In Belarus, Europe’s other dictator clings to power

Since a fraudulent presidential election and subsequent crackdown on dissent in August 2020, Belarus has become a pariah state. But while its dictator Alexander Lukashenko continues to cling to power, allies of the country’s democratic opposition need to start planning for a future without him. 

Three years have now passed since Belarus held a presidential election that was neither free nor fair. Used to winning uncompetitive elections handsomely (and having changed the Belarusian constitution to allow him to serve several terms in office), on August 9, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the country’s latest presidential ballot with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote.   

By any objective measure however, for the first time in nearly three decades Lukashenko lost an election, to opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. 

Widespread protests followed immediately, met with brutal force by the Belarusian security services which remain loyal to Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile with her children in Lithuania, her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky (who had been barred from standing in the election himself) and campaign team arrested along with tens of thousands of protesters.  

Last month, Tikhanovskaya said that she had received an anonymous message saying her husband, who she has not heard from since March, was dead. “There is no evidence or proof for this claim. This isn’t the first time such rumors have circulated and I don’t know how to comment on this. I haven’t heard from him since March 9 and lawyers are denied access to him,” she said. 

In March 2023, Tikhanovskaya was herself sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison on charges including high treason and conspiracy to seize power. 

“Today I don’t think about my own sentence. I think about thousands of innocents, detained and sentenced to real prison terms. I won’t stop until each of them is released,” she said at the time. 

According to the US State Department, Belarus continues to hold over 1,500 political prisoners. Alongside Tikhanovskaya’s husband another would-be challenger to Lukashenko in the 2020 election, Viktor Babaryko, also remains in prison. 

Maria Kolesnikova, who ran Babaryko’s—and subsequently Tikhanovskaya’s—campaign, is reportedly being held in total isolation in prison in the country since February, with no phone calls or letters and no visits from relatives or her lawyer. 

Almost all prisoners—and those who have been previously held and released, as well as those forced to flee the country—have been subjected to similarly reprehensible conditions.  

Harsh treatment, including torture, in prisons and detention facilities has been extensively documented.  Some political prisoners suffer from serious illnesses and disabilities and have been denied necessary qualified medical care or deliberately abused to worsen their conditions.  

They often are unable to find adequate legal representation due to the regime’s reprisals against defence lawyers. Dozens of lawyers have been stripped of their law licenses – and sometimes jailed themselves – because they dared to represent prisoners or opposition figures. 

A pariah state 

Belarus, which prior to the 2020 vote had slowly been engaging with the European Union and gently reforming and opening its economy, has since become an international pariah, with Russia its only ally. 

Lukashenko’s continued authoritarian rule (which included the state-sponsored hijacking of a Ryanair flight in May 2021 to facilitate the arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist) and support for Russia’s war on Ukraine have done little to change the country’s status.   

While the Belarusian leader has refused to commit forces to the invasion, he has aided Moscow by allowing his country’s territory to be used as a base for launching attacks on Ukraine.   

Most recently, he claimed to have brokered a deal between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin that brought an end to the Wagner mutiny of June 23. Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries were offered sanctuary in Belarus, although it is unclear how many Wagner troops have since relocated to the country. 

Last week, Poland was prompted to rush forces to its border with Belarus after accusing Minsk of violating its airspace with military helicopters. 

The Belarusian military denied any such violation and accused NATO member Poland, one of Ukraine’s most fervent backers in its conflict with Russia, of making up the accusation to justify a buildup of its troops. 

Lukashenko had earlier suggested that Poland “should pray that we’re holding onto [Wagner] and providing for them. Otherwise, without us, they would have seeped through and smashed up Rzeszow and Warsaw in no small way. So they shouldn’t reproach me, they should say thank you”. 

On August 3, the EU agreed to new sanctions against Belarus. In particular, the new measures create a closer alignment of sanctions targeting Russia and Belarus and will help to ensure that Russian sanctions cannot be circumvented through Belarus. 

The measures expand the ban on exports to Belarus to a number of highly sensitive goods and technologies which contribute to Belarus’s military and technological enhancement. There is also an additional export ban on firearms and ammunition, and on goods and technology suited for use in aviation and the space industry.  

The economy 

After plummeting in 2022 (GDP fell 4.7 per cent), the Belarusian economy has shown some sign of adjusting, thanks to the further opening up of Russia’s markets to Belarussian products, according to the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw).  

Things picked up in the first months of 2023, though performance was mixed. Industrial output in the first four months was up 2.7 per cent year on year. GDP in the first quarter was 2.1 per cent down on the same period in 2022; but in April alone, aggregate output (a proxy for GDP) was 3.7 per cent up year on year.  

The ICT sector was in recession in the first quarter, as a number of software firms quit the country. The sector had been a key driver of growth and reform prior to the 2020 election. In Emerging Europe’s latest IT Competitiveness Index, which offers an overview of the IT sector in all 23 countries of the region, including available talent, IT infrastructure, economic impact and current business environment, Belarus fell a further three places to 18th. 

According to wiiw, investment activity has remained subdued due to the continued uncertainty in the country. However, private consumption has picked up, thanks to wage and pension rises and soft monetary conditions. GDP is forecast to grow 1.9 per cent in 2023. 

The future 

Rumours in May that the 68-year-old Lukashenko had died raised serious questions about the country’s future. 

“There are many rumours about the dictator Lukashenko’s health,” Tikhanovskaya, who continues to lead the Belarusian opposition movement from exile, said.   

“For us, it means only one thing: we should be well prepared for every scenario. To turn Belarus on the path to democracy and to prevent Russia from interfering. We need the international community to be proactive and fast.” 

Quite what the international community could do is debatable. NATO will not risk war with Russia over Belarus. Russia and Belarus have, in theory at least, formed a Union State since 1999. Although the terms of the Union State treaty are vague, with the only clear aims being the deepening of the relationship between the two countries through integration in economic and defence policy, it would likely be enough for Putin to declare a vested interest in preserving stability in what is his only remaining European ally.  

Formally annexing Belarus is doubtful, but in the case of Lukashenko’s death, he would seek to put an ally in office and possibly occupy the country. The presence of Wagner forces in the country would facilitate such an occupation.  

This latter becomes particularly likely in the case of widespread demonstrations demanding democracy that, in a state of confusion, the Belarus authorities refuse to put down. Putin would almost certainly use the Union State treaty as “legal” grounds for doing so. 

The stance of the Belarusian military and security services is likely to be crucial, therefore. With Lukashenko gone, would they arrest pro-democracy protesters to preserve what remains of his regime? Would the army – which has not openly opposed Lukashenko but has consistently refused to join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – accept a Russian occupation of the country? 

However distasteful it may be, the Western allies of Belarus should be ready to talk with any forces in the country willing to work towards democracy. At the very least, they need a plan. 

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