Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s embattled dictator, never wanted to be a citizen of Belarus. The former chairman of a collective farm was the only member of the Supreme Soviet of Byelorussia to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. “I was a patriot who believed in the USSR as a stabilising force in the world,” he said in a recent interview.
In 1994, Lukashenko, now 65, was elected president of Belarus in the only free election in the history of the country. His election literature promised that with his presidency, “the era of rulers in their seventies” would cease. Lukashenko is still in power 26 years later, though possibly not for long. It is unlikely he will last the five-year term that he officially won in elections on 9 August.
As president, Lukashenko kept the state-owned tractor factories and collective farms. He even reinstated the Soviet-era flag, and didn’t bother to rename the KGB. The system worked – up to a point. Belarusians were spared the chaos that characterised the transition to capitalism in Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s. They didn’t get spectacularly rich, but they didn’t get poor either. Today, Belarusians are substantially wealthier than Ukrainians.
During Lukashenko’s presidency, dissent in the form of street protests has arisen every now and then, but has always been crushed. There are accusations that pro-government death squads targeted opposition politicians in the early years, “disappearing” them. Later challengers to Lukashenko’s rule, such as Andrei Sannikov, were forced into exile. Elections often returned Lukashenko to office with around 80 per cent of the vote.
Those this month were expected to follow the same pattern. Lukashenko jailed or forced into exile his opponents, including Sergei Tikhanovsky, whose wife, the 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, then ran against Lukashenko as the main opposition candidate. She ran on a platform of freeing political prisoners and organising the first free elections in nearly 30 years.
The official results were grimly predictable: 80 per cent for the president and 10 per cent for Tikhanovskaya. She disputed them, and has since fled to Lithuania. Protests broke out as voting closed. On the first few nights, riot police responded with violence. Thousands of protesters were detained, many of whom returned from detention centres with tales of torture.
Not even this dissuaded Belarusians from taking to the streets. By the end of the first week the crowds were so large that security forces had no choice but to let them pass.
A rally in Minsk on 16 August attracted around 127,000 protesters – the largest opposition meeting in the history of Belarus. Large sectors of the economy, from state-owned fertiliser plants to the Minsk Metro, have organised a general strike.
The psychological barrier that keeps subjects of dictatorship living in fear has broken. When Lukashenko visited a tractor factory on 17 August, workers there – who would traditionally be the core of Lukashenko’s support base – yelled, “Resign!”
The days and weeks ahead will determine the future of Lukashenko’s rule. The only way he could cling to power would be with Russian military support. Whether Moscow will provide it is unclear. Military intervention would turn the majority of Belarusians against their larger neighbour. It would also entangle Vladimir Putin in yet another foreign conflict, a difficult sell to parents tired of their children disappearing to eastern Ukraine and Syria.
The Belarusian opposition has been careful to focus its demands on domestic reform rather than geopolitics, but the Kremlin could come to the conclusion that intervention to prop up its closest international ally is worth the risk.