No international election observers, no real opposition candidates, internet shutdown and the most brutal crackdown on peaceful street demonstrations the country ever witnessed – these are the initial results of the recent presidential elections in Belarus. Despite the aforementioned violations of democratic procedure, this comes as no surprise for all those familiar with the realities in this East European country which has been ruled for 26 long years by the former collective farm manager Alyaksandr Lukashenka. And yet August 9 2020 is likely to go down Belarus’ history books marking a turning point both for the country and for European security as it opens a new chapter of competition between Russia and the West for Eastern Europe.
A Pyrrhic Victory
The Sunday “win” for the incumbent president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is the textbook authoritarian re-election campaign that the post-Soviet space has witnessed on numerous occasions before (see, for instance, the presidential elections in Uzbekistan in 2016 or Azerbaijan in 2018). Some observers might even wonder why these regimes even bother paying lip service to democratic procedures. The answer for Belarus is quite simple: Lukashenka simply does not have any other non-violent instruments of prolonging his rule. What remains unclear however is why it was deemed necessary to rig elections on such a massive scale? It seems hard to believe, both for the domestic population as well as to the international observers, that 80% of all eligible voters supported the incumbent. More realistic estimates assume the real number to be 25%, so basically half of all votes could be manipulated. This is a very considerable proportion, even for Belarus. But given the fact that the powers-that-be are aware of the real situation on the ground by putting their fingers on the electoral scale they try to eliminate any doubt about regime’s resolve to secure their rule and, by this, discourage defection among the army and secret services leadership (above all, Soviet-style KGB), who have become the main pillars and beneficiaries of the regime.
The Lukashenka regime’s legitimacy primarily rests on the stability and predictability it provides, as the rest of the “world around it goes up in flames”. Indeed, unlike Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia or Azerbaijan, Belarus has not inherited a frozen conflict and average living standards in the country are still acceptable in comparison with those in other post-Soviet republics. However, when Lukashenka downplayed the danger of Covid-19 and rejected the idea of introducing a lockdown amid skyrocketing numbers of infections in the country, the myth of the benevolent and “protecting hand” of the state quickly evaporated.
Before Covid-19, the regime has practiced a quietly liberal policy of mobility by keeping the borders open for everyone who wants to leave or work abroad, which could be interpreted as an instrument of accommodating its own population. However, the numbers of young Belarusians studying with a scholarship in Polish universities was at all-time high (approx. 5 000 in 2018), and the number of Schengen visas per capita for regular visits to neighbouring EU countries has recently become the highest in the world. Constantly seeing the living standards in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania with their own eyes could not but leave many Belarusians disenchanted by their own realities.
The elections have finally made obvious what has long been an open secret: Lukashenka does not have the majority behind him anymore, which has been vividly demonstrated by the first-ever country-wide demonstrations, most notably in cities like Brest, Vitebsk and Grodno which previously distanced themselves from the protests in the capital. The fact that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, basically a nonamer, who decided to run instead of her imprisoned husband and whose only promise was to organise free and fair elections in case of her victory, managed to bring about such a massive protest wave indicates how big the dissatisfaction of the majority of Belarusians with regime really is.
In sum, even if Lukashenka manages to stabilize the highly volatile post-election situation, he will have to cope with a much more self-aware, mobilized and politicized society with a plummeting economy on top, as economic reforms are long overdue.
The International Dimension
In the current situation there are hardly any ready-made solutions for Lukashenka himself, let alone the international community. As far as the European Union and the United States are concerned, theoretically, they have two cards to play: They could either consider re-imposing the sanctions they lifted 2015, or hope for the dust to settle again soon, especially against the background of the hectic year 2020 where the world, above all, has to deal with a global pandemic. To make sanctions really bite, Belarus could be disconnected from the SWIFT system. This step, however, would most likely push Lukashenka even more in the hands of Russia and would probably end the recent thaw in Western relations with Minsk (US foreign minister Mike Pompeo has become the first US state secretary to visit Belarus in 2020 followed by an appointment of the ambassador to Minsk for the first time since 2008). At the same time, if the West and the EU specifically decided to limit its reaction to verbal concern over massive election fraud and brutal crackdown on street demonstrations, it would significantly undermine its credibility as human rights defender as well as bear on the Eastern Partnership program which specifically aims at promoting democratic and civil rights in Eastern Europe.
For Russia things do not look so bright either. Against the background of the Armenian “Velvet Revolution” in 2018, not to mention the Ukrainian Maidan, Moscow is essentially caught between Scylla and Charybdis as it cannot let its “smaller brother” humiliate it in front of the international community (by for example starting to buy oil from the United States amid the oil crisis earlier this year) but at the same time has to secure the allegiance of its last ally in the strategically important Eastern European region. So Moscow faces a very delicate diplomatic challenge of keeping the Lukashenka regime cut off from the West but at the same time not allowing to bite the hand that feeds it.
Observing how the domestic support of Lukashenka is dwindling more and more, the Kremlin might try to capitalize on this development by intensifying its integration plans in the framework of the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union, in exchange for guaranteeing ongoing support of his regime. Remaining de-facto the only true Russian ally, Moscow lets Lukashenka get away with many things, especially when he underscores his loyalty by symbolic gestures, like saying at the military parade in Moscow in June 2020 that he came to the “Capital of our Motherland”. These actions do let Lukashenka buy some time and political capital in the Kremlin allowing Belarus to carry out provocations vis-a-vis Moscow when it seems necessary to win some sympathy in the West. But the West should be warned against getting too optimistic on such occasions, as Minsk primarily uses such campaigns as a bargaining chip in relations with the Kremlin rather than indicating its increasing “pro-Westernism”.
Neither the West nor Russia will be able to take advantage of the current developments in the short term, yet both sides will try to make the most of it in the longer run. No one will take the risk of confronting Lukashenka too much, as his chances of surviving this crisis are still quite high. This does not mean, however, that the status quo will be maintained as it was before the elections. Acknowledging the declining popular support of his regime, Lukashenka will most probably intensify his attempts of trying to play Russia and the West against each other over, while the latter will make their best to exploit the declining popularity of the regime in order to advance their cause in the competition for Eastern Europe.
However apolitical people of Belarus might be – or are considered to be – in general, the current situation (most prominently the handling of the Covid-19 crisis) made many people reconsider their attitude towards the Lukashenka regime. For the first time in the country’s history the opposition successfully managed to unite under one single banner (in persona of the candidate Tikhanovskaya and two her supporters Zepkalo and Kolesnikova) – and even though the protests are so far disorganised – the sheer volume of protesters of all walks of life clearly shows that the dissatisfaction with the regime is very significant and will not disappear quickly. The regime’s accommodation capabilities are very limited and the willingness to negotiate with the opposition, as the brutal crackdown of demonstrations by police indicates, is modest at best. Thus, the polarization of society is likely to accelerate, as will the competition for and around Belarus.
The next chapter of the Russian-Western stand-off in Europe will be also written in Minsk. This geopolitical factor is absent for most Belarusians as the protests rarely concentrate on the regime’s allegiance towards Russia or its relations towards the West but are anti-regime and pro-better life by their nature. But at the same time, this does not prevent this episode from becoming geopolitical in the long term. Countering Lukashenka’s bluff of “threatening to turn to the West”, Russia could try to capitalize on the regime’s weaknesses by linking its support for the regime to more economic and political integration. The West, on the other hand, as long as Lukashenka remains in power, will try to use any window of opportunity that might occur on the bumpy road of Eurasian/Union State integration trying to drive a further wedge between Moscow and Minsk.