Europe’s ‘last dictator’ survives for now

President Lukashenko is said to enjoy popular support among rural and older Belarussians

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Belarus has had no democratic tradition to speak of. All the opposition candidates in the previous polls were carefully chosen, nobodies. In 2020, however, two serious and one semi-serious candidate were up against the strongman Alexander Lukashenko: the mercurial YouTube star Sergei Tikhanovsky, Viktor Babariko and former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo. While the West in general and the US, in particular, bet big on Tikhanovsky and Tsepkalo, Babariko was the most palatable to Moscow.

President Lukashenko put all of them in jail prompting their wives to come out in the fray. Lukashenko in his mind believed that no woman could beat him and allowed them to contest. But soon the entire opposition started gravitating towards Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Tikhanovsky’s wife. The incumbent promptly rigged the poll and gave himself 80 per cent of votes. Tsikhanouskaya cried hoarse and her supporters claimed that it is, in fact, she who polled 80 per cent. Both positions seem highly exaggerated.

President Lukashenko is said to enjoy popular support among rural and older Belarussians. Also, in comparison to ex-Soviet states from the region, namely Ukraine and Georgia, who shifted to full-fledged capitalism, Belarus is more prosperous. The per capita GDP at PPP in Belarus is twice that of Ukraine and at least 30 per cent more than Georgia. The income inequality in Belarus is also significantly lesser. The state provides for education and health and a robust Soviet-era social programme is in place. To his credit, Lukashenko did not let Belarus slip into the hands of oligarchs like Russia under Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine under every president did.

Except for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya—who self-exiled herself to Lithuania, which along with Poland is fuelling a part of these protests—and Valery Tsepkalo who the United States probably cultivated when he was serving as the Belarussian Ambassador in Washington DC, other opposition figures are not controlled by the West and they don’t see their future in antagonising Moscow. Maria Kolesnikova, Babariko’s main aide who supported Tsikhanouskaya during the polls, has been very explicit in her support for good relationship with Russia.

Trade with Moscow forms over 50 per cent of the GDP of Belarus and decoupling from Russia will severely contract its GDP and its living standards. Therefore, no serious opposition figure advocates such a step. It is Lukashenko who is trying to bait Moscow by presenting these protests as a grand design against Russia. Except for Poland and Lithuania, who once controlled these lands under the Polish-Lithuanian Rus, no other NATO member believes they have a realistic chance of co-opting Belarus against Russia. However, weaving such a conspiracy theory helps Lukashenko in convincing Russia to step in.

At the centre of the relationship between Lukashenko and Putin is the ‘Union State’ treaty. Signed in 1999, the Treaty calls for joint parliament, cabinet, court system, tax regime, customs regime and common currency. However, Lukashenko has been dragging his feet on this since then.

Last year, when Moscow lost its patience over Minsk’s delaying tactics, it stopped supplying Belarussian refineries with crude oil at a discounted price as well as the export of other raw materials. Export of refined oil and heavy machinery is Minsk’s major source of income. A stung Lukashenko retaliated by re-establishing diplomatic relationship with the United States and hosted Mike Pompeo, who made anti-Russia noise while in Minsk. Moscow believed it would manage to strike an excellent relationship with anyone who gets elected in a free and fair election. Fearing he will be abandoned, Lukashenko has pledged to come good on his promise to ratify the Union State Treaty. Russia has accepted the offer.

Lukashenko is also betting big on winter. Winters in Belarus are biting and he believes that by October-end when the winter arrives with full ferocity, the protests will melt away.

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