Opinion: The swan song of Europe’s last dictator

The clock is ticking for Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, but his tenure in office may yet drag on for a while unless the opposition consolidates and cracks emerge in the ruling elite, argues Alexander Petrossian in this analysis.

In the recent Belarus presidential elections, held on 9th of August, incumbent president Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, registered a landslide victory. Lukashenko, who was running for his sixth term claimed 80.1% of votes, while the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya received only 10.1%, according to the official results. Given the fact that Lukashenko's failure to cope with pandemic caused enormous economic and public health problems resulting in widespread popular discontent, people found the results of the elections implausible.

Angered by the sham elections   Belarusians took to the streets in all major cities across the country calling for the change of a  regime which Freedom House describes as authoritarian. Soon, Tikhanovskaya had to flee to Lithuania 'for the sake of her children'. Merciless countermeasures undertaken by police against protesters resulted in at least five deaths, hundreds hospitalized, and more than 7000 people   detained across the country. These measures triggered harsh criticism from the West and an equivocal attitude from Russia,   leading Europe's last dictator to sing his swan song.

Academic circles and media unanimously agree that this time the situation in Belarus is radically different from previous cases. This resistance is distinct from any other Lukashenko has ever faced during his 26 years in power. Economic decline and Lukashenko's conspiratorial perception of COVID-19 and failure to cope with the pandemic have strengthened discontent towards the regime. Therefore, the ground was prepared prior to the presidential elections    to mobilize opposition groups and leaders,   - those who weren't in exile or in  jails -  to cooperate in order to topple the authoritarian regime. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's appearance on the political landscape, whose husband has been jailed, created hope that the elections could bring legitimate political changes. Soon after  the elections results were officially announced, and the scale of the falsification became evident,  mass anti-regime protests spread nationwide including to all major cities. Lukashenko ordered to block all  entrances to Minsk right after the elections. Moreover, since the very beginning of the ongoing peaceful demonstrations the Internet has been partially blocked. Despite the official explanations, that there were server attacks from outside the country, independent specialists claim that this was deliberately done by the regime using DPI technology to control the spread of information .. Up to now the only reliable coordination channel for the decentralized activities remains Telegram. The popular outrage has attracted unseen levels of support and popular mobilization, which is mostly due to strikes in all major state-owned and private companies.

However, in order not   to fail the protests require two essential ingredients.   First , the opposition lacks a strong leader with a precise and well-defined agenda and strategy, who can also unite other groups and grassroots  supporters around a common  goal. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya managed to gain the sympathy of the electorate, but, unfortunately, given her  subsequent exile, she  can't  play  the role of the "alternative" candidate  in the long run. She is a  total  novice in politics, and lacks the necessary experience to cope with the authoritarian  tactics of Lukashenko. What she can do is  simply to keep the protests alive and also to call for transitional regime which may replace Lukashenko and   fill the  vacuum in a chaotic aftermath. Secondly, it is necessary that  a rift emerges in the ranks of    state employees byudzhetnikiand security forces siloviki, who are the main pillars of Lukashenko's regime. Up to now, the latter proved to be very loyal to Lukashenko. The brutal reaction of the police and military  towards the protestors was an expression of this loyalty. The security forces have always been the  primary and main tool of Lukashenko  in cracking down on any anti-regime activities, or to neutralise any possible political opponent. In these activities  both his sons have also been participating. The eldest one, Viktar, has strong and informal links to the siloviki, while advising the security council of the country as well. And the youngest one, Nikolai, 16 years old, has been seen accompanying his father in the streets of Minks in military uniform and rifle in hand .

The two above-mentioned factors are crucial to secure a successful outcome in this struggle, otherwise, Lukashenko can crack down on the protests and  hang on to power.

External factors

The foreign dimension of the current situation  also needs to be considered, as both the West and Russia have their interests in Belarus.  

It is not a secret that currently Belarus is in the Russian orbit and Moscow's overarching task is to secure its vital interests in this country, which is also the only reliable route for Russian overland energy pipelines to Europe. Although Lukashenko has always relied upon the Kremlin for political and economic support,   relations between Minsk and Moscow have witnessed contradictions over the past years. Nevertheless, he managed  sustain the   status quo,  and maintain power by maneuvering  between the West and    creating an image of  being the only real   guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty.  He elaborated a false dilemma to the people of Belarus and to the West, Either they ignore his authoritarian leadership and he continues ruling, or they push him out and Russia eventually takes control over Belarus.

The most important question which concerns Russia right now is the prospect of possible anti-Russian government in Minsk. It seems that Moscow doesn't have a well-designed strategy to deal with Belarus. Although Putin congratulated Lukashenko for re-election,  , Russia does not want to have a repeat of the Yanukovych case  in Ukraine. The discourse analysis of Lukashenko's official tough statements on Russia and Putin reveal the nature of relations, which are based upon deep distrust thus complicating the current situation. In addition to these complicated relations, the arrest in Belarus of   Russian Wagner Group militants on the eve of the presidential elections, increased tensions with Moscow. Former President Medvedev, who is currently the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia reacted to the arrest of the Russian citizens and claimed that the consequences would be  grave. Though the  full story of the game with Wagner Group is still vague, some assumptions may shed light upon Lukashenko's demarche. He probably used this  piece of drama to enhance his image as the only guarantor of the domestic security, stability and sovereignty of Belarus directly prior to the election.  The arrest of the Wagnerites could also enhance his relations with Ukraine, as it is known, that the combatants of this group had participated in the Donbas war. So, the fact that he could use this arrest as a leverage in both the Russian and the Ukrainian dimensions  , may also explain the underlying motivation. Finally, Lukashenko wanted to trigger the attention of the West, thus widening his space of manoeuver. Certainly, the scenario with the Wagner Group members could have succeed,  had it not been for the incident linked to Vitaly Shklyarov, a Minsk-based US citizen and political strategist. Shklyarov is a political consultant with experience as a campaign adviser to Angela Merkel, Bernie Sanders and Ksenia Sobchak was accused of supporting  Tsikhanovskaya to organize actions that violated public order. The incident increased tensions with the West, which eventually reacted with harsh criticism and sanctions   following the brutal  suppression of demonstrations and deaths of citizens.  In any case, Lukashenko understands very well that even though he does not have perfect relations with Russia, the latter is not eager  to see regime-change with the prospect  of long running political and economic instability.

Over the last few years, the relations between Belarus and the West showed some  signs of improvement. Both the EU and US  seemed eager to reconsider their relations with Minsk.   Brussels   lifted all sanctions in 2016 followed by Washington, which has revised most of  the restrictions imposed previously on Belarus leadership and companies. Moreover, given Lukashenko's eagerness to cooperate with the US, President Trump appointed Julie Fisher as an ambassador to Belarus, a position that had been vacant for many years. The cooperation between Minsk and Washington proved to have huge potential especially in the energy sector.  With the aim of reducing its asymmetric energy  dependence on Russia, Belarus decided to go further and to start purchasing US oil. The first shipment arrived at the beginning of  June. It seemed that Lukashenko managed to convince US Secretary of State Pompeo and other western leaders that he whilst he was  authoritarian  he was also at the  same time a reliable partner  when it comes to resisting aggressive Russian foreign policy. However, the ongoing situation has dramatically distorted this image  resulting in a serious setback in the relations of Lukashenko with the West.

European Foreign Ministers reached an agreement on 28 August in Berlin to undertake punitive measures against Lukashenko's immediate circle and high level officials. These activities will mostly include asset freezes and travel bans, similar to those which have already been imposed by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Most probably, the US and the EU will harmonize their actions.  However,  to secure their interests in Belarus, the EU and US  must necessarily engage in a dialogue with the Kremlin. This will prevent Moscow from pushing its own agenda unilaterally and in addition, will mitigate Russian concerns about a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in its backyard.

Overall, the situation in Belarus is very distressing, as it threatens to create a new hotspot in the heart of Europe.  Therefore, cooperation between the West and Russia is necessary to overcome this turmoil.  As for Lukashenko, he may win this battle, but he will not be able to put the genie back in the bottle. The countdown  To the end of his rule has started. The rest is subject to time and geopolitical circumstances.

In order to guarantee their success and to promote their agenda, protestors need a consolidated leadership and a strong leader and any Western  sanctions need to be well targeted,  not to be counterproductive. Therefore, in this situation, an Armenian scenario may be applicable as  has been suggested by former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. It  envisages an engagement with  civil society and an enhancement of the organizational landscape. Bildt rejects geopolitical comparison between Belarus and Ukraine Revolution,  and sees more similarity with the approach taken in Armenia.

Whilst, Belarusian society faces instability and uncertainty  it  should and could, muster its internal strength and potential to gain its freedom.

Source: Alexander Petrosyan, is an  independent analyst, based in Yerevan, Armenia
Photo: Street protests in Belarus amid claims of a rigged presidential election (picture courtesy of Reuters News Agency)


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