Dasvidaniya Lukashenko: The Rise and Fall of Europe’s Last Dictator
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko gives an address in Minsk in 2015. Image Source: Vitebsk Popular News (Народныя навіны Віцебска)
“Anyone joining an opposition protest is a terrorist. God forbid they should commit any sort of act in our country... We will wring their necks as one might a duck."
Such were the words of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 2006, in which he preempted protests against his anticipated victory in that year’s March presidential election.
An election that, like each and every one held in Belarus between 1994 and 2020, he would win in a dramatic 60%+ landslide, and almost certainly by virtue of pre-curated electoral rigging according to numerous human rights watchdogs.
Indeed, given the degree to which opposition demonstrations have been a chronic concern for the 26-year-old Lukashenko administration, it is hardly surprising that rigged electoral outcomes and the subsequently swift detention of political opposition by the Belarusian KGB have become the standard practice of the regime nicknamed “Europe’s Last Dictatorship."
However, as these opposition protests now balloon to an unprecedented scale to a six figure turnout in the wake of the last week's presidential election, the question on most observers’ minds is not if Lukashenko’s regime will collapse in the coming months, but rather exactly how it will.
While the former constituent states of the USSR are no strangers to self-styled dictators with indomitable cults of personality, the marshy wooded plains and utilitarian urban skylines of landlocked Belarus have seen more than two-and-a-half decades of heavy-handed rule by virtually a single man seeking to preserve the spirit of the Soviet Union.
On the European continent, where political liberalism and representative governance has long since become the norm, how has Lukashenko managed to remain in control of Belarus for so long?
From the Ashes: Rise of a Tyrant
Although existing as a distinctly-Slavic substate entity for more than a millennium, Belarus only became an independent nation in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the following three years, a continuation of the country's Supreme Soviet council would draft a national constitution and authorize the first democratic elections in 1994.
This two-round election saw a 39-year-old populist named Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko win by a resounding margin of more than 65%.
A former Soviet border guard and later a collective farm director, Lukashenko’s early forays into politics established him as an outspoken adversary of corruption, a reputation that got him elected to the Supreme Council in 1990. In 1993, leveraging his position as a chairman on the council’s anti-corruption committee, he accused over 70 ministers, including Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislav Shushkevich and Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, of corruption and embezzlement.
Although these allegations were later found to be unsubstantiated, the damage it caused to the reputations of Belarus’s leading statesmen and Lukashenko’s perceived crusade against political greed greatly supported his 1994 bid for the Presidency.
Once in office, Lukashenko began to quickly consolidate power. In 1995, a referendum granted President Lukashenko the ability to dissolve the parliament by decree, an explicit violation of the 1994 Constitution. Conveniently, in a referendum the following year, the original Belarusian Constitution was voided and replaced by an amended Constitution drawn up by Lukashenko himself, granting him virtually full governing authority.
The complimentary and well-timed nature of these referendums led many to suggest that the outcomes were fixed, with parliamentarians referring to the 1996 referendum as a “farce”. Unsurprisingly, this variety of electoral rigging appears to have become commonplace under the Lukashenko administration.
The New Motherland: Preserving the Soviet Legacy
Over the successive years, Lukashenko’s domestic policy has focused on strict Russification via the strengthening of Belarus’s economic and cultural ties to Russia.
To this end, the promotion of the Russian language and suppression of the Belarusian language, the imposition of the Russian Orthodoxy over other Eastern Orthodox Church denominations, and the frequent evocation of anti-Western rhetoric have all become standard in Lukashenko’s Belarus.
Lukashenko himself is a frequent visitor to the Kremlin as well as a close acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has been eager to replicate Putin’s “strongman” image through such endeavors as frequent military parades and state-sanctioned photo-ops of Lukashenko’s personal life.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai are pictured in a 2015 campaign ad picking potatoes and melons to be sent to orphanages and nursing homes. Image Source: Euronews
External commentators have described this kind of rustic posturing as an attempt to revive the politically-advantageous legacy of the Soviet Union, using Russian imagery and socio-political traditions as the nostalgic impetus for doing so.
Russia, for its part, has leveraged its influence over Belarus to influence its foreign policy, keeping the European Union and United States at a safe distance from Belarus in diplomacy for the better part of two decades. Additionally, Russia maintains an active customs union and common market with Belarus, heightening the latter’s economic dependence on Russian exports and trade, and through the 1999 Union State agreement, the Russian state has been able to effectively direct Belarusian monetary policy. Although initially pegged to several currencies, the Belarusian ruble’s exchange rate was fully floated in 2011, following Russian pressure amidst allegations of Belarusian currency manipulation.
Belarus, in spite of these circumstances, has reasonably benefited from this close relationship to Russia. It shares a collective security agreement (CSTO) with Russia and four other post-Soviet States, affording it the nominal support of Russia in matters of diplomacy and national defense. Moreover, its gross national income per capita almost quintupled between 1993 and 2011, largely a result of Russian investment and preferential trade gains.
And yet, such stability could not possibly last under the iron thumb. Lukashenko’s bid to distance his country from the oligarchical institutions of Russia as well as his unstable monetary and trade policies have begun to drive a wedge between the two Slavic states, and it is clear that Putin has begun to see Belarus’s usefulness as contingent on Lukashenko's now-waning obedience.
The Beginning of the End
Given the recent weight of chronic issues like unemployment, deteriorating ties to Russia, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the globalization pressures and political liberalization so ubiquitous to the neighboring European continent, it was inevitable that such outspoken opposition to Lukashenko would eventually arise.
Aside from the allegedly-fixed elections intended to provide the regime with a veil of democratic sanctity, free expression is understandably limited in Belarus. The country has been consistently ranked by Freedom House as being the most censored nation in Europe, and among the top 10 most censored nations on the planet.
Virtually all media is state-operated, and those few independent journalists who do proliferate face intimidation, incarceration, and occasionally assassination, forcing any private media outlets to either practice strict self-censorship or operate underground. These tendencies have extended to the internet and social media, the arts, and forms of entertainment that may be interpreted as critical of the Lukashenko government. Prominent dissenters face voracious harassment, arrest and even often-violent interrogation by the KGB secret police, and friends and family of the convicted are often found guilty by association.
This startling degree of censorship is complemented by Lukashenko's erratic, short-sighted and often unpopular policymaking.
Although his recent COVID-19 denial and initial refusal to address the pandemic made headlines, it is hardly the first time Lukashenko’s domestic policies received sharp rebuke. He has attempted on multiple occasions to repopulate areas of southern Belarus evacuated during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, insisting that the still-highly-contaminated countryside is safe for habitation, “relocating” thousands of urban homeless to these areas to work the irradiated soils, and at least once claiming that nuclear radiation was a “myth” created by the country’s opposition intended to undermine him.
Infamously, Lukashenko attempted to institute a “social parasite tax” in 2015, which was intended to punish those working less than 183 days per year and was ultimately suspended following protests in 2017.
The Current Situation
It finally appears that the strain of these exhaustive policies, the continuous government crackdown on free expression, and numerous rigged elections and referenda have caused the tensions to boil over, as many disillusioned Belarusians taking to the streets to air their pent up grievances.
Protestors gathered in Minsk on August 16th, 2020. Banner translation: "Fair Elections. Tribunal. Freedom for Political Prisoners."
These are far from the first protests seen in the autocratic state, as the Lukashenko administration’s tolerance of a small yet visible and powerless opposition has been the keystone to his perceived legitimacy.
Nonetheless, they are by far the largest that country has yet seen, as a sizable and vocal opposition has since rallied around opposition frontrunner, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife-turned-activist who is currently under asylum in Lithuania to avoid the characteristic imprisonment associated with most all of Lukashenko’s opponents post-election. She has since established a transitionary council-in-exile and claims that she likely defeated Lukashenko in first round with between 60-70% support, requesting international recognition as the Belarusian president-elect.
Meanwhile in Belarus, the strife is only skyrocketing in scale and intensity.
According to the most recent estimates, the protests grown to roughly half a million demonstrators nationwide, with anywhere from three-fifths to four-fifths of those convened in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, and smaller yet significant demonstrations in virtually all other cities, including Gomel, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev and Vitebsk.
Likewise, Lukashenko has mobilized his own base of support to counterprotest against the opposition, leading to numerous reported clashes between pro- and anti-Lukashenko groups. Nevertheless, it has been the government response to the protests that have received the most syndication, with over 7,000 protestors arrests, hundreds of injuries, and several deaths attributed to the government's crackdowns and containment efforts. Footage showing arbitrary abductions and physical brutality by police and federal troops continues to emerge as the protests show few signs of slowing.
While Lukashenko continues to denounce the protests as an illegal coup by the opposition backed by “various Western actors”, his traditional ally Putin has been slow to respond or provide assistance to Lukashenko, aside from mobilizing a few divisions in the vicinity of the Belarusian border. This reluctance is not at all surprising given Lukashenko’s campaign accusations of Russian meddling and support for Tsikhanouskaya after 33 Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group were arrested in Minsk in July.
The hesitation on part of Russia may become a focal point for the future of the country as the unrest continues to develop. Leading up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the overwhelming Crimean support for cession from Ukraine and union with the Russian Federation made Putin’s decision to annex the peninsula relatively simple to make. Likewise, Putin’s own ambitions for Belarus remain ambiguous and likely conditional upon the evolving public sentiment, so exactly how Russia might take action, in support of whom, or if they will even respond at all, will be an integral variable moving forward.
Matthew Fuzi is the Associate Editor of the National Times.