By Gavin Jolly and Kemal Kongar
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s dictator since 1994, ended a recent appearance with an uncharacteristic concession to the people: “I’ve said all I had to say, now you can shout ‘step down.’” The crowd proceeded to do so, enthusiastically.
Belarus has been in turmoil since Lukashenko declared a landslide victory in its rigged August 9th presidential election, despite — according to observers at polling stations — very likely losing the popular vote to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former schoolteacher who unexpectedly rose to become the face of Belarus’s opposition. Since the election, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate in protests which represent a broad coalition of peoples and interests, unified in their repudiation of Lukashenko. The state has cracked down, violently. Police have used live ammunition to kill protesters, beating others savagely. Tikhanovskaya has fled to Lithuania, and Belarus’s government has launched a criminal investigation against the opposition’s Coordination Council. Russia is readying troops. Protests continue, and are increasing in size.
The popular uprising, alongside the attempts to suppress it by the Kremlin-backed regime, represents an inflection point for the former Soviet republic. The question is: what direction will the movement – and the nation at large – now take?
“Europe’s Last Dictator”
Alexander Lukashenko is an authoritarian autocrat described by Foreign Affairs as a “living artifact of Soviet antinationalism,” and elsewhere, with great frequency, as “Europe’s last dictator.” Both speak to his regime’s remarkable staying power despite liberalization and democratization elsewhere. It bears examining, then, why he has fallen from grace now, and how he was able to last so long without a similar backlash.
The repudiation of Lukashenko was not a foregone conclusion. Lukashenko had, for decades, been able to maintain his rule partially as a result of maintaining popular welfare programs. Such programs were able to insulate the nation from the recessions endured by other post-Soviet states as part of Western-backed austerity “shock therapy” programs in the 1990s. After running as a populist in Belarus’s first election, he subsequently presented himself as the candidate of stability, with subsidized oil and gas from Russia bankrolling much of said stability.
Lukashenko’s credibility, however, has been shot by a worsening economy, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the handling of which Lukashenko has botched. Lukashenko, for instance, called the disease a “psychosis,” and recommended Belarusians ward it off with a daily shot of vodka. This mismanagement led to popular dissatisfaction that involved a greater stratum of individuals than had previous movements, even before the presidential election. Middle class Belarusians – and even some members of the elite – were beginning to protest the government, and support the opposition. As such, there was grave enough discontent that Lukashenko fired his prime minister and cracked down on the opposition, a move which would leave the door open to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the unity candidate.
The Rise of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was not expected to become the leader of the opposition. Initially, her rise was a matter of circumstance. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovskaya, a popular YouTuber critical of the government, was jailed after building support for his presidential run by exposing the dissatisfaction of Belarusians across the country, a move which Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova characterized as an act of destruction to “the greatest myth of official propaganda: The capital may protest, but regional folks are the president’s real supporters.” Two other opposition candidates, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, were also unable to stand for the presidency: Babariko was jailed, Tsepkalo fled to Russia to avoid the same fate. Tikhanovskaya entered the vacuum created by Lukashenko’s crackdown, expressing a duty to carry on her husband’s campaign.
Perhaps Tikhanovskaya’s greatest strength is that, as a 37-year-old political novice who was most recently a stay-at-home mom, she has been viewed as unthreatening. This perception has led others to underestimate her, just as it has informed her candidacy as representing a clean slate for the nation. Lukashenko did not fear Tikhanovskaya’s campaign enough to arrest her, as he had other candidates. The New York Times, in a profile of Tikhanovskaya, describes, in the same sentence, the perception of her as “a political lightweight,” as well as her ability to provide a novel “positive persona for the opposition.” Even after Tikanovskaya’s remarkable success as a political leader, such a perception has remained, including among central figures of the opposition: Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, a member of the Coordination Council, has said that despite Tikanovskaya’s success, more experienced people ought to take over the leadership of the opposition. Still, Tikhanovskaya remains crucial to Belarus’s opposition, and was recently feted in a meeting with Lithuania’s prime minister as the true leader of Belarus. Furthermore, her personification of, as she herself has said, “an average person” has likely helped inspire other formerly apolitical citizens to fight for change.
Tikhanovskaya ran on a platform that emphasized democratic reforms and greater national independence. She campaigned on freeing political prisoners; enacting presidential term limits; new, free, elections six months after her victory; and on scrapping the 1999 union treaty that Lukashenko signed with Russia (the treaty, which would see integration with Russia tantamount to absorption, has never been fully enacted, though Lukashenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin continue to negotiate the terms, most recently and publicly in December 2019). Tikhanovskaya also frequently campaigned alongside Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, each of who formerly led different opposition campaigns, but united behind Tikhanovskaya. Kolesnikova had led Babariko’s presidential campaign; Tsepkalo led her husband, Valery’s. In the aftermath of the election, the energy that propelled Tikhanovskaya forward has now turned to renewed direct action, in the form of strikes and protests.
On the Edge of Mass Movement
Just as Tikhanovskaya’s campaign was seen as a referendum on Lukashenko, the protesters are largely united in the same aim. This unity has been aided by an increasingly technologically savvy population, who have adopted new tools in order to create a protest movement of unprecedented scale for the nation, one which is both decentralized and impressively organized, as well as which represents a large cross-section of the nation’s populace. Given this, the protests, though the government has attempted to repress them severely, carry a very real possibility of revolution.
Volha Charnysh, an assistant professor at MIT, has detailed the ways in which the protests in Belarus demonstrate the widespread adoption of digital tools to battle the regime. She describes protest coordination on a Telegraph channel called NEXTA, which has over 2 million subscribers, and is overseen by a small group of journalists, along with the use of the platform Golos to register votes in order to provide proof of election rigging (of the 1.2 million votes registered on the site, 1% were for Lukashenko). Additionally, Belarusians are more able than ever to find news that is not censored by the state, due to greater urbanization and use of the internet; such access to non-government sources informed the citizen-led response to COVID-19, which involved crowdfunding campaigns for medical supplies, and the adoption of masks and social distancing strategies as informed by internet sources. It is this infrastructure that paved the way for the coordination of the protests.
The protests are also robust in terms of the diversity of the protesters. What made the dissatisfaction with Lukashenko in the lead-up to the election so novel was that, while there had been other protest movements before, they had not, to the same degree, involved the better-off members of society. Olga Onuch, an assistant professor at the University of Manchester, argues that a key factor in the progression of social movements from large protests to mass mobilization is the development of a “cross-cleavage coalition” – one which features different classes and interests. This is clear in the class diversity of the protests, along with the large strikes, and prominent members of society, including tech CEOs in the country, calling for new elections. Onuch also outlines the presence of non-protesters aiding protesters with supplies and other forms of assistance as evidence of such a movement, along with defections by soldiers and police (which have been few thus far, but widely shared).
Still, even as the protests are gaining momentum, they have a ways to go, and with at least 6,700 peaceful protesters already arrested, the state admitting to authorizing the use of live ammunition on its own citizens, and reports of torture in detention centres, it is clear that the Lukashenko regime is willing to commit atrocities to stay in power. And, with Lukashenko requesting assistance from Putin, it is also clear that the fight is just beginning.
On Lukashenko’s Request for Russian Military Assistance
Only a couple days after the contentions elections, Reuters reported that the Belarusian President had talked to his counterpart in Russia to reiterate their joint commitment to military cooperation, within and without their respective countries. The President, after stating that he “had secured a pledge from Russia to provide comprehensive assistance if needed to ensure the security of his country”, continued his plunge into the world of hostile foreign relations by trying to rally the Belarusian people against EU and NATO condemnation.
This, of course, is in line with Russian foreign policy of securing friendly regimes in neighboring countries with unwavering military commitment and, if necessary, intervention. Although the Belarussian-Russian relations are special in the way that they overtly refer to a ‘union state’ in numerous bilateral agreements, one can still examine the recent history of governments requesting foreign military support to secure their regimes in order to make sense of the situation unfolding in Eastern Europe.
Barring the recent unrest in North Africa, one immediately thinks of Bashar al-Assad’s request for Russian assistance in 2015 against ever increasing pressure against his regime. Besieged on all sides, the Assad regime invited Russia to provide air support against the wishes of Western powers, mainly the United States, interested in the conflict. What started as material assistance eventually turned into a boots-on-the-ground operation for Vladimir Putin as he aimed to spread Russian influence in the region.
While the situation in Syria, and more specifically the state of the civil war in the state, was much more contentious than that of Belarus, it highlights Putin’s willingness to flex Russia’s muscles in providing assistance to authoritarian leaders who he perceives as useful for geopolitical ambitions.
Given Belarus’ proximity to the Russian border and their long standing historical and cultural ties, let alone their commitment to integration both economically and politically, it may be more accurate to use Ukraine, and more specifically Crimea, as an equivalent example of intervention. While it must be pointed out that the requests from pro-Moscow leaders in Crime for annexation in the Spring of 2014 are drastically different from Lukashenko’s request for aid to stabilize his regime, they provide a valuable example.
After events developed in such a way that Ukraine found itself on a collision course out of Russia’s orbit, Putin stepped in to ensure that Russian interests in the region could be secured. Likewise, when opportunity presented itself in Syria, Putin jumped at the chance of expanding his country’s power in the region. We may be seeing a similar thing take place with Lukashenko’s call for assistance. While the current Belarusian regime is friendly to Putin’s Russia, this may not always be the case. Without the ‘last dictator of Europe’, who knows what NATO allied government may try to take power. From Putin’s point of view, betting on stability in the country is much easier than following a Crimea-style military intervention. In the end, curbing civil unrest ought to be easier than fighting paramilitary forces. For Lukashenko, while it is an unfortunate turn of events given his recent attempts to separate Belarus from Russia, it is a sound strategy for ensuring that he will have the strategic and military upper hand.
The situation in Belarus is hard to summarize neatly at this moment, except to say that the status quo, which had been largely consistent for the last 26 years, is likely gone for good. Russia had already been frustrated by Lukashenko’s efforts to avoid further integration. Now, with the regime needing its assistance, Belarus may become even more Russified. And, if the regime falls, the possibilities become even less clear, although many seem more hopeful for the masses who have repudiated Lukashenko’s dictatorship. At this precipice though, what is remarkable is the grassroots movement that propelled Tikhanovskaya forward, and which has been able to organize citizens so effectively in fighting an authoritarian regime. The future is uncertain, but the movement has proved itself to be resilient and effective.
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