Belarus has been making the international news headlines for over nine weeks now, reflecting Belarusians’ wish to change the country’s leadership. Protests that started over contested elections on August 9 show that Aliaksandar Lukashenka lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It also demonstrates how the international community takes the democratic forces seriously in the form of Sviatlana Tsikhanoskaya and the Coordination Council. Baltic states treat Tsikhanoskaya as a high-level political figure, hosting her at the UN Security Council and inviting her to speak with the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. Meanwhile, European leaders like Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel meet with Tsikhanouskaya to get her perspective on possible solutions for the post-election crisis in Belarus.
The pushback against the authoritarian regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka has a long history. Back in 1995, Lukashenka consolidated power in 1995 through unconstitutional referendum. It allowed him to dismiss the parliament. After announcing a strike, members of parliament were brutally beaten by the police. In this way, Lukashenka sent a stark message on how he would deal with political opponents. In the following years, several political rivals who openly criticised Lukashenka were abducted. Later evidence emerged to suggest they might have been murdered.
During his 26 years in power, Lukashenka imposed a restrictive environment on the political parties, NGOs, and independent media. Activists and journalists were punished for doing their jobs, NGOs and political parties were denied registration, and each year human rights defenders reported cases of politically motivated prosecution. Any public gathering required authorisation, which was rarely granted to those critical of the regime. This allowed the police to disperse any public demonstration and detain the organisers. Within that restrictive environment, there were major post-elections protests in 2006 and 2010. Hundreds were detained and several presidential candidates were imprisoned. The uprisings faded out - but only after blood was spilt and activists were arrested.
What is different this time is that the society seems to have reached the tipping point: the torture and the riot police’s brutality do not stop people anymore. This can be explained by a combination of factors: the decision of the incumbent to stay in power for at least five more years after 26-years rule, which means no substantial development for the country. On top of this is the outrage caused by the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular how authorities denied the scale of the problem, covering over the statistics and forced the state sector employees to work as usual, without special protective measures. Meanwhile medical workers who pointed out the flaws of the healthcare system were fined or fired.
Adding to the widespread discontent was the course of the presidential campaign: most prominent candidates were removed from the race, two of them, the banker Viktar Babarika and the blogger Siarhei Tsikhanousky, were jailed, and former diplomat Valery Tsapkala was forced to leave the country. The regime intimidated the supporters of the alternative candidates: police dispersed the crowds who gathered to give signature in favour of candidates, obstructed selling the Lukashenka’s opponents’ campaign of merchandise and created obstacles to holding political rallies. On top of that, when people gathered after the elections to object to the official exit poll results - which declared victory for Lukashenka with nearly 80 percent of votes - the gathering was quelled by riot police. In the days following the elections, police treated the protesters with disproportionate violence, resulting in detention of nearly 7,000 people detained, at least 450 documented tortures, and at least five protest-related deaths. This pushed the people to the point of no return, making them no longer able to tolerate injustice.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, along with the Coordination Council from Vilnius and Warsaw, are currently collaborating on elaborate strategies to end the crisis. Though forced into exile, they did not lose the credibility in the eyes of the Belarusians and succeeded in amplifying the agenda on Belarus on the international stage. Tsikhanouskaya appointed representatives to work on strategies for the new Belarus, such as developing economic reforms to help the country become more market-oriented and efficient. Similarly, a representative on human rights is in charge of documenting evidence of the human rights violations. A representative from the constitutional group would coordinate a public discussion on the necessity of constitutional change, while Lukashenka has been explaining that he needs to stay in power to transfer a better constitution to his successor.
Although Lukashenka has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the people, he still relies on two pillars: domestic vertical power and Russia’s support. These supports are not as unshakable as it may seem. The group that seems to be the most loyal to Lukashenka are the “siloviki”, particularly the special units involved in the unlawful deeds like intimidation of political opponents. Still, there are several cases of “siloviki” resigning, expressing their disagreement with unlawful orders. Those instances of resignation are not massive, yet they send a strong signal to the ruling elite, making them doubt the loyalty of the system in the long-run.
Similarly, a number of Belarusian diplomats resigned, condemning the actions of the government. Although the majority of the bureaucracy seems loyal for now, not least because they put themselves at risk of prosecution if they speak out publicly, there are still signs that not everyone inside agrees with the regime: Telegram channels that coordinate the protest publish leaked information that is provided by anonymous government sources who covertly support the change.
It might seem obvious that Putin supports Lukashenka’s regime: the Kremlin recognised the elections result, sent the team of journalists who replaced their Belarusian colleagues who resigned from the state TV channels, and promised a 1.5. billion USD loan to sustain Belarusian economy. But this is not necessarily support for Lukashenka personally, rather a move to mitigate the crisis at its border and maintain the status quo.
Key to Russia’s interest in Belarus is keeping the country in its orbit and not to let the repetition of the Euromaidan which resulted in Ukraine’s shift to the West. Despite the Kremlin’s signals of support, there are other scenarios Putin might consider, such as supporting the transfer of power and presenting Russia as a responsible international actor. Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are open to an idea of facilitating a dialogue between the opposing parties in Belarus and they discussed this with Putin.
On the eve of Lukashenka’s meeting with Putin in Sochi in September, Kremlin sources leaked information that Putin will talk about such scenarios with Lukashenka. What is more, the team of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushka of Coordination council confirm that they signal to Moscow that they are open to a conversation to clarify their position on Belarus-Russia relations and discuss possible formats of crisis resolution.
It is known that Putin and Lukashenka’s relationship is not good, and, given that Lukashenka has lost legitimacy, it is possible that Putin could withdraw his support and throw his weight behind a transfer of power. This would ensure his country good ties with its neighbour’s new leadership.
The protest in Belarus centres on democratic change and respect for the rule of law domestically, rather than geopolitical themes. Ideally the conflicting sides will find a solution through a dialogue conducted without the intervention of major powers. However, the West and particularly the EU could facilitate such a dialogue under the auspices of the international body like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In particular they should push the notion of new carefully monitored elections that exclude fraud. Sanctions are also important, and they have more clout if coordinated among EU members, the United States, and others.
Finally regarding Cyprus’ pushback on sanctions on Belarus, it is important to note that having a prosperous and democratic neighbour at the EU’s eastern doorstep supports regional security.
Katsiaryna Shmatsina is a researcher at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and a Rethink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
Katsiaryna tweets at @kshmatsina