After Months of Protest, Lukashenko’s Position in Belarus Finally Seems to be Teetering

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Anton Karp

White bracelets are worn by Belarussian protestors so that they can identify each other. “A lot of Tikhanovskaya voters are wearing white ribbons on their wrists, so that we as observers can see the estimated number of them.”

Since May 2020, hundreds of thousands of citizens across Belarus have protested the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Now, several months after his blatantly fraudulent reelection in the August 2020 poll booths, the European Union has agreed to level a flurry of sanctions against Lukashenko and other prominent Belarussian officials. This comes on the heels of a decision to recognize opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate executive of Belarus.

The move marks a significant breach with traditional European Union policy when dealing with Belarus. A deep seated fear of alienating Eastern European states — stemming from the possibility of Russia strengthening its hold on them, has directed European policy for the past decade. In practice, this has translated to the West confining itself to idle complaints, as Lukashenko has committed numerous human rights violations. 

However, this time, the opposition movement was far too large to ignore. Tikhanovskaya’s denunciation of the validity of the ridiculous margin of victory that Lukashenko had claimed, stirred the population to action. Strikes and demonstrations have since paralyzed Belarus, especially in the half of the economy that is under government control. The pandemic-stricken Belarussian economy, on whose success Lukashenko had bet much of his legitimacy, has been kneecapped. In addition to helping further destabilize the regime, mobilization of the government workforce was an unprecedented success for the opposition, in and of itself. Due to a mix of coercion and complacency, government employees have long been the incumbent’s greatest voter base. This year, however, through a myriad of opposition initiatives by various leaders such as Viktar Babaryka and Sergei Tikhanovsky, many workers, including much of the staff of the state-run media, have begun to protest the government.

Lukashenko has responded to these setbacks in character by receiving workers from Russia to fill the vacancies. He also secured a 1.5 billion dollar loan in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who expressed his determination to contain the so-called Western provocateurs. Putin clearly has leverage over his Belarussian counterpart, as a result of the latter’s economic dependence on Russian oil and tbe country’s relative isolation from the West. However, the impact of Lukashenko’s diplomacy is evident when protestors are referred to as European agents, and thus viewed as external enemies, rather than the result of internal incompetence.

Pavel Slunkin, an expert on Belarus on the European Council of Foreign Relations, said, “Lukashenko’s goal is to keep his absolute power. Any real deal with Russia on Russia’s terms will lead to him losing or limiting his power in Belarus.” Slunkin’s analysis is reflective of the widespread fear that Russia will force Lukashenko to capitulate on various fronts that have been held in contention for many years. He explains that Russian encroachment, such as building an airbase and further fiscal integration, is very unlikely, not to mention the ridiculous assertion of a Belarussian-Russian state. 

“In 2020, around 95-97% of the [Belarussian] population wanted to live in their own independent country,” said Slunkin. Not only does Russian strong-arming in Belarus threaten their relationship with Lukashenko, but any success endangers the dictator’s legitimacy. Without a legitimate leader, Putin is going to be hard pressed to exert any influence over Belarus. 

While we look to the future to see what these protests will bring, Lukashenko continues in his attempt to suppress protests in Belarus. But it seems that as protestors are kidnapped by strange men in masks and pepper sprayed by uniformed police, their resolve only grows firmer. As one protestor put it, “People aren’t afraid anymore – love and desire for change are bigger than fear. There is no way back…victory is the question of time.” Lukashenko, like so many leaders before him, has lost the popular mandate and will never get it back. Without it, he must retire or become a tyrant, because he cannot  be the leader of Belarus any more.

As one protestor put it, “People aren’t afraid anymore – love and desire for change are bigger than fear. There is no way back…victory is the question of time.”

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