingly grim.
Viacorka anticipates a long, hot summer of confrontation on Europe’s sensitive eastern frontier. “Lukashenko has everything to lose and won’t stop short of using violence.”
Felix Light is a freelance journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.