Belarus Protests 2020

Lukashenko avoids Yanukovych’s fate, for now

In this piece, Eamon Driscoll appraises the ongoing protests in Belarus, including what the Aleksandr Lukashenko’s prospects are for retaining power, what analysts can expect to see in Kyiv and beyond in the coming weeks, and how these events will be perceived from the Kremlin.

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Images of the disputed August 2020 elections in Belarus have been seen around the world, and the legitimacy of them has, at last, been overwhelmingly rejected. Observers of Belarus will note that elections there have never been legitimate, but only now they are drawing the world’s attention as tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens have risked arrest and worse to express their dissatisfaction with the rule of Europe’s last dictator: Aleksandr Lukashenko. He is diplomatically isolated, de jure an equal partner with Vladimir Putin within the Union State of Russia and Belarus, but de facto fully within Russia’s orbit. While he has emphasized Belarusian independence and sovereignty, Lukashenko himself is dependent on Putin for his continued grip on power in Minsk.

The view from Moscow is eerily reminiscent of early 2014, when protesters in Kyiv demonstrated following a trade deal with Russia rather than the European Union. That, of course, kicked off the Ukrainian Revolution which led to the flight of then-president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the still on-going war in the Donbas. History may now be repeating itself, as protestors march in Minsk, demanding Lukashenko’s ouster following fraudulent elections which opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claims to have won. Ukraine’s trajectory has radically diverged from Russia’s, once considered a brother state; now it appears Minsk may go the way of Kiev. As with many issues in the former Soviet space, much is made of the Russian language versus the national language debate. This article uses the familiar Russian names, but elsewhere readers may see “Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya” or “Alyaksandr Lukashenka”.

The protests erupted following the elections, but have since evolved into an all-out demand for freedom: no longer do the protesters’ placards call for Tikhanovskaya; now they call for freedom. With tens of thousands of protesters on the streets, risking their health in a pandemic and risking their very lives in a dictatorship, no one can doubt that the demand for freedom is genuine, and that each individual has weighed the risks against the potential rewards. Lukashenko has blamed the West for the protests, but before the election he also blamed Russia for interfering, showing his desperate hope that someone – anyone – might reach out to help prop him up. Vladimir Putin did just that, adding Tikhanovskaya to Russia’s most wanted list and offering Belarus a loan of $1.5 billion USD to help keep the regime afloat. This loan is similar to what the Kremlin offered then-president Yanukovych of Ukraine just prior to being ousted in 2014. For Russia the risk is small: if Lukashenko remains in power, then he is ever-more dependent on Moscow. If he doesn’t, then Russia can still demand repayment of the loan from Belarus.

Nevertheless, this is where the similarities end. Whether due to the oppressive police state and fear of the Okrestina prison, or due to the absence of clear Western support for the protesters, Lukashenko remains firmly ensconced in the Palace of the Republic. Western governments have denounced his actions and are no longer recognising him as the legitimate president, but a usurper following the secret inauguration ceremony on September 23rd. Exiled leader Tikhanovskaya spoke from exile in August, calling for demonstrations to continue, to which protesters have obliged. However, Western nations are hesitant to throw their support behind Tikhanovskaya, instead seeking a repeat election, which is unlikely to happen. Tikhanovskaya, who ran for president after her activist husband was arrested, thus ending his presidential campaign, claims to have won 60-70% of the vote. Whether that is true or not is unclear, but her claim has the sense of legitimacy given the eruption of anger at the Government and acts of civil disobedience that are now commonplace in Minsk.

But those acts of civil disobedience may now be met with shoot-to-kill orders. Belarusian police have now been granted the ability to use combat weapons in response to the protests, which the government describes as “increasingly radicalised”. This escalation will further delegitimise Lukashenko in the eyes of his citizens and the world, as he must now hold on to power through the use of force against ordinary people. With this move, there is no longer a middle ground. Belarus will either sink further into the police state if these measures succeed in suppressing further protests, or Lukashenko may need to flee to Russia like Yanukovich if the measures don’t. The other possibility is that Lukashenko might go like Ceaușescu, especially if the police refuse to follow these new orders and turn against the government.

No matter what happens in Belarus, the effect that these protests have in Russia may be even more significant. From the Kremlin, Putin watched as his ally in Ukraine fell from grace, and now needs to take steps to fortify Belarus from democratic encroachment. The border between “Europe” and Russia may come closer still to Moscow otherwise. The issue is not just foreign, but domestic. Also watching Belarus closely are the Russians who would wish for a new leader for themselves. The clamor for new leadership is extending beyond the usual global cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, and is even now in Khabarovsk, where fifty thousand people—nearly one-tenth of the city’s population—came out to protest in July against the detention of the regional governor. Meanwhile, the Russian vaccine against coronavirus appears to be working, but the situation is murky. Testing for coronavirus is not being undertaken with much vigor, but the Kremlin has closed its gates to protect Putin, indicating that they recognize the seriousness of the virus. However, the greater danger to Putin lies in simmering opposition to his rule, and growing dissatisfaction with his Government’s coronavirus response only feeds popular exasperation.

This danger to Putin was underscored in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in early October as opposition protesters, upset at the results of an election they say was rigged by the winning party, overthrew sitting President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, freed former President Almazbek Atambayev from prison, and forced the results of the election to be annulled by the Central Election Commission. The similar origins of the Belarusian and Kyrgyz protests appears to indicate that those in Bishkek were inspired by those in Minsk, though activists in Bishkek were much more successful, overturning election results in a matter of days, while those in Minsk are as yet unable to overcome the oppressive power of the Belarusian secret police – something absent in Kyrgyzstan. Both cases demonstrate that the Muskovite grip is weakening. Protests against Kremlin ally Lukashenko, followed by protests against Russian involvement in Kyrgyz political affairs, indicates that the times are changing, and change may come to Moscow in turn.

For the present, change comes slowly to Minsk. The security apparatus, defended and supported by neighboring Russia, is showing no signs of abandoning Lukashenko, and so these protests may yet ultimately fizzle. This possibility notwithstanding, the democratic urge in Belarus has shown itself to be strong, and with international condemnation and rejection of Lukashenko’s continued presence in the Presidential Palace, the day may come sooner than imagined that the white-red-white tricolor flies again and Belarus opens itself up to the world as the next domino to fall after Ukraine. Whilst opposition continues to build, Russia will continue to help Lukashenko stand firm. It remains to be seen what will happen, but it is almost assured that still more violence is looming.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Illinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Henning Schlottmann, Protests against Lukashenko, 2020