Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”. The epithet is not entirely true, not least as Vladimir Putin in neighbouring Russia and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan also both lead countries that are classed by Freedom House, a human rights watchdog, as “consolidated authoritarian regimes”.
Lukashenko, however, has been president of Belarus since 1994. Putin was first elected Russian president in 1999, and Aliyev only took over from his equally authoritarian father Heydar in 2003. As such, a better description of Lukashenko might be “Europe’s longest-serving dictator”.
For the first time in his often brutal 26-year tenure however, there is now a real chance that Belarusians might soon be rid of him.
The foundations of Lukashenko’s regime are crumbling. A broadly united opposition (or what’s left of it, with so many leading opposition figures in prison or exile) is tightening the screw on a regime that has made a mess of dealing with Covid-19, compounding existing economic woes. Mr Lukashenko has responded the only way he knows: by taking harsh measures to maintain his grip on power, primarily by silencing the opposition. This time, the bully-boy tactics may not be enough.
A presidential election scheduled for August 9 looks set to be the most competitive since Lukashenko was first elected – freely and fairly, it should be said, in a vote that both the EU and US signed off – in 1994. After amending the constitution in 2004 to abolish term limits, the president, now 65, is standing for his sixth term in office. Few expect it to resemble a democratic vote, but with the opposition coagulating around one candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, many pundits are hopeful of seeing Mr Lukashenko’s share of the ballot greatly reduced from the 75-80 per cent he usually receives. Some even whisper that he could lose. Whether he would admit or accept defeat is another matter entirely.
How quickly things change: in parliamentary elections held last November, candidates affiliated with the president won every single seat. Two independent MPs who had won seats in 2016’s parliamentary election were not allowed to stand.
The cracks begin to show
Mr Lukashenko is not one for progress, and his entire presidency has been marked by nostalgia for the Soviet era, and occasionally even for the Soviet Union itself. In 1991, he was the only deputy of the Belarusian parliament to vote against the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and now, more than thirty years on, his attitudes do not seem to have changed a great deal. And as the former Soviet nation drifts further from its past, its leader’s anachronistic longing for that past is increasingly at odds with its present, particularly the young, tech-savvy Belarusians who despite all the odds have managed to create a hub of innovation in the country.
After an unofficial opinion poll (there is no other kind in Belarus) appeared earlier this year placing support for the dictator at just three per cent, the depth of resentment in the country became strikingly clear. Many people began wondering if the emperor was indeed not wearing any clothes. And while most analysts suspect Lukashenko’s real support to be somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent, the opposition have spotted an opening. One that Lukashenko has nevertheless done all he can to close.
This opening partly stems from Mr Lukashenko’s poor economic governance. The economy remains heavily reliant on neighbouring Russia, which is also struggling. The Belarusian economy is expected to contract significantly this year, with GDP set to fall five per cent.
His approach to the coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to the fire, with Mr Lukashenko dismissing the virus as nothing more than a “psychosis”, and refusing to implement any lockdown measures. The Belarusian leader even went so far as to suggest drinking vodka and playing ice hockey would keep the virus at bay. This week Lukashenko told military officials that he had contracted and recovered from Covid-19, but had shown no symptoms while infected and had continued to work.
Meanwhile, the country at large now has over 67,000 reported cases of Covid-19, 20,000 more than neighbouring Poland which has four times the population. Officially, more than 500 people have died, but many believe the real number to be far higher.
For those people whose lives have been impacted by the virus, Mr Lukashenko’s dismissive attitude has been viewed as a blatant illustration of his regime’s disregard for the health of its citizens, or for the truth.
In May, for the first time in several years, Belarusians took to the streets in protest.
“It feels like your government is lying to you every day and it’s not possible to live with it anymore”, one young protester in the capital Minsk told the BBC. “We are dangerous to our government just by standing in the streets”
The government crackdown was brutal. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), between May 6 and 13 more than 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government were arrested. There were more arrests in June, at another protest.
It is clear from the government’s reaction that it is growing increasingly nervous. And yet when asked if the response to the protests was too severe, Health Minister Vladimir Karanik simply stated that: “In Europe, in these situations, they use tear gas and water cannons,” and that, “in my opinion, the reaction to this unauthorised protest in our country was not harsh.”
Nevertheless, Amnesty International and other humans rights groups now recognise dozens of political prisoners in the country.
Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst, notes that the recent opposition protests have exposed the myth of Mr Lukashenko’s popularity.
“Lukashenko has managed to frustrate and irritate a lot of social groups,” he explains. “It’s a street protest but it’s also this middle-class drift into politics where people who never were political are now joining in.”
And as Balki Begumhan Bayhan, a political scientist at Coventry University tells Emerging Europe, this is a turning point in Mr Lukashenko’s rule. “Although elections were never free or fair, and the regime has always pursued repression, Lukashenko was genuinely popular at one point. This is not true anymore, and this election period highlights this very clearly,” she says. “Lukashenko’s ratings are possibly at an all-time low and people have increasingly become discontent with him and his authoritarian tactics.”
Unprecedented opposition leads to unprecedented repression
Elections in Belarus are normally stage-managed to the finest detail. This time, however, rather than the usual stooge candidates, real opponents have appeared.
Among them is Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the US, banker, and founder of the Belarus hi-tech park. Others include businessman and ex-chairman of Belgazprombank Viktor Babariko, and anti-establishment blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.
Since announcing their intention to stand against Mr Lukashenko however, all have been harshly treated, even by Belarusian standards.
On June 30, Mr Tsepkalo had over half of the 160,000 signatures he had collected in support of his candidacy declared void, which meant to had to pull out of the election: candidates must collect 100,000 valid signatures. This was not enough for Mr Lukashenko, however, who then, according to Mr Tsepkalo, sent prosecutors to his children’s school, asking staff for written statements that the children were not being properly cared for.
On July 24, Mr Tsepkalo fled to Russia with his children. His wife Veronika has stayed behind to continue the fight against Mr Lukashenko.
“We were left with no choice,” Ms Tsepkalo told a crowd of hundreds at an opposition rally. ”I was called by concerned people and they said: ‘We do not want to sign these papers, but they force us [to sign], they collect something bad against you and the next step is to deprive you of parental rights, that you are a bad mother, do not take care of the children’.”
Mr Babariko suffered a similar fate, once it became clear that the record amount of signatures he had collected to support his nomination might be a threat Mr Lukashenko. A June 11 raid on Belgazprombank saw him detained on charges of embezzlement and fraud, and the government subsequently taking over control of the bank.
The KGB – the Belarusian security services kept the name after the dissolution of the Soviet Union – also blocked the operations of his son’s opposition crowdfunding platform Mola Mola, which, among other things, has helped raise money for doctors in anti-Covid-19 efforts.
“It’s touched clients. It’s touched my friends,” said Mr Babariko. “This is a broad political persecution.”
The silencing of Mr Babariko is significant, as many believe he would have stood a real chance of victory, if the election had been democratic. “Babariko, again, was the real threat because he is wealthy and has influence in Russia as well as Belarus. We have no knowledge of how he would have been as a president, but he would have won if the elections were free,” explains David Marples, an analyst and historian from the University of Alberta.
However, perhaps the most blatant display of repression was the way in which Lukashenko dealt with the potential candidacy of Mr Tikhanovsky, a prominent anti-establishment figure with over 235,000 YouTube subscribers.
His grassroots campaign, which ran under the slogan stop the cockroach, provided a beacon for much of the protest movement, and thousands queued for hours to sign for his candidacy. Many brought slippers, the weapon of choice against cockroaches, leading some to dub the movement a “slipper revolution”.
“When he called and said he was going to run, I remember I replied ‘Sergei, you know how the presidential elections are going to end? In prison,” says Alexander Kabanov, a blogger and activist who also serves as press secretary for the campaign. “Tikhanovsky is a street politician […] and he never really hid that. That’s why they’ve gone for him first, because it’s the most dangerous thing for them, if people go out into the streets.”
Tikhanovsky is now facing up to three years in prison for allegedly hiding 900,000 US dollars under his sofa.
With the three main opposition candidates having been forced to flee the country or locked up in prison, and hundreds of other protesters in jail, the opposition’s hopes for a time appeared misplaced.
Step forward Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Wife of the jailed YouTuber, Tikhanovskaya – a political novice – is now standing for election as president, having registered as a candidate on June 14. “Everyone knows how I ended up here: out of love for my husband,” she told a press conference a few days later.
And despite threats against her children, who have now been moved to safety in an undisclosed European location, Ms Tikhanovskaya says she is pressing on.
On her first appearance on state TV last week, she bravely declared “on television, they won’t tell you that the current president’s ratings are low, that very few people support him, but this is the truth. On television, they won’t tell you that the vast majority of people are against the current authorities and want a new president, but this is the truth.”
“The election scheduled for August 9 won’t be free and fair,” she added. “None of the strong candidates have been registered, criminal probes have been launched and hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of candidates have been thrown away. We need a new, free and fair election with a transparent vote-counting process.”
In an inspiring display of female solidarity, representatives of all three opposition campaigns have united forces. Ms Tikhanovskaya has been publicly supported by Ms Tsepkalo, and Mr Babariko’s campaign chief Maria Kolesnikova.
Despite Mr Lukashenko’s relentless repression, the three women have become symbols of hope for the many Belarusians who are entirely disillusioned with Mr Lukashenko’s regime – an image of the trio with a fist in the air, V-sign and a heart went viral, and thousands have since showed up to Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign rallies.
For an openly misogynistic incumbent, who has been recorded saying that a woman president “would collapse, poor thing”, this is a poetic display of dissent.
Ms Tikhanovskaya is no professional politician, and admits her fear. She has nevertheless been commended by protesters and analysts alike for her, and her allies, professional and strong political performances.
“The performance of the opposition in this election highlights two important points,” says Ms Bayhan. “First, the weakness and ineffectiveness of traditional opposition parties, and secondly, Belarusians’ dissatisfaction of traditional opposition actors and readiness for a strong and unifying figure to oppose Lukashenko.”
While the opposition alliance lacks a programme, it does have a strong message.
As Belarus expert Maryna Rakhlei of the German Marshall Fund, a Berlin-based think tank, explains: “it is an alliance that has no programme but has a strong message: Belarus needs change so that fair and free choice can take place.”
Tough times ahead for Mr Lukashenko
This sudden emergence of serious opponents with widespread public support has clearly caught Mr Lukashenko off guard.
“For the first time, he seems rattled and was prompted to take pre-emptive action against other candidates,” Dr Marples tells Emerging Europe. “What is remarkable, I think, is that people are coming on to the streets despite the pandemic, and in spite of heavy pressure from government arrests and harassment.”
“For the first time also, we are seeing the impact of social media, which spreads information rapidly and is hard for the government to stifle. It suggests that the president is losing some support and authority, but he still has the means to ensure he is re-elected this time.”
Rather, this emergence of a strong opposition is not a cause of the discontent, rather a symptom of decades of dissatisfaction, and a clear desire of Belarusians to steer the country down a new path.
While experts believe that Mr Lukashenko’s monopoly on power – and control of the country’s election apparatus – will ensure he is declared the victor on election night, regardless of the opposition’s strength, this leaves his regime on very shaky ground.
“Like in the former East Germany, the will for change is great enough,” explains Ms Rakhlei. “It is similar to the time when even the elite no longer really noticed what was actually going on in society and suddenly the wall came down.”
Similarly, Dr Marples believes that “though I dismiss the chance of change on August 9, Lukashenko is seriously weakened. He has lost the affection of his people, as well as their trust. Change may come sooner than many think.”
Something is clearly going awry for Mr Lukashenko, and while his victory is almost certain his rule stands at an intersection. To make concessions to the opposition, and move the nation forward, or to crack down more severely than before. Unfortunately for Belarus, it seems that he is leaning towards the latter.
“I don’t think there is much uncertainty about Lukashenko winning – elections in Belarus are rigged and this year will be no different. However, the threat to Lukashenko comes from the people,” explains Ms Bayhan, who believes that the opposition will continue to mobilise after the election.
Indeed, what happens in the days and nights after the result of the election is declared on August 9 will be crucial for Belarus.
“At this point, he will do whatever he can do survive even if this means violently repressing protests and undermining his domestic and international legitimacy,” explains Ms Bayhan. “After this, Lukashenko will be in a vulnerable position – he will have seriously undermined his legitimacy and the democratic façade he is trying to maintain. Moreover, such a move will also increase the public’s already existing discontent, and this will pose a serious threat for him in the long-run.”
A brutal crackdown on protesters – similar to that which took place after the presidential election in 2010 – would see Belarus definitively banished from the rest of Europe.
However, such banishment could backfire.
“If the European Union were to reapply sanctions, then Lukashenko would be in Putin’s hands. That’s something the EU is aware of,” explains Dr Marples.
However, Belarusian-Russian relations are currently at their lowest ebb for years.
“Lukashenko’s attempt at building better relations will most likely be negatively impacted, compromising the leverage he has built up in recent years,” Ms Bayhan explains. “This, in turn, is likely to put Belarus in a more vulnerable position and undermine Lukashenko’s effort to fend off pressure to integrate further with Russia.”
While it is in Mr Putin’s best interests to have Mr Lukashenko in power, it is clear he has been growing tired of his counterpart’s attempts to resist integration – the two countries signed a ‘Union State’ treaty as long ago as 1996 – and hostility between the two is mounting.
“Having worsened relations with the West and losing bargaining power with Russia will put Lukashenko in a tricky spot – it will be more difficult to resist deeper integration with Russia but also difficult to repair relations with the West without compromising his seemingly fragile authoritarianism,” says Ms Bayhan.
For Mr Lukashenko, tough choices lie ahead. Regardless of his almost assured win next month, this keen hockey player is skating on thin ice. For Belarusians, this election could herald a renewed period of harsh repression. It could also pave the way towards freedom.
At the very least, many hope that while the election may not be the end of his dictatorship, it might just be the beginning of its end.
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