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Will Belarus protests topple Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko?

While we don’t know how this revolution will end, we do know it has finally shown the world what a power-hungry tyrant Lukashenko really is.
Image: Alexander Lukashenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses his supporters in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 16, 2020.Dmitri Lovetsky / AP

After 26 years of surviving in an autocracy, Belarusians have become politicized. In the days since President Alexander Lukashenko tried to steal an election, ongoing street protests — unparalleled for the country in size and ferocity — and factory strikes look like the beginning of the revolution. This revolution's outcome is unpredictable, but two scenarios are the most plausible. First, Lukashenko retains power with some limited changes, but completely loses the public's trust. The second is that the strikes and protests continue, coupled with sanctions, and ultimately force Lukashenko to compromise.

It’s unlikely that the Belarusian president will be stepping down — a least not yet. The European Union has refused to recognize the election results and promises sanctions, but we will have to see if that creates enough pressure to force out the power hungry Lukashenko. If he does remain in power, however, his reputation, both in Belarus and around the world, will never recover.

In the days since President Alexander Lukashenko tried to steal an election, unprecedented and ongoing street protests and factory strikes look like the beginning of the revolution.

In 1991, when Belarus became independent from the Soviet Union, a pluralism of opinions gave Belarusians hope that democratic changes were coming. In 1994, in the first presidential election in the country's history, the energetic and charismatic young Lukashenko attracted those who were nostalgic for the USSR but hoped for prosperity and stability. He won that year, the first and so far only free and fair election in Belarus.

By 1996, after two undemocratic referendums, Lukashenko had greatly increased his power and effectively nullified term limits, changed the national flag and made Russian the country's second official language.

In Russia at the time, after two Chechen wars and painful economic reforms, support for President Boris Yeltsin was weakening. Belarusian political scientist Vitali Silitsky has suggested that Lukashenko, who still had close ties with the Russian elites, hoped to become the president of a united Russia and Belarus. In order to draw the nations closer, he signed a new integration and unification treaty that envisioned the possible creation of a confederation of Belarus and Russia. However, Lukashenko's ambitions were halted by the rise of Vladimir Putin.

With little hope of becoming the Russian president, Lukashenko instead focused on making sure he would be Belarus’ president for life. He began cracking down on opponents and journalists. In 2004, another referendum — recognized as “undemocratic” by the E.U., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe — ensured Lukashenko could be elected president an unlimited number of times.

Electoral support for Lukashenko has long been based on promises of economic stability and fear of political change. But inspired by the Rose revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Belarusians, too, flooded into the streets in 2006 and 2010. Both uprisings were brutally suppressed.

But although the revolutions did not succeed, Lukashenko's rhetoric became less and less convincing. In the 2000s, business was not developing, independent media was being censored and the economy was stagnating.

The economy, Belarusian analyst Artsiom Shraibman told Euronews, "is inefficient in agriculture and industry, and there is a lack of will for structural reforms because Lukashenko is afraid of reforms."

"Lukashenko does not want to privatize the economy because he fears losing power, even though the current economic direction is not sustainable in the long run," Shraibman said.

With little hope of becoming the Russian president, Lukashenko instead focused on making sure he would be Belarus’ president for life.

And so, after Ukraine’s Maidan protests in 2013-2014, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine, Lukashenko switched tactics. No longer did he speak so much about prosperity; instead he promised peace and independence.

It’s true that Belarus has not become embroiled in open conflict with its neighbors, but domestically the situation continues to deteriorate. And Lukashenko’s many failings have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Attempts to hide statistics and blame victims for their own deaths have angered citizens. And that anger fueled Lukashenko’s opponents.

Two of Lukashenko's main potential rivals, banker Viktor Babariko and blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, were detained in the early stages of their presidential campaigns. A third candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, for seemingly far-fetched reasons, was not registered by the Central Election Commission, a group still loyal to Lukashenko.

Lukashenko eventually allowed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of the detained blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, to run in her husband’s place. After stating that “the constitution is not written for women,” Lukashenko decided that Sviatlana was not dangerous.

But Tsikhanouskaya quickly picked up supporters, including Veronica Tsepkalo, the candidate who had failed to register for the race in time. Throughout the summer, these women spoke in front of tens of thousands. It was a fresh and historic campaign.

On election day, opposition supporters were encouraged to wear white as a symbol of protest against Lukashenko. In addition, an online platform Golos (Vote) was created to circumvent fraud — voters were asked to take a photo of their ballots and send them online for an alternative vote count.

According to government tallies, voter turnout was around 84 percent, supposedly the largest recorded in Belarus' history. But hundreds of voters with white bracelets reportedly did not have time to vote, since the polling stations were not ready for such an influx of people, and polls done by the opposition claimed the Tsikhanouskaya vote total was much higher.

In the days that followed, people built barricades and gathered in different parts of the city, shouting “long live Belarus." The white and red Belarusian flag, replaced in the 1990s, has become one of the symbols of protests.

Police have responded with rubber bullets and water cannons. But despite a reported 7,000 detainees — many of whom were released showing signs of beatings and torture — the protests continue. Women wearing white lined up in peaceful chains, calling for peace.

If protests continue, including work strikes and peaceful assemblies, Lukashenko may yet compromise. He has been booed repeatedly by workers, even as he pretends to be on their side.

So far, the ruling elites remain on his side. However, at least one diplomat has resigned in support of the protest. Artists, actors, workers and even the state-run TV channels have all voiced support for the demonstrations as well.

The nonrecognition of election results by the European Parliament and the unlikelihood of Russia supporting the falling regime will only increase the pressure on Lukashenko. Global leaders are also calling for sanctions. Even so, Belarus' president is unlikely to leave quietly. But while we don’t know how this revolution will end, we do know it has finally revealed Lukashenko to the world as the coward he really is: a power-hungry tyrant and Europe’s last dictator.