Sasha Ciocirlan, Sebastian Efstathiou, Luca Frost, Mustafa Saleem and Saskia Soden examine the factors that could determine the political future of Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko.
Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 under his personalist autocracy, instituting a weak press, quashing civil society, and maintaining his grip on power through a secret police and state violence. However, a deteriorating economy, reduced international support from Western organisations and Belarus’ main ally, Russia, and large-scale civil unrest following last year’s election, have begun to cast doubt on Lukashenko’s grip on power. Does that mean that the leader frequently referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ will finally fall? There are several key factors at play and whilst the stability provided by Russian backing will likely allow Lukashenko to hold on to power for now, he may not be able to hold back the tides of democracy forever.
What’s happening in Belarus?
While Belarus is no stranger to rigged elections under Lukashenko’s heavy-handed rule, the August 2020 election, ‘won’ by Lukashenko in a landslide, triggered widespread civil unrest. The election led to a total internet blackout over several days and claims of widespread voter fraud by the opposition. While Lukashenko proclaimed another landslide victory, anti-government groups hosted an online campaign for Belarusians to submit pictures of their ballot, with their results putting the opposition leader, Tsikhanouskaya, as having over 70 % of the vote in some areas.
As the situation currently stands, there is a strong and coordinated anti-government movement across wide swathes of Belarusian society, supported by the opposition government in exile who have formed the ‘Coordination Council’ to unite their efforts in seeking a transfer of power.
What factors could lead to democracy?
The economic situation will be critical to a Belarusian democratisation. Lukashenko has made sure that the country maintains its Soviet-style, state-dominated economy. It is highly dependent on heavy industry and is dominated by a few big state-owned enterprises (SOEs) which are heavily subsidised, regulated, and highly inefficient. The Belarusian economy took a hit in 2020, attributed to both political turmoil and the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic. As a result, any defence of Lukashenko based on his economic competence is in free-fall.
In addition to this, Lukashenko’s support from the ruling elite is decreasing as well. Doubts over their loyalty prompted him to restructure the management of the state-security departments. For example, Lukashenko reorganised the positions of those in the leadership of the Security Council (the governmental body concerned with the security and defence of the state) and the KGB (the national intelligence agency of Belarus). On top of this, some former establishment representatives have joined the opposition. Even at the beginning of the electoral campaign, Lukashenko’s most popular rivals came from circles closest to the ruling elite: Viktar Babariko (a key figure in the Belarusian banking industry) and Valery Tsepkalo (former First Deputy Minister of Belarus).
Crucially, the pro-democracy movement has overcome an issue common to almost all authoritarian regimes: preference falsification – whereby individuals tend to conceal their private beliefs about the leaders and the government due to fear. Through the aforementioned highly coordinated campaign to count images of Belarusians’ ballots, Belarusians know that support for their dictator is dwindling and the election was rigged. Even if the pro-democracy movement fails in their latest attempt, an emboldened civil society is now more likely to prevail in future.
What role will Russia play?
Russia is steadfast in its desire for a pro-Kremlin leader in Belarus. The stakes are high: Russia may well intervene militarily in the fear of “losing Belarus to the West”, much in the same fashion as with Ukraine. In a more extreme outcome, a democratic Belarus could inspire similar ambitions in Russia. President Putin is therefore presented with two options to maintain or increase Russian influence in Belarus.
Firstly, he could effectively do nothing. Russia may well be pleased with Lukashenko’s suppression of dissent through both physical and digital means and feel this is enough to dampen any anti-Russian sentiment. Indeed, a democratic government in Belarus does not necessarily equate to a pro-Western government; Russia may well be able to constrain the options of a democratic government in much the same fashion as they have done with that of Lukashenko.
Alternatively, Russia could consider some form of military intervention. Under the guise of a ‘request for assistance from the legitimate government of Belarus’, Putin could opt to sanction a Russian boots-on-the-ground approach. Such a response would allay the Kremlin’s fears of democratisation and subsequent Westernisation in Belarus, as civil unrest is likely to come to a rapid standstill. And while having Russian troops in Belarus – be it in the form of state military forces or paramilitary troops – runs the risk of a robust Western response, recent levels of international apathy cast aspersions on the magnitude of such a response. However, military intervention could also prove unpopular in Russia itself and with Putin facing declining ratings, domestic politics will certainly be a factor in any decision.
How will the West respond?
Lukashenko is undoubtably lacking in domestic support, with some form of Russian military intervention in Belarus appearing to be his only possible ‘saving grace’ in the long term. So, how should NATO and the EU respond to the crisis?
Bilateral cooperation between NATO and Belarus began when the latter joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme in 1995. Under the PfP, NATO and Belarus are developing practical cooperation in several areas. Nevertheless, at the end of August 2020, Lukashenko accused NATO of hatching aggressive plans and threatened neighbours Lithuania and Poland with countersanctions. The European Union responded by adding Lukashenko and his son Viktor to its sanctions blacklist of Belarus officials. The EU rejects Lukashenko’s claim of electoral success and deplores his crackdown on opponents.
While Russian force could save the Lukashenko regime, a Biden administration is likely to check any Russian military intervention in Europe. A staunchly interventionist US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, the son of a holocaust survivor, sees America’s role as the guarantor of the rights of others, potentially limiting the scope of any Russian intervention.
A democratic Belarus may therefore be on the horizon, but in the near-term Russia is likely to continue in its tradition of support for Lukashenko, thus maintaining perhaps the sole source of stability for ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’. However, the democratic movement in Belarus is strong and emboldened, and with an interventionist Biden administration in the White House Russia’s response is most likely going to be limited to non-military measures. So, Lukashenko’s days may not yet be numbered, but his options are certainly steadily diminishing.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.
Image credit: Natallia Rak