President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. But his grip on the country has weakened significantly in recent months, and he may well be out after the presidential election scheduled for August 9. Such an outcome would not only shake up Belarus; it also would give Russian President Vladimir Putin serious cause for concern.
At the beginning of 2020, Lukashenko seemed unchallengeable. Most Belarusians believed that their strongman leader would win a sixth term in office in the same corrupt way that he had secured his previous victories. And even Lukashenko’s opponents suddenly went silent as he defended Belarusian sovereignty in the face of Putin’s plans to “integrate” the two post-Soviet states.
But COVID-19 has changed everything. As Lukashenko proclaimed the pandemic “nonsense” and lied regularly about its scope and casualties, ordinary people affected by the crisis to started to turn on him. They particularly resented pressure by the authorities to attend May 9 commemorations of the end of World War II without face masks or protective gloves, and to sign a petition in favor of Lukashenko’s re-election.
In early May, the authorities arrested the popular blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky, who had announced his intention to run for president. But his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is now bidding to stand in his place and has received enthusiastic support. In June, queues to sign her ballot petition in Minsk, Brest, and Gomel stretched for a half-mile (0.8 kilometers), despite police urging people to disperse.
Opinion polls conducted between May 20 and May 22 (before the authorities banned them) indicate that only 3-6.24% of voters support Lukashenko, with Tikhanovskaya at 12.7-18% and the former Belgazprombank CEO Victor Babariko (now jailed by the Belarusian KGB) the clear front-runner, backed by 50-54.9% of respondents. On June 30, the Central Election Commission in Minsk formally allowed Babariko and Tikhanovskaya to run after it reviewed their supporters’ signatures, but a Lukashenko “victory” over them on August 9 would almost certainly trigger another Eastern European “color revolution.”
But Lukashenko’s possible demise after a quarter-century of wielding near-dictatorial power is not the only reason why the August presidential election matters. The other is the long-standing tendency for political developments in Belarus to foreshadow events in its giant neighbor.
Russian leaders have been following in Lukashenko’s footsteps since the mid-1990s. President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign, including its appeal to Russians to “vote with your heart,” was copied straight from Lukashenko’s 1994 campaign. And when Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, he (like Lukashenko three years earlier) proclaimed the return of “stability.”
Just as Lukashenko revived the Soviet-era Belarusian flag and seal, Putin restored the Soviet national anthem in Russia. Putin also followed Lukashenko’s lead in eradicating independent political parties and forcing opponents into exile or killing them (and sometimes both). In both countries, parliament and the courts were transformed into departments of the presidential administration, while Russian laws concerning “foreign agents” and “unwelcome foreign organizations” emulated Belarusian legislation.
Finally, Putin’s national referendum on July 1, which formally allowed him to remain president beyond 2024 (by resetting the clock on the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms), mirrored Lukashenko’s in 2004. And allowing Russians to vote online or outside of polling stations resembles the week-long “early voting” period in Belarus, which has secured Lukashenko one victory after another.
Lukashenko’s defeat next month would thus represent a huge symbolic blow to the Russian version of his political model and could shape Russia’s future much more than Ukraine’s efforts to throw off dictatorship have done. Whereas Russian leaders have long regarded Ukraine as a country that looks to the West rather than following Russia’s path, they view Belarus as Russia’s most trusted friend and ally.
Russians deeply respect Belarusians for the suffering they endured during World War II, and the two countries’ citizens have enjoyed equal economic status since the establishment of the Union State of Russia and Belarus in 1999. So, while most Russians expected that Ukraine eventually would opt for liberal democracy and reject Soviet-style autocracy, a similar shift in Belarus could shatter the foundations of Putin’s regime.
Nowadays, Lukashenko seems to be equated with Belarus in the same way that Putin is with Russia. Or, as the current chairman of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, put it in 2014, “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”
Like Lukashenko, Putin is now trying to perpetuate himself in power, deprive voters of any say in decision-making, and capitalize on Soviet heritage rather than modernizing the country. Lukashenko’s failure to secure re-election would thus make a deep impression on Russian voters.
Rising tensions between Putin and Lukashenko make the situation even more intriguing. Since 2000, Russia has subsidized Belarus to the tune of more than $100 billion, receiving nothing but supportive political statements in return. Lukashenko frequently criticizes Putin and leads the Russia-skeptic forces within the Eurasian Union, Putin’s aspirational geopolitical construct.
Moreover, the Kremlin may no longer have either the ability or the will to intervene in Lukashenko’s favor. The fact that Belarus lacks ethnic divides of the sort that facilitated Russian incursions into Ukraine also weakens Putin’s position.
The big question now is whether Belarus will follow the same democratic path that Ukraine chose in 2014 (one hopes without the violence). If Lukashenko falls, then Putin’s regime also may start to appear far less incontestable.
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