Protests, Preemption, and Belarus

By Alex Yeo

Belarus has the appearance of a state out of time. Often labelled “Europe’s Last Dictatorship,” which has unfortunately become somewhat erroneous, the country is currently embroiled in the largest period of civil unrest it has seen in recent years. Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’ long-serving President, seems determined to hold on to power at any cost.

But what is behind all this? Furthermore, what will this unrest mean for the Government and the Nation of Belarus?

A Landlocked Island

Belarus is undergoing a strange period in its contemporary history. For many years, the regime of Lukashenko has maintained a steady hold on power and adopted policies that the leadership see as necessary for both the country and the indefinite sustainment of their regime. The Lukashenko Regime has been able to preempt revolution in the past, and like other states in the former Soviet Union, has been able to do this with great success, suppressing actual opposition, maintaining “official” or controlled opposition and amending the constitution regularly to increase term limits and term times.

It is the relationship between Belarus and Russia that is usually highlighted; in the past, the two countries have been very close, with the pair even going so far as to tentatively discuss union. However, in recent years Belarus has shifted its foreign policy, and the relationship has soured. The objective seems to have been to play the EU and Russia against each other to get a better relationship with both; all this has done is driven a wedge between Belarus and Russia.

This is the political background to the present unrest in Belarus. The immediate trigger was the failure of the preemptive system. Part of this involves the suppression of opposition candidates, which in this case was the arrest of Presidential hopeful Siarhei Tsikhanouski. What the regime apparently did not count on was his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, not only taking up the torch for the opposition but forging a credible threat to the regime.

Regardless of actual popularity, perceived popularity is the main weapon of the Lukashenko Regime. Thus, with their huge campaign budget and the electoral system filled with Lukashenko’s people, the Government was able to portray Lukashenko as still very popular and able to win 80.8% of the vote. The rest, as they say, is history.

What comes next?

As of the time of writing, unrest continues in Belarus. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has fled to Lithuania and Lukashenko continues to crack down on the protestors. The overall outcome is still far from certain.

Assuming the Lukashenko regime survives, the main impact will surprisingly be on foreign policy. As stated earlier, Belarus has been trying to move closer to the EU for things like trade. Not outright joining - it goes without saying that Belarus fails democratic checks for the bloc - but improving things like trade relations. However, the EU has begun to mull sanctions on Belarus. This will push Belarus back to Russia, realistically it’s only other choice. Though, of course, Russia may be hesitant to welcome Belarus back - this is not the first time Lukashenko has been playing off world leaders.

Another possibility is that Lukashenko resigns, appoints a loyalist as a successor, and continues to rule from a less public position. This is not without precedent in the region - Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan did something similar last year. While the circumstances are different, it provides a model. In regimes like Belarus’, one does not have to be President to be in power. Again, though, there are challenges - in Uzbekistan, when President Islam Karimov died, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, set about cementing his own position at the expense of Karimov’s family and some of his allies.

There is, of course, another possibility - that somehow, against the odds, the opposition wins. After that, it really is uncharted territory. It may push Belarus and Russia even further apart, or it may not - perhaps the Kremlin views Lukashenko as a liability. Maybe Belarus will even democratise. It is impossible to say.

Whatever happens, for the moment the people of Belarus are caught in a struggle. The fall of Lukashenko, under any circumstances, will be a watershed moment for the country. That is the only certainty among this period of unrest - that, and for the first time in years, the Belarussian Government cannot view its survival as beyond doubt.

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