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Belarusian opposition supporters attend a rally in Minsk to protest the disputed Aug. 9 presidential election results, on Sept. 6, 2020. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has refused to quit after his disputed reelection and turned to Russia for help to stay in power.TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images
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Dispatch: Crushing Democracy in Belarus

With his regime’s survival threatened by mass protests, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gives up on trying to balance East and West

Vladislav Davidzon
September 11, 2020
TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images
Belarusian opposition supporters attend a rally in Minsk to protest the disputed Aug. 9 presidential election results, on Sept. 6, 2020. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has refused to quit after his disputed reelection and turned to Russia for help to stay in power.TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images

It was a bleak and rain-swept Sunday in Minsk and the birthday wishes being proffered were of the very wrong sort. Aug. 30 marked the 66th birthday of Alexander Lukashenko, the mustachioed kolkhoz (Soviet collective farm) manager turned totalitarian president of the Republic of Belarus. The intermittent thunderstorms set the mood. More than 100,000 Belarusians had marched through their capital, Minsk, and tens of thousands of protesters had gathered at the security cordon in front of the hulking neo-Soviet realist-style presidential palace. Instead of “happy birthday” they chanted “Tribunal! Tribunal!” and “Sasha, go away!” Despite every effort of the security services, this was not going to be a festive birthday and constituted further proof, if anyone needed it, that the fearsome Belarusian police state had ceased to inspire terror in the population. In Minsk, marching to the gates of the presidential palace had become part of the Sunday routine—something done after church and before calling one’s mother.

A month into the massive protests that have gripped Belarus since the rigged Aug. 9 presidential elections, President Lukashenko continues to ratchet up violent repression against the political opposition. It is a mass uprising that will irrevocably change the future of the post-Soviet world by pushing Minsk away from the West and closer to Moscow, triggering an unpredictable cascade of effects throughout the region.

On Monday, a day after the latest “March of Unity” in Minsk—which was publicly backed by the candidate widely believed to be the rightful winner of the August election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania—a group of masked men kidnapped the opposition Coordination Council member Maria Kolesnikova. While Kolesnikova was located a short time later at the Alexandrovka border crossing with Ukraine, where she had been dropped off by her captors and destroyed her own passport to avoid being forced out of the country, numerous other members of the council have been detained, harassed, and interrogated. This includes Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, the last member of the council’s presidium, who remains in the country and has not been detained by authorities. Numerous Western diplomats have gathered in her apartment in order to surround and physically protect her from possibly being seized by state security services.

The Belarusian economic forecast is nasty, if not yet dire. The central bank’s hard currency reserves are only enough to pay for a month and a half of imports, the Belarusian ruble has taken a hit and I found it difficult to buy euros or dollars in Minsk when I needed them last week. The International Monetary Fund or the Russians will have to step in to bail out the economy again soon enough, but the cost of the Russians doing so (not for the first time) would certainly be a nonnegotiable demand to scoop up Belarusian national companies, which would make the country even more dependent on Moscow.

Whatever happens, and whoever takes power next, Minsk’s vaunted IT sector—the backbone of the Belarusian middle class, which had firmly taken the side of the protesters—is not likely to survive the crisis. It is the only major industry (representing 5%-6% of GDP) that the country has produced organically in the decades after the Soviet dissolution. Dozens of IT companies (including major Russian ones) have already announced tentative plans to dismantle their local divisions and to begin moving their employees out of Minsk. Programming code is no easy task when the internet flickers on and off unpredictably for days at a stretch so that the authorities can keep people from uploading torture videos to social media. A lanky blond waiter at a restaurant along the broad and brutalist expanse of Independence Boulevard could be heard recently inquiring about wages and living costs in Kyiv. He is studying computer science.

The government’s catastrophic loss of legitimacy began with the mismanagement of the COVID-19 epidemic earlier in the year. “They wasted public trust in their monopoly on truth-telling in the midst of the presidential campaign,” presidential candidate Hanna Kanapatskaya told Tablet.

The regime elites, many of whom are privately deeply unhappy and would prefer a civilized transition process, are not yet ready to abandon Lukashenko. The country has lapsed into a pattern of targeted repression of the population on the weekdays and a reprieve on the weekends, when the opposition shows its massive strength, thus deterring further arrests. One way or another, this is the beginning of the end for Lukashenko’s bizarre personalistic regime, even as that process will likely take many months of messy and painful struggle. “We are partisans” the Belarusian protesters will reply with a knowing smile when asked how long they will continue to fight their dictator and what they plan to do when, one way or another, the Russians come. It is a reference to the nation’s experience of the Second World War, when Belarus lost a greater proportion of its population than any other Soviet republic. “We don’t lose our composure easily” the protesters say, “and we are not like Russians or Ukrainians. We are patient people; but when we go into the woods, it is for a long time.”

The regime’s strategy is to wait out the protests and continue eroding the resolve of the sparse opposition leadership, which is disproportionately operating outside of the country, through targeted arrests and harassment, as well as to prevent a mass workers strike at all costs.

Though it looked as if the Lukashenko regime might collapse during the first week and a half of the protests, the situation has settled into a stalemate, as neither side possesses the leverage to force the other to stand down. On Sunday evenings, Lukashenko has taken to capering in public with an automatic rifle in hand in order to personally underscore the core governing principle of his administration.

The Belarusian nation is almost 10 million strong, and it is the last nation in Eastern Europe to live under a fully totalitarian regime (however farcical its post-Soviet aesthetics) deprived of its own national state. Residents of Minsk and Vitebsk have all the trappings of their own state: territory, sovereignty, a flag, and powerful security services—yet there is nothing national about any of it. This is why comparisons between the current protests and the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2014 are misleading. The Belarusian conception of national identity is relatively weak in comparison to that of the obstreperous, chaotic, and independent-minded Ukrainians, with few people in the urban centers speaking decent Belarusian. The Belarusians will wait for a minute for the light to turn green before crossing the boulevard, even if there are no cars in sight. The Belarusians are not currently interested in thinking about choosing between East and West, or in making any grand existential decisions generally.

Vladimir Putin and his inner circle observed the uprisings discreetly at the beginning of the postelection demonstrations while Lukashenko pleaded for help, but the Kremlin is now intervening firmly on the side of the authoritarian president. On Aug. 27 Putin announced the formation of a reserve force available to intervene in Belarusian affairs if it was called in case of public disturbances. This was unmistakably a far more serious show of support than anything the Kremlin had publicly proffered in early 2014 to the Ukrainian strongman Yanukovych in the final stages of the Maidan revolution.

Guiding its decision-making, the Kremlin has the cases of Georgia and Ukraine firmly in mind after both were essentially lost to Moscow’s sphere of influence as a result of its belligerence and political miscalculation. Judging the situation in Belarus, the Kremlin seems to have erred firmly on the side of paranoia. It did not matter how peacefully the protesters assembled in Minsk while softly singing folk songs and politely affirming the most anodyne political demands. After observing the situation carefully for two weeks, the Kremlin concluded that it was not willing to risk a leadership transition process slipping out of its control. The Belarusian opposition’s leadership, which is composed of amateurs in the best 19th-century sense and has been fragmented by behind-the-scenes infighting, was not to be trusted, the Russians determined. For Moscow, keeping a weakened Lukashenko in power was the least objectionable course of action, at least for the time being.
Russia and Belarus remain bound up as a unified political entity, the Union State, by the December 1999 Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus. Abrogating that treaty was not on the agenda for any of the protesters or members of the opposition in Minsk with whom I spoke over the past three weeks. It was Lukashenko who first brought Belarus into the Union State two decades ago with the ambition of potentially succeeding Boris Yeltsin as the head of the newly forged binational government—a fantasy quickly crushed by Putin’s two-decade reign.

Instead of becoming czar of most of the Russian-speaking lands, Lukashenko was left to wage a grueling partisan campaign to retain his sovereignty and resist being swallowed up by a territorially revanchist Russian Federation. For many years Lukashenko played his weak hand with great cunning, balancing relations with Moscow while also flirting with the West. After 2014, when the Maidan revolution sent Ukraine’s kleptocratic President Yanukovych into Russian exile, Minsk made itself quite useful to everyone as a neutral intermediary and honest broker. Both of the Minsk accords, which formalized ceasefire agreements for the war in eastern Ukraine, and which were signed by the Europeans, Ukrainians, Russians, and the Russian-led Donbas separatist starlets, were negotiated as Lukashenko played the benevolent host.

In 2018, Minsk’s relationship with the European Union and the United States was almost amicable. Lukashsenko’s wooing proved to be very successful with both Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton who made cameo appearances in Minsk to reassure Lukashenko that he appreciated the historical ties between Russia and Belarus and “it’s not about picking us between the two.” As recently as a year ago, senior Belarusian opposition figures and dissidents living in London would tell me that the political outlook in Minsk for the democratic opposition looked impossibly bleak, and that they felt totally abandoned by the West.

The fleeting moment for Lukashenko to play peacemaker has now passed. A member of the Ukrainian parliament who is at the forefront of crafting Ukrainian parliamentary policy toward Minsk recently informed Tablet that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, “very much intends that Ukraine behave like Switzerland in this situation, despite all of [Belarus’] provocations.” Kyiv’s calculation is that Lukashenko is likely to survive the crisis in some sort of crippled state, at least for a limited transition period. It is safe to predict however that Merkel and Macron will not be flying back to Minsk anytime soon to sign any more peace treaties in gilded Soviet ballrooms. Lukashenko has irrevocably given up his precarious balancing act between East and West and thrown his lot in with Moscow.

Yet, it’s not clear that Lukashenko still holds the same allure for Moscow that he once did. Supporting him means risking Russia’s relations with the general Belarusian population, while the leverage that Putin had once pictured Lukashenko providing him in Russia’s domestic political affairs appears to no longer apply. Putin’s original plan to get around term limits at home after securing his fourth run at the presidency in 2018, was to push for the amalgamation of the Russian and Belarusian states. Constitutional term limits would be sidestepped by drafting of a brand new constitution for the Russia-Belarus federation. But the pandemic presented a better option, and the Kremlin instead took advantage of the haze of COVID-19 to push through a hasty national referendum to amend the Russian constitution and remove any impediment to President Vladimir Putin’s fifth term (this came buried in a package of trivial secondary amendments). Together, the new constitutional path to evading terms limits and the revolutionary situation in Minsk, have made Moscow less reliant on Lukashenko’s willingness to offer up Minsk as part of a Kremlin power play.

With the United States and Russia accounted for, that leaves Europe, where the response to the crisis has been muted, with what little has been done spearheaded by Poland and the Baltic states, which have declared travel bans on swaths of the Belarusian government and security forces. This portends a cascade effect and will likely sever Belarusian links to the European sphere, thus reinforcing Lukashenko’s pivot toward Moscow. In early September, the Estonian government announced its intention to cease purchasing electricity from Minsk after the inauguration of a nearly constructed nuclear power plant.

Though it has been unsuccessful in breaking the demonstrations, the Lukashenko regime’s use of targeted force has had the effect of radicalizing the opposition by violating basic social taboos such as not hitting women, not arresting people in church, and not using ambulances to covertly transport troops. The modern cellphone camera revolution is incompatible with the old Soviet style totalitarianism, which leaves Lukashenko and his remaining loyalists in a bind: They have beaten far too many people to regain legitimacy, but not enough to quash mass protests.

Lukashenko’s only remaining friends are the men who lead his security services, but the average policemen and troops at the lower ranks no longer feel secure showing their faces in public. Some have been seen to run away when young women protesters bearing flowers tear the masks off their faces. I witnessed this spectacle personally when I found myself surrounded by half a dozen shock troops belonging to the OMON special police force in the restroom of the Minsk Hotel. The OMON men would not take off their balaclavas even while standing at the urinal or washing their hands. Activists are compiling dossiers on the members of the security services who commit acts of savagery and torture. Little boys engaging in horseplay on the playgrounds and courtyards of Minsk have begun to arrange themselves into teams of bad guy (“the OMON”) and good guys (“the people”).

Some of the OMON men who are bound to the state through subsidized apartments, interest-free loans, and an extensive campaign of ideological formation, continue to believe that the protesters are provocateurs paid by Western intelligence agencies. They are not going to abandon Lukashenko just yet. Yet observing them—especially the look in the eyes peeking out from the balaclavas of the men who haplessly failed at restraining a march of young women bearing flowers, was instructive. “Where is your mom?” and “your mother is with us!” the ladies cried out in teasing, flirting, and cunningly emasculating tones at the masked young men.

In a new development earlier this week, plainclothes thugs with uncovered faces were deployed to beat the population for the first time. These nonuniformed enforcers could be seen last Sunday chasing after protesters who were forced to leap into the Svislach river for reprieve. There are some reports that at least one of the plainclothes men seen beating protesters this week has been identified as a resident of St. Petersburg, suggesting the possible arrival of Russian reinforcements, who, unlike the native conscript army and the nonspecialized detachments of the Interior Ministry troops, can be relied upon to brutalize locals.

Lukashenko’s government seems intent on breaking the protesters’ disciplined commitment to nonviolent methods by engaging in provocations that would provide a pretext for the usage of total force. “If we fight them they will just use tanks against us,” numerous protesters informed me in a resigned fashion. It is in fact only on the fourth Sunday of the protests that some of the Belarusian men began to fight back. The Belarusians are among the most polite and patient people one will ever meet, but deeply patient people also have a tendency to become the most violent when their patience finally snaps.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.