By Zack Blumberg, contributor
Over the course of the past week, protests have engulfed the small nation of Belarus. Frustrated citizens coalesced around the campaign of upstart presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and have come out in force to voice their anger towards strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko and his government’s highly undemocratic presidential election, held on August 9th. According to the Belarus’s official polling numbers, which Tikhanovskaya has refused to accept, Lukashenko was reelected after picking up 80.23% of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya, who held some of the largest political rallies in post-Soviet Belarus, won a mere 9.9%. Although Tikhanovskaya has since fled to Lithuania (many of her senior campaign staffers having been arrested), her popular campaign could force a reckoning for Lukashenko and his highly-entrenched government.
Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” is a foundational figure in Belarusian politics. The director of a state farm in the former USSR, Lukashenko won independent Belarus’s first post-Soviet presidential election in 1994 (largely considered to be the most legitimate presidential election Belarus has held) and has stayed in power ever since, earning him the nickname “batka,” or father. While most of Europe has liberalized and democratized since the fall of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko’s Belarus is an exception: it has been sanctioned by both the United States and European Union for violating human rights, it ranks 153rd in the world for freedom of the press, and Lukashenko has even personally dismissed the idea of free and fair elections, saying in 2019 that his government “isn’t playing at some kind of democracy.”
Since winning the initial 1994 election, Lukashenko has ruled relatively unchallenged. In the early years of his presidency, he was well-regarded by many Belarusians, largely because his totalitarian rule and refusal to modernize the nation’s economy ensured stability and kept unemployment rates lower than those in other post-Soviet states. Today, Belarus enjoys a close relationship with Russia, and Lukashenko has capitalized on his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prop up his nation’s economy; crucially, Russia has continually sold oil and natural gas to Belarus at well below market price, effectively providing the nation with energy subsidies. Although not as popular as he once was, Lukashenko was still thought to be politically secure up until earlier this year.
However, a recent sequence of events significantly weakened Lukashenko’s grip on power, opening the door for Tikhanovskaya’s opposition campaign. In February of this year, Putin attempted to gain further control over Belarus and pressure the nation into joining into a “union state” with Russia by eliminating the subsidized oil Lukashenko had come to rely upon; although Putin began selling limited quantities of oil to Belarus again in April, this nonetheless had a dramatic impact on the Belarusian economy. In large part because of the economic damage caused by Putin’s decreased oil subsidies, Lukashenko elected to ignore the Coronavirus crisis and attempt to keep the economy open, a decision which backfired spectacularly. After saying that covid was ‘psychosis’ and that Belarusians could protect themselves from the virus by drinking vodka, Lukashenko then humiliatingly became infected, undercutting his own rhetoric.
Unsurprisingly, a government-approved poll from April showed only about a third of Belarusians trusted Lukashenko, something which Tikhanovskaya capitalized on in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election. Although Tikhanovskaya actually had no intention of running for president (she only entered the race to replace her husband, a prominent opposition blogger and youtuber, after he was jailed), she proved to be an excellent campaigner, deftly tapping into people’s frustrations with Belarus’ stagnant economy and lack of political freedom.
On election day, Lukashenko used traditional strongman tactics to ensure victory: several precincts reported over 100% voter turnout, the unusually high number of early votes likely represented Lukashenko’s ballot-stuffing measures, and video footage even emerged of a member of the electoral commission climbing through the window of a polling place with a large bag, presumably containing fraudulent ballots. Although Lukashenko appears set to remain in power, largely thanks to his ability to use Belarus’s political and legal institutions to suppress Tikhanovskaya’s movement, it is a watershed moment for Belarusian politics and will force Lukashenko to reevaluate his position.
Facing more widespread opposition than ever before, it is clear Lukashenko must act decisively and enact substantive reforms in order to avoid losing all legitimacy and potentially provoking a major uprising or even a revolt. Economically, he is stuck in an incredibly difficult position: In order to maintain stability and actually promote economic growth, Lukashenko must either rely on his relationship with Russia or look to reform the Belarisuan economy, which has remained largely unchanged from the Soviet days. However, both options have major drawbacks. Continuing to rely on Russia likely involves eventually ceding a great deal of political autonomy to Belarus’s bigger neighbor, while reforming the economy would require “westernizing,” which would almost certainly cause Russia to enact punitive (and devastating) sanctions.
Politically, the only expedient option available to Lukashenko is to make meaningful concessions to the protest movement. The economy is too weak for him to simply try and ride the protests out in the hope that a sudden return to prosperity causes the citizens’ anger to subside, especially since the protests do not simply represent discontent among a vocal minority, but rather widespread disapproval across the board. Meanwhile, escalating the conflict would be a very poor choice, unless Lukashenko wishes to start an ugly and protracted battle with his own people. Authoritarian states around the world have mastered the art of maintaining political control while simultaneously placating opponents with piecemeal political concessions, and it is likely Lukashenko will attempt to follow this model.
Lastly, the sheer scale of the animosity directed at Lukashenko likely means his days as Belarus’s president are numbered. Going forward, the key question is whether he will step down on his own terms or succumb to a popular uprising. If Lukashenko struggles in his upcoming term, either by failing to read popular opinion, struggling to revitalize the Belarusian economy, or continually escalating his use of force against protestors, he could very well spark a political uprising which forces him out of office. However, even if Lukashenko deftly navigates the political challenges he’s confronted with over the next five years, he would likely be under significant pressure from those in his administration to step down once his term is complete. Based on the hostility Lukashenko faced in this election cycle, choosing to run again would likely delegitimize the existing political system and only serve to further strengthen the protest movement.
Ultimately, this month’s presidential election represents a monumental development for the former Soviet state of Belarus. Europe’s last dictator, who has ruled the small nation for over 20 years, is facing, for the first time, widespread and coordinated opposition. Tikhanovskaya, an unassuming opposition candidate, has capitalized on feelings of anger and distrust Belarusian citizens have towards Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for decades. In the coming years (if not months or days), this protest movement will likely force Lukashenko to reevaluate his political standing and may very well alter the course of Belarusian politics going forward.
Zack Blumberg is a junior at the University of Michigan studying political science and history. He primarily studies European politics, and focuses on both political developments within Europe and their impact on American foreign policy.