After more than three weeks of mass protests against his sixth re-election, it is already clear that Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been President of Belarus for more than 26 years, lost the political battle over the country’s future. After scenes of barbaric police brutality shocked the world, he is no longer seen as a legitimate leader either inside his country or internationally.
However, the opposition did not win either. It was not able to produce a strong leader (Lukashenko was very effective in eliminating anyone who would even remotely claim to unite all dissenting forces). It also failed to present a consistent program and agenda.
In a situation in which neither side has been able to declare victory, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is emerging as the only clear victor. The truth is that Lukashenko’s brutal authoritarianism was perhaps one of the few ways for Belarus, a country of 9.5 million, squeezed between two strong poles of power – Russia and the West – to remain independent. This August, Lukashenko was weakened as never before, opening a window of opportunity for the Kremlin to dramatically increase its influence.
Belarus has been almost totally dependent on Russia since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia was the main market for Belarusian goods. The country’s economy was reliant on oil provided by Russia with a hefty discount and sold with a big margin to Europe after being processed at the two Soviet-built Belarusian refineries. Russia has been providing Minsk with easy credit for Lukashenko’s big projects and other means.
In essence, Belarus was Russia’s client state. Lukashenko managed to keep it sovereign by carefully maneuvering between Moscow’s appetite for territorial expansion and the West’s fear that it might actually happen. Lukashenko wooed the West by threatening European leaders that Belarus might get swallowed by Russia altogether. With Putin, he would declare loyalty and allegiance to the idea of a “Union State” between Russia and Belarus (technically, an international organization founded in 1996 and then gradually upgraded) but would always back off whenever Putin would demand tangible concessions in terms of sovereignty, such as the potential deployment of a Russian air base.
This system worked for more than two decades. With time, however, Putin realized that he gets nothing from Belarus while the Russian economy spends billions of dollars on propping up a regime that would not even formally recognize Crimea as Russian territory. In 2015, Russia decided to reform its tax system and gradually reduced the amount of oil it sent to Belarus at market-cut rates. At the same time, Putin started to push harder for Lukashenko to deliver on the “Union State” idea as a truly supranational project. Lukashenko backed off, clearly enraging Putin.
Then came the presidential campaign. Lukashenko believed he could win it with his usual tricks. He jailed his most potent opponents or forced them to flee the country. He effectively banned all opposition campaigning. He crushed even the slightest forms of protests. The calculation was that the same recipe that had been used during previous campaigns would work again. It did not. What Lukashenko did not realize was that he no longer commanded the mainstream majority that had allowed him to rule freely as though the whole country was his own collective farm. People became so fatigued with him and Belarus’ sluggish economy that they were ready to unite behind any candidate who would promise them openly to get rid of the old leader and his regime.
After the first exit polls were announced, claiming that more than 80% of Belarusians voted for Lukashenko, people were shocked. They realized that the vote was rigged altogether. The polls showed that only 10% voted for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed popular blogger, who bravely decided to replace him on the ballot. The results sparked mass protests.
Lukashenko attempted to brutally crush peaceful protesters with the use of violence on a scale unseen in the country before. The police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against empty-handed protesters (I was there to witness it with my own eyes). The police detained hundreds of people and beat many unconscious. They targeted journalists, shooting at them with rubber bullets. In Minsk’s now infamous jail, the detainees were packed into tiny cells, where they had to stand without food or water and sleep for days.
The Internet was shut down in Minsk for three days after election night. Once it got turned on by authorities, the world was shocked to see the level of brutality used by the Belarusian leader in order to stick to power. Many neutral people in Belarus realized that they had to choose a side. Members of the Belarusian elite, including diplomats and culture workers spoke against Lukashenko and demanded a new and fair election. Most importantly, workers of the many factories in Belarus realized they could no longer stand neutral either. They decided to go on strike.
One week after the election, it looked like Lukashenko’s political future was hanging on a string. This was the moment when Putin appeared on stage. For more than two weeks he was silent about Belarus. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, said the presidential election was not ideal, but hinted that protests might be used by foreign powers to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. The Russian state-run television propaganda sent mixed signals. It looked like Putin was waiting for Lukashenko to turn desperate and he waited long enough. A few days after election day, Lukashenko started calling Putin, clearly pleading to be bailed out. Moscow sent his propaganda specialists first. Finally, on August 27th, the Kremlin several statements, clearly supporting Lukashenko.
It should be noted that before the election, the situation was almost the opposite. Lukashenko blamed Russia for his country’s misfortunes. He accused his opponents of being on the Kremlin’s payroll. At the end of July, law enforcement services in Belarus detained 33 Russian mercenaries, who they claimed arrived at an obscure resort outside Minsk in order to subvert the presidential election. Lukashenko wanted to portray himself as the defender of Belarusian sovereignty against the Russian threat.
He lost. The West turned against him, saying that his re-election didn’t meet even minimum democratic standards. The EU promised to introduce sanctions against the Belarussian officials, responsible for rigging the election and violence against protesters.
In this situation, Lukashenko had nowhere to turn but Putin’s Russia. It wasn’t a surprise then that the tone of Lukashenko’s statements turned upside down. He now says that the country is about to be invaded by NATO, which is plotting to tear Belarus, Russia’s strategic buffer, away from Moscow. Suddenly, Putin has turned into his best friend. Clearly, Lukashenko’s fate, and thus the future of Belarus, is in Putin’s hands for now. If he manages to stick to power with the help of Moscow, the biggest question will be what Putin will want in return for his services.