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Why the clock is ticking for Belarus's Lukashenko

The opposition's wooing of Moscow may have sealed the fate of Europe’s "last dictator”.

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A month ago, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign to be president of Belarus didn’t exist. Tikhanovskaya was a translator living in Gomel, the country’s second city. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a vlogger who runs the popular opposition YouTube channel “A Country Fit to Live In”, which rails against President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, planned to stand as a candidate in the 9 August presidential elections. But when Tikhanovsky was disqualified and thrown in prison, Tikhanovskaya registered in his place. Her platform is to resign in six months, after organising the first free and fair elections since Lukashenko’s first victory in 1994.

Tikhanovskaya is running the fiercest opposition campaign in the history of independent Belarus. Her election rallies have drawn thousands in even third-tier cities, demonstrating that dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s rule of 26 years spans both geography and social classes. In a fair election, she would force a run-off against Lukashenko and likely win, says Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian researcher at University College London. (The president has a genuine support base, but they do not number close to the 80 per cent or so that official results allot him at every election.)

But in Belarus, dubbed “Europe's last true dictatorship” by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2005, votes do not depend on voters. Sunday’s election is a foregone conclusion. Despite Tikhanovskaya’s valiant efforts to inject a modicum of fairness into the exercise, including asking her supporters to photograph their ballots in order to prevent falsification, official results will likely show Lukashenko winning with an overwhelming majority – perhaps a little lower than usual in order to maintain the pretence of fairness. Barring the kind of lapse in discipline no self-respecting dictator could ever countenance, Lukashenko will be sworn in for a sixth term in a few weeks.

“I could tell you, but what would be the point?” Lukashenko smiled when asked who would be president after the elections by Ukrainian TV host Dmitry Gordon.

The real question for the Belarusian opposition, Russia and the European Union is how Lukashenko will respond to the longer-term consequences of Tikhanovskaya’s formidable challenge and the inevitable post-election protests that will follow.

[see also: Why the actions of authoritarian leaders are an urgent political issue for the UK]

She has tapped into discontent spanning the entire country, from the capital Minsk to the rural provinces, amid catastrophic mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic by the authorities. At her rallies, the old white-red-white flag of Belarus traditionally favoured by the opposition mingles with the official Lukashenko-era ensign, adopted a few years after independence and derided by democrats as a symbol of Soviet-era autocracy. The presence of the two competing banners illustrates the campaign’s reconciling of the traditional opposition with newer constituencies unused to resisting the regime.

Lukashenko may cling to power for years yet, using the considerable security state he has built to quell opposition protests. His regime has already begun ramping up intimidation of the opposition, arresting a string of Tikhanovskaya staffers, including her campaign manager on Thursday (6 August). (She was released after a short spell in detention.)

But Tikhanovskaya’s admirable campaign has permanently shattered his aura of infallibility, according to a former aide to the president and to analysts. His days are numbered, they say – and his fall may be hastened if a decidedly apathetic Russia, long his staunchest ally, decides it is in its interest to drop him.

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Lukashenko’s week has not been spent projecting an image of steadfastness. The president, who recently contracted Covid-19, a disease he spent months downplaying, appeared on TV on Tuesday to deride his political challengers in a rambling pre-election address. “Those who demand changes, reforms, and the return of the old constitution just want to return to the chaos of the 1990s," Lukashenko told an audience of stern-faced, maskless apparatchiks. “All those who are against Lukashenko are foreign agents,” he added.

Aleksandr Feduta, who worked on Lukashenko’s first campaign in 1994 and briefly within the first administration, says that the president is on edge because he knows he would lose a fair vote. “This is the first time he’s not assured of victory. He’s aware of this. Possibly more importantly, everyone else knows so. The state officials, the security services and Russia all know that he would lose. That is having a huge impact on him.”

Lukashenko is conscious that he is shedding legitimacy, agrees Katsiaryna Shmatsina, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Vilnius, Lithuania. “He understands that he has less and less popular support – but even so, the state apparatus has strong tools for repression and the administrative capacity to manage this discontent.”

The regime has banned all further Tikhanovskaya rallies and announced that concerts will be held in Minsk’s Friendship of the Peoples Park every day until the election. These shows were intended to preclude large opposition meetings, but little ended up going to plan for the government. Tikhanovskaya told her partisans to attend Thursday's concert, turning it into an impromptu election rally. Two DJs hired by the city showed their support by playing Kino's "I Want Changes"a protest anthem across the former USSR and the soundtrack to Tikhanovskaya's campaign. “We know we've lost our jobs,” they told a reporter from RFE/RL.

The opposition plans to gather in central Minsk from Sunday evening, and mass protests throughout the country are set to last through next week, after the results are announced on Monday. The protests could be met with violence from the authorities, opposition figures fear. 

“I am worried. At every possible point this year, Lukashenko has consistently chosen the most provocative option: not registering opposition candidates and jailing several opponents. I think there’s a very good chance he’ll continue to choose the harshest approach, which could end very badly,” says Feduta.

The state’s capacity to repress the likely post-election demonstrations will be crucial to the course of Lukashenko's reign over the next few months. Former military personnel have reportedly been spotted in the crowds at opposition rallies, lending weight to the theory that parts of the armed forces might refuse to put down post-election protests with force. Nexta, an opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app, posted photos supposedly sent by serving members of the military, purporting to show their uniforms, captioned: “The army is with the people!”

“Lukashenko’s biggest concern is that significant numbers of the military and police will defect to the protestors. In the past two weeks he has done little else but visit military and police bases,” says Giczan. “He may be trying to send the message that he is not afraid to use force and drumming up support and loyalty from army and police units.”

Yet there is a danger that Lukashenko will overplay his hand in attempting to retain power, putting too much faith in his security apparatus. There are enough police to repress protests in Minsk without too much violence, but not if nationwide protests erupt, says Giczan. At that point, Lukashenko’s only option might be to call upon the army, which comes with its own set of risks.

“If Lukashenko orders the security forces to shoot protestors in the street, then he’ll be out of office in three days. Can anyone imagine that the men of this country would tolerate that? Firing on defenceless women? Soldiers would refuse those kinds of orders. All the men who are unemployed, all the migrants who’ve been kicked out of Russia during this pandemic, would rise up,” Feduta says. He adds that Lukashenko could buy himself another couple of years in office, at most, if he merely orders rallies to be broken up with batons.

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The Belarusian protest movement is haunted by the experience of neighbouring Ukraine. The country's pro-Western Euromaidan Revolution succeeded in ejecting Viktor Yanukovych, Kyiv's wildly corrupt pro-Russian leader, in 2014. But it was followed by the illegal annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation the same year and war erupting in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, as Russian-backed separatists fought to further dismember the country. War has waged since, claiming hundreds of Ukrainian lives every year.

In Belarus, both sides accuse each other of wanting to provoke “a Maidan”. To Ukrainians the revolution is a proud symbol of popular protest throwing off the yoke of autocracy, but to Belarusians it is a cautionary tale of a traditionally friendly neighbour provoking Russia. “Who wants to organise a Maidan here? Is it him or is it us?” Tikhanovskaya asked in a rare televised address.

Russia’s attitude to Lukashenko will be crucial to how long he survives in office. The regime depends deeply on Russian energy subsidies and political support. Both countries are joined as part of the so-called Union State, the nominal confederation of equals of 1996 that on paper commits both countries to ever-deepening integration, which Lukashenko has largely resisted.

For the time being, Moscow has no obvious successor to Lukashenko in mind and would prefer him to stay, his position weakened but still in office, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. He would then be too weak to continue resisting integration with Russia. At that point, Vladimir Putin might push for greater integration, perhaps through a joint currency issued in Moscow, so as to formalise Belarus's dependence on Russia, she wrote on her Telegram channel.

[see also: How Covid-19 is transforming Russia’s power structures]

Yet observers in Minsk and Moscow agree that Russia will not hesitate to abandon Lukashenko if and when it suits its interests. Tikhanovskaya has sought to capitalise on this, ditching the opposition’s traditional aversion to Russia. She has emphasised that, were she to come to power, she would not question largely friendly relations with Belarus’s larger neighbour, though she claims the Union State is “unneeded”. In turn, this may have helped reassure Moscow that the opposition taking power could be tolerated. “Moscow’s economic leverage over Belarus can force any government in Minsk to make concessions,” Oleg Ignatov, a political scientist with connections to the Kremlin, wrote this week.

There is also a growing sense in Moscow that Lukashenko’s erratic regime could be dispensed with sooner rather than later. His threat to hand over 33 Russian mercenaries arrested at the end of July to Ukraine was viewed as a needlessly hostile provocation, says Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst. “Lukashenko is not seen as an effective leader by the Kremlin any more. Russia doesn’t like revolutions in its space and Lukashenko increasingly appears to be provoking them. The country he rules is ready to explode.”

Lukashenko’s ultimate undoing could be his steadfast refusal to shift the economy away from its Soviet origins. Belarusian industry never underwent the mass privatisation seen in most former Soviet states during the 1990s. This frustrated Russian oligarchs, who made their fortunes snapping up formerly state-owned enterprises in their home country and would like to do the same to their equivalents in Belarus. It also allowed Lukashenko to argue that his controlled economy allowed Belarus to avoid the economic crises that plagued its post-Soviet neighbours. 

Business interests could pressure the Kremlin to facilitate a transition to an administration more open to market reforms within a few years, in order to allow the oligarchs a slice of Belarus’s economy. “There are absolutely interest groups in Russia that would like to acquire bits of the Belarusian economy, whether that be oil refineries, factories, the military-industrial complex,” says Shraibman, adding the caveat that for the Kremlin, business interests are always secondary to geopolitical aims.

For a quarter of a century, however, Lukashenko has proved himself one of Europe’s canniest political operators. He has built a rigid dictatorship around his folksy persona, shaking down Russia for billions in subsidies by playing off Moscow and the West. He may yet cling on for another few years, using the full might of the security state he has constructed around him.

But even then, his days are likely numbered. “Lukashenko is afraid of public opinion these days. You can see that today in the way he speaks and acts. He’s on edge. He’s lost his feel for the people and is terrified of losing power,” says Feduta. “The Lukashenko I knew would never have ordered troops to fire on protestors, but power has changed him. Now I think he probably would if it came to it.”