The current political crisis in Belarus, the scale of which is larger than most observers had predicted, was triggered by the flawed election process the country witnessed on August 9. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been the President of the country for the last 26 years, was expected to easily win yet another five-year term in office. Most independent observers do not doubt that Lukashenka won the election as the beleaguered strongman continues to have widespread support in the Belarus countryside. But it was clear that the capital city Minsk and smaller towns had turned against him and rallied behind the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She had entered the race after her husband, Sergey, a popular blogger who had announced his candidacy for the presidency, was arrested. Lukashenka made the cardinal mistake of stuffing the ballot boxes in Minsk to inflate his margin of victory. The final tally gave him more than 80 per cent of the vote and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya only 7 per cent.
Although the scale of the protests waned after it peaked in late August, many urban voters remain unreconciled to another five-year term for Lukashenka. In late August, an estimated 200,000 people had gathered in Minsk to stage anti-government protests. Thousands of people have been arrested. Lukashenka was able to rally his supporters on a nationalistic plank. After the election results were announced, he warned his countrymen that the West was planning a “colour revolution” on the lines of what happened in neighbouring Ukraine in 2013. He put the army on alert and asked for military assistance from Russia, claiming that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was planning to attack Belarus.
On September 22, to the apparent surprise of the international community, Lukashenka was sworn in for a sixth term. “This is a day of our victory, a convincing and fateful one,” he told the invited guests. “We just didn’t elect the country’s President. We defended our values, our peaceful lives, our sovereignty and independence.” The opposition was quick to denounce the inauguration along with the European Union (E.U.) and the United States. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claimed that she was the legitimate President, a move applauded in the West as a courageous stance. Only Russia and China have recognised the election as legitimate. After Lukashenka’s mid-September meeting with President Vladimir Putin at Sochi, Belarus secured a $1.5 billion loan from Russia to tide over its precarious economic situation. The West, on the other hand, reacted as expected by imposing sanctions that would target individuals and business entities in Belarus.
The economy was in bad shape when Belarus went to the polls. Lukashenka’s dismal handling of the coronavirus crisis had made matters worse. The government treated the virus as just another form of influenza. Lukashenka famously advised his countrymen that a healthy swig of vodka every day was enough to ward off the coronavirus. In the run-up to the election, he saw enemies everywhere, both in the East and in the West. All members of a group of 33 Russians working for a security firm, who were heading for Venezuela, were arrested when they were in transit in Belarus. The government claimed that they were mercenaries out to disrupt the election. It also claimed that some Americans who were part of a plot to influence the course of the election had been arrested.
As soon as the exit polls announcing the massive victory for Lukashenka became public, Minsk erupted in fury. The margin of victory was simply too huge for residents of Minsk to swallow as most of them had voted for the main opposition candidate. The protests, which started in August, continued until the end of September, and show no signs of ending any time soon despite the state’s heavy-handed response. Most of the opposition leaders are either in jail or in exile.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in Lithuania and is busy lobbying in European capitals for a regime change in Belarus. The French President, Emanuel Macron, became the first prominent European head of state to meet the opposition leader. Macron had earlier told a French media outlet that “it is clear that Lukashenka has to go”. Lukashenka hit back saying that Macron should mind his own business and should have resigned following the massive “yellow vests” protests that rocked France in 2019.
Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with a heavy hand and has managed to outmanoeuvre his political opponents. In the late 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was President, Lukashenka’s popularity had spread beyond the borders of Belarus to the Russian Federation. The two countries had signed dozens of accords, including one to create a “Union State”. The proposal was to merge the two countries and create a united government. Lukashenka had at one time ambitious plans to replace the ailing Yeltsin and take over the Kremlin. The Russian economy under Yeltsin was faltering and was under the yoke of the oligarchs. In contrast, Belarus’ economy under the firm control of Lukashenka, the former manager of a collective farm, was doing much better. Belarus with a population of 9.5 million kept the state-controlled economy functioning smoothly and had avoided the fate of Russia and Ukraine, where the oligarchs had run the economy to the ground.
Many Russians at the time had yearned for a strong leader like Lukashenka at the helm. Once Putin, a genuinely strong leader took over the reins of power from Yeltsin, Lukashenka’s ardour for a confederation with Russia faded. But Belarus remained dependent economically on Russia; the confederation could be made a reality any time the governments in Moscow and Minsk decided to do so. It was cheap gas and economic loans from Russia that kept the Belarusian economy afloat. But a growing rift with the Kremlin and efforts to cozy up to the E.U. left Lukashenka with few allies when he faced his first real domestic crisis this year.
It has been quite a dramatic fall for the authoritarian Lukashenka since then. Until recently he was wooed by both Russia and the West. He was quite adept at playing both sides against each other. In the run-up to the August election, he had actually blamed the Kremlin for interfering in the internal affairs of the country. Russia refused to subsidise the country’s economy by continuing to offer oil and gas at cut rate prices. This affected the economy of Belarus and negatively impacted Lukashenka’s popularity. Valery Tsepkalo, the architect of the successful high-tech Minsk Development Zone, who had signalled his intention to challenge Lukashenka in the election, fled to Russia fearing arrest.
Now Lukashenka is almost completely dependent on Russia for his political longevity. He is still adept at playing his cards, warning the Kremlin that “if Belarus collapses, Russia will be next”. But Russia is not giving him a blank cheque because of the tangible erosion of popular domestic support for him. Lukashenka told the Russian media that he was not averse to a change in the constitution of Belarus, indicating his willingness to step aside at an opportune time. After his meeting with Putin, he promised to hold a referendum on the issue.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that Russia wanted “everything that happens in Belarus not to be in the form of unconstitutional processes but within the framework of the law”. The majority of the opposition leaders in Belarus have been careful to not alienate Russia in any way. Putin took his time to come out in support of Lukashenka. It was only at the end of August that Russia announced that a “reserve force” of military men was ready for action “if the situation gets out of control” in Belarus and were deployed at the border between the two countries. They have since been withdrawn at the request of the Belarusian government.
Russia, meanwhile, wants Lukashenka to implement the agreement that committed the two countries to form an “Union State”. Russia has been wanting to establish an “air force base” in Belarus. Belarus has been historically and culturally part of Russia. It was during the Soviet era that it was converted into a separate state for administrative purpose. It was known as Byelorussia (White Russia) then. On several occasions, Lukashenka talked about the “brotherhood” between the two countries on the basis of “common history and culture”.
He, however, resisted the idea of unification when the Kremlin broached the subject in 2019. In fact, Lukashenka then alleged that the Kremlin was planning an “annexation” and began his flirtation with the West. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Minsk in February this year. At the same time, Lukashenka made sure that he would not completely alienate the Russian leadership. “Russia always was, is and will be our closest ally, no matter who will be in power in Belarus or Russia, even though Moscow preferred to switch from brotherly relations to a partnership,” he said after the rift with Putin was in the open. But after what happened in the wake of the election in August, Russia is now in the driving seat and in a position to dictate terms to Lukashenka.