Why the Strongman of Belarus Is Fighting for Survival

President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained his hold on power amid the biggest political crisis of his 26-year rule in Belarus as riot police have confronted persistent street protests following the August election, which critics denounced as rigged. His bid for a sixth consecutive term had seemed a formality until opposition groups united behind a little-known challenger. As events unfolded, Russia, the European Union and the U.S. were jostling for influence in this strategically important country.

1. Why was there such a backlash?

Lukashenko, who’s accustomed to landslide victories, appeared to have taken no chances this time by having key challengers detained or kept off the ballot. But Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of one jailed opponent, was allowed to register, and she drew huge crowds at rallies nationwide after opposition groups pulled together to support her. So when officials declared Lukashenko had won 80.2% with just 9.9% for her, public anger over suspected ballot fraud boiled over. Discontent with Lukashenko, in office since 1994, had simmered for years as the state-dominated economy stagnated. It intensified with the coronavirus outbreak, after the president rejected lockdown measures to slow the epidemic and dismissed health fears by joking that drinking vodka and playing ice hockey offered protection.

2. Was the election fair?

Lukashenko is the only one of the five candidates to have accepted the results. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the elections were neither free nor fair, while Germany said Belarus failed to meet minimum election standards and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was “unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent monitors for past elections, didn’t in 2020, citing the “lack of a timely invitation.” It also expressed “serious concerns” about the way the election was run. Belarus’s Foreign Ministry said foreign partners should avoid making hasty statements based on what it called “one-sided information,” while Russia and China endorsed the results and congratulated Lukashenko.

3. How big is the threat to Lukashenko?

After previous elections, Lukashenko easily crushed opposition protests, which were generally smaller, short-lived and confined to the capital, Minsk. This time, thousands took to the streets nightly in more than 30 towns and cities in the days following the result, defying baton-wielding riot police armed with flash grenades and water cannon who detained more than 6,000 people in the first three nights alone. Undeterred, tens of thousands of people have continued to join weekend rallies. Tsikhanouskaya remained in exile in neighboring Lithuania, where she fled after being detained for as long as seven hours when she filed an official challenge to the results at the Central Election Commission on Aug. 10.

4. Does Lukashenko have the support to survive?

Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign claimed she won between 60% and 70% of the votes. The opposition set up a coordinating council that called on Lukashenko to begin talks on a peaceful transfer of power. He responded by trying to crush the opposition, setting his fearsome security apparatus on leading council members -- the secret police in the former Soviet republic is still called the KGB. Almost all of them have since been detained or forced out of the country. Interior Ministry forces and the military stayed loyal to Lukashenko, despite opposition appeals for them to side with the people against the government. The longer the protests go on, the more their loyalties may come into question.

5. What does the opposition want?

Opposition leaders have said the protests and the violent state response show that Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy. They have appealed to Western governments to recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the elected leader of Belarus. By mid-September, only Lithuania had done so. She had pledged to release political prisoners and to hold new, fair elections within six months if she won. Lukashenko has dismissed his opponents as “sheep” who are under the direction of foreign powers, and called the protesters criminals.

6. Can Tsikhanouskaya lead the opposition from abroad?

She has made online video addresses in support of the protesters and condemning violence from exile in Lithuania, another former Soviet republic but part of the EU since 2004. French President Emmanuel Macron met her in Vilnius in September and promised to help mediate an end to the country’s political crisis. She also has lobbied European leaders for support, meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Oct. 6. When Lukashenko flew to Russia’s Sochi on Sept. 14 for his first face-to-face talks with Vladimir Putin since the crisis erupted, Tsikhanouskaya warned the Russian president in a video that the opposition would reject any deals the leaders signed once it came to power. A stay-at-home mother before the election, she sent her children to Lithuania during the campaign. Her husband, a popular political blogger, was jailed earlier in 2020 after announcing his plans to run against Lukashenko.

7. What outcome would most suit Russia?

Lukashenko resisted intense pressure in 2019 from Russia to agree to deeper political and economic integration, fearing a takeover of Belarus by his larger neighbor. Putin’s ideal outcome would be a weakened Lukashenko emerging from this crisis, having spoiled all chances of an accommodation with the West and being forced to accept a renewed push for integration on Moscow’s terms. At their meeting, Putin agreed to provide a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus, whose currency has come under pressure during the turmoil. He also backed vague plans for constitutional reform, something Lukashenko has announced previously without result. Russia views Belarus as a crucial buffer against NATO and EU encroachment toward its borders. After losing influence in neighboring Ukraine to the West, Putin’s determined not to let another part of Russia’s backyard slip from his grasp.

8. What can the U.S. and Europe do?

The EU imposed sanctions against Belarus on Oct. 2, following the U.K. and Canada in taking action. EU leaders agreed to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 40 Belarusian officials, but Lukashenko himself wasn’t on the list, raising questions about how much influence the EU will bring to bear on the regime. In September, the U.K. imposed sanctions on Lukashenko, his son Victor, head of presidential administration Igor Sergeenko and five other senior figures in the Belarus government. U.S. President Donald Trump extended existing sanctions against Belarus in June and Pompeo said in October that the U.S. would “look at the tools” to do more to help the people in Belarus. The Belarusian foreign ministry said the country also enacted its own sanctions list which won’t be made public and may reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could even cut off diplomatic ties.

The Reference Shelf

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.