Europe’s “last dictator” in an unprecedented challenge, Here’s What It Could Mean for Belarus

Europe’s longest-serving leader Alexander Lukashenko has long worked hard to seem invincible. He has dominated past elections that the U.S. has deemed neither free nor fair and brokered no dissent and suppressed protests. Now, he is facing an unprecedented challenge as he runs for a sixth term as president of Belarus in elections on August 9. A former teacher and political novice, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has emerged as his main rival, pledging to topple Lukashenko’s regime and restore democracy.
Tens of thousands have rallied across Belarus in some of the country’s biggest opposition protests in a decade, amid mounting frustration over the government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, combined with grievances about the economy. Referring to Lukashenko, protestors chanted ‘stop the cockroach’ and held placards reading ‘change!’.

“For the first time in his 26-year rule, Lukashenko knows the majority don’t support him,” says Aleksandr Feduta, a former aide to the incumbent, who was imprisoned after supporting an opposition candidate in 2010,
The U.S., France, Germany, and Poland have called on Belarus to ensure free and fair elections, but analysts say that’s unlikely to happen and expect Lukashenko to declare himself a winner through vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing, says Katia Glod, an independent expert on Belarus. But his problems won’t end with a victory. He will have to grapple with economic difficulties, rising discontent at home, managing the country’s strained relationship with Russia, as well as condemnation from the West if a crackdown on critics continues.

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?
Lukashenko, a 65-year-old ex-collective farm director, has ruled the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people since 1994. Nicknamed ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ by the George W Bush administration in 2005, Lukashenko’s regime has jailed opposition leaders, repressed opinion polls, and held “severely flawed” elections, resulting in sanctions from the U.S. and European Union since 2004. Belarus is also the only country in Europe that has the death penalty with most executions carried out by a shot in the head. Prisoners are not told when they will be executed and data on capital punishment is treated as a state secret but according to Amnesty International, more than 400 people have been executed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Reliable opinion polls are hard to come by, but one survey conducted by Sociological Institute put Lukashenko’s approval rating at 24%. Analysts say Lukashenko has been weakened this year by his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, which he dubbed a “psychosis” that could be cured by vodka and a sauna visit despite recently contracting the illness himself. He refused to impose a lockdown against the virus that has infected more than 68,000 and killed 574 residents, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Discontent has been simmering for years. A decade-long economic stagnation and prospects of further economic integration with Russia seen by many as threatening Belarus’ sovereignty have weakened Lukashenko’s image as the guarantor of stability.
Belarus relies on cheap Russian energy and loans to prop up its largely state-controlled economy. But over the past year the Kremlin has raised the pressure on Belarus, increasing energy prices and slashing subsidies. Russian officials said Minsk should accept deeper economic integration if it wants to continue to benefit from lower Russian energy prices. In recent years, Lukashenko has rejected a number of proposals from Moscow for closer integration, including a single currency and common legislative initiatives.

Who is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya?
Tikhanovskaya, 38, only stepped up after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber who led rallies against the regime, was arrested and barred from registering in May.
The Belarusian Electoral Commission has blocked two other political rivals from running against the president. Viktor Babaryko was detained in June on what his supporters say are fake charges and Valery Tsepkalo, the country’s former ambassador to Washington, fled to Russia after alleged reports from security officials suggested he may be arrested and stripped of his parental rights. Amnesty International has called the men “prisoners of conscience” who were prosecuted for their political opinions. Tikhanovskaya sent her children to live abroad temporarily, after receiving threats they would be taken away unless she quits the race, an opposition journalist said.
Police have responded with typically heavy-handed tactics, arresting over 1,000 protestors this summer alone according to the Minsk-based human rights group Viasna.

How is Russia involved?
In a dramatic turn, Belarus police on July 29 arrested 33 men they claimed were Russian mercenaries sent to destabilise the situation ahead of the election. They then accused Tikhanovskaya’s husband, and another prominent critic, Mikola Statkevich, of collaborating with the mercenaries. In his fiery address to the nation on August 4, Lukashenko claimed the detained men had confessed to being sent to Belarus to “await instructions”, and vowed to protect Belarus from opponents he portrayed as “puppet masters” controlled by foreign forces.
Russia has denied any involvement with the detained men, who investigators claimed were members of the Wagner group, a military contractor reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that promotes Moscow’s foreign policy goals in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and various other countries. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on August 4 there’s no proof of the men’s guilt and accused Belarus of staging a show ahead of the vote.
Wagner mercenaries often pass through Minsk, allegedly on their way to Sudan, Syria, Libya, and other countries says Frear, who calls the arrest a “stunt” to portray Lukashenko as a protector of Belarus under threat.

What could the results mean for Belarus and the rest of Europe?
Lukashenko’s battles won’t end with his almost certain victory in fraudulent elections. Protestors have no intention of backing down, says Glod, (an independent expert on Belarus). “The momentum is there and people are really ready for change,” Feduta warns, (a former aide to the incumbent, who was imprisoned after supporting an opposition candidate in 2010), however, that the regime is ready to use force to silence the dissent.
The surge in support for Tikhanovskaya has made clear that Belarusians are looking more westward than eastward, says Glod. “They want democracy, the rule of law and European values. Belarus is not a backwater country as it has been perceived as up until now. Lukashenko’s regime will collapse one way or another. Until then, the EU will live next door to a country experiencing a very deep political crisis,” she says.

By Sanjida Jannat

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