Belarus’s Rogue Strongman Is Pushing His Luck
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Once a regime has plucked a commercial airliner out of the sky to snatch a single journalist, its capacity to shock the rest of the world should theoretically diminish. And yet, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has managed. At home, he has brutally suppressed civil society and critics, with one would-be adversary from 2020’s presidential race sentenced to 14 years in jail. He’s weaponized migrants. This week alone, he forced an Olympic athlete to flee after she dared criticize a sporting decision, and put an opposition leader on trial behind closed doors, even as a high-profile diaspora activist was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a Ukrainian park.
A year after a disputed election that triggered unprecedented street protests, Lukashenko hangs on to power. Yet his increasingly erratic and outrageous tactics speak to his diminishing options — and to the impossible position he has put the country in. He has backed a nation of more than nine million at the heart of Europe into political and geographic isolation, squeezed by economic sanctions and dependent on neighboring Russia like never before.
The Soviet-lite regime is lurching toward the end. Just don’t expect a swift finish.
A former collective farm boss, Lukashenko has run Belarus for nearly three decades, enjoying enviable stability thanks to repression and cheap Russian oil. That was becoming harder to sustain even before last year, as the state-dominated economy stagnated, growing less than 2% annually on average over the past decade. The botched handling of Covid-19 made matters worse: Lukashenko’s dismissal of the illness as “psychosis” and promotion of quack cures fueled support for the opposition.
When he sought to claim his sixth election victory anyway, he met the ensuing public outrage with a merciless crackdown. Since then, all dissenting voices have either been forced abroad — as with opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in her jailed husband’s stead — or put behind bars. The suppression has been enough to limit defections among high-ranking officials and to keep security services in his camp, and the ensuing silence that has made Lukashenko confident enough to push out the uncomfortable question of eventual retirement.
Crucially, Moscow’s support has also not wavered. The two remain stuck in an uncomfortable dependence. Lukashenko needs cash and the Kremlin has yet to find a reliable alternative. His stunts may not even be unhelpful to Moscow as a distraction from its own ruthless efforts to silence critics. As Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described it to me, Lukashenko serves Russia’s interests by preserving a non-aligned, pro-Russian, authoritarian state on the Western border, and it’s not clear any other future leader that is not democratically elected would be seen as any more legitimate.
The trouble for Lukashenko is that he has achieved not peace or stability, but an uneasy stalemate. He will struggle to sustain the current level of repression in a crumbling economy, but also can’t ease his grip. Every post-Soviet leader who lived through perestroika has seen the dangers of tinkering with an autocratic system around the edges. And meanwhile, the discontent that pushed hundreds of thousands onto the street remains — more than half of those surveyed by Chatham House in April said Lukashenko should leave immediately or before the end of 2021.
Lukashenko may have intended his antics as a show of aggression designed to play well among some supporters, as Maryia Rohava, a policy analyst and Belarus expert notes, but they’ve also forced the hand of Western nations especially Europe, usually slow-moving. Hijacking a plane flying between two European capitals a day before European Union leaders met in Brussels made it impossible to argue for moderation and left them unable to do anything but act. The U.S., U.K. and the EU sanctioned dozens of Belarusian individuals and organizations.
And Lukashenko isn’t done. He’s now going to some trouble to needle Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya lives in exile, releasing undocumented immigrants over the border. More than 3,800 have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus this year, compared with 81 in 2020. And that was before the latest disproportionate and needless display of intolerance, an effort to silence a young athlete — who made no political statement — at the Olympic Games. She fled to Poland, and the West has reason to act again, closing loopholes to target more of Belarus’s key exports.
Sanctions are not fast-moving or indeed the only tool at the West’s disposal. Its governments can and should also support Belarusians who have fled, aid civil society, document abuses and promise economic support for a future democratic government, as Europe has. Treating Tsikhanouskaya as the country’s legitimate voice matters too, providing a platform. Isolating ordinary citizens from sanctions on state-controlled entities that are intended to punish rent-seeking elites is hard, to be sure. But the unpalatable reality is that inaction is not an option.
We know from experience that regime change happens — much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy — gradually, and then suddenly. Lukashenko may soon test even Moscow’s patience. And every push helps.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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