The mass demonstrations in Belarus are seen by many as the beginning of the end of Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year reign.
(CN) — Belarus is heading toward an escalation of tensions and drama after the European Union and Russia warned each other against interfering in an Eastern European nation witnessing mass protests and strikes amid a revolutionary drive to oust its longtime leader, a man often described as Europe’s last dictator.
On Wednesday, the EU stepped more firmly into the fray by vowing to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials considered responsible for brutality against protesters in the wake of an allegedly rigged presidential election on Aug. 9 that gave long-time Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko a landslide victory. Sanctions also are expected to be imposed on election officials who allegedly fixed the election.
The EU also said it rejected the election results in Belarus and that it was providing $63 million originally earmarked for the Belarusian government to civil society groups in Belarus, victims of a post-election crackdown on protests and efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The bloc’s moves came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron about the situation in Belarus. Following those discussions, both sides warned against interference even as each side became more involved in seeking influence over the future of Belarus, a country of 9.8 million people that sits between Russia and the EU.
The EU says it supports the mass democratic protests that have broken out against Lukashenko and the bloc is calling for new free and fair elections. Lukashenko’s main rival, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania, an EU member state, after the election. From Lithuania, she has been trying to orchestrate Lukashenko’s ouster by setting up a transitional government and organizing new elections.
The events in Belarus – where streets are filled with honking cars, masses of people dressed in red and white, the colors of the opposition, workers strike at state-run factories and youths are chanting “freedom!” – are reminding many Europeans of the cataclysmic revolutions that took place in Eastern Europe that brought about the end of communist regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Many experts believe the movement against Lukashenko is unstoppable – not least because the Belarusian president has few friends outside of the security forces in his homeland and the ruling elite. In recent days, German newspapers have talked about the drama in Belarus as the “beginning of the end of the dictatorship.”
“The reality is that the Belarusian president is on the way out,” wrote Judy Dempsey, a political analyst and editor with Carnegie Europe, a think tank. “It’s only a question of time.”
In recent years, Lukashenko’s popularity has dwindled as living standards declined. His support eroded further after he said the coronavirus could be treated with vodka and saunas and claimed women were not suited to lead the country during the recent presidential campaign. He was facing three female candidates who’d entered the race to protest the exclusion of men from the election, two of whom were husbands and, in the case of a third female candidate, she was the campaign manager of an arrested businessman running for the presidency.
In addition, Lukashenko has angered Russia, a traditional ally, by refusing to go along with Putin’s goals of further integrating Belarus into Russia.
Still, it is far from clear what direction events will take as the EU – along with the United States – and Russia vie to steer Belarus towards an outcome that suits them.
Russia, though, is viewed as holding the stronger hand, not only because Belarus lies firmly within its sphere of influence and serves as a key buffer against Europe and NATO but also because the Kremlin has shown it will use military force to achieve its ends, as it did in Ukraine in 2014.
“The Kremlin will not hand Belarus over to the opposition,” said Leonid Gozman, a Russian commentator and opposition politician, in a piece for Foreign Policy. “Putin seems to dislike Lukashenko and would likely be happy to have someone else in power in Belarus, but he cannot allow Lukashenko to be removed by the will of the people.”
Putin may be concerned that a popular uprising against Lukashenko – aided by outside forces, such as the U.S. and the EU – could spill over into Russia and spark a similar wave of resentment and protests against his own two-decade rule. Lukashenko, in pleading for Russian help last week, made this argument.
“The ouster of the Belarusian dictator as a result of the elections could energize the democratic movement in Russia,” Gozman said. “So, if Lukashenko can’t handle the situation himself, Russia might help him.”
Meanwhile, the EU, with its sanctions, is seeking to show solidarity with the Belarusian protesters and help Tsikhanouskaya form a transition government. But Europe likely will be cautious in its support to avoid antagonizing Russia and giving it a reason to interfere forcefully in Belarus.
Although both sides have been in talks, the differences are wide.
“There is no attempt to deal with Russia as an equal,” Chris Bambery, a pro-Russian political commentator, said on RT, a news outlet funded by the Russian government. “Russia is caught up in this as well. It is supporting Lukashenko, but he is no particular friend of Moscow and they must be worried too about what the impact of all this will be … So, surely the best thing to do is to have open discussion between Brussels and Berlin and Moscow.”
Inside Belarus, the protests have extended into an 11th day.
In recent days, Lukashenko has re-emerged and made several public appearances in a bid to stem the popular tide against him. His public appearances show a leader struggling to stay on top of the uprising.
At one factory, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, workers heckled Lukashenko and shouted “resign.” He was seen speaking animatedly with the crowd and vowing to hold new elections – and even give up power – but only after Belarusians holds a referendum on a new constitution. His promise was seen as a tactic to pacify the protests and delay any transfer of power.
“A president should not make decisions as a result of pressure,” he told workers at the factory. “A president must find a compromise and that’s exactly how it will be.”
But he’s giving mixed messages and said “until you kill me” there won’t be a new election. Indeed, Lukashenko does not appear to be in a conciliatory mood. He has asked for Russia’s help to quell the protests and beefed up Belarusian forces along the border with the EU. Also in recent days, pro-Lukashenko rallies have broken out in Minsk, the capital – they are, however, smaller than the anti-Lukashenko protests.
The opposition is becoming bolder too and formed a transition committee in Minsk. Olga Kovalkova, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign manager, told reporters that Tsikhanouskaya was looking at returning to Belarus to lead the transition.
In a video message, Tsikhanouskaya said she was ready to lead Belarus.
“I am prepared to take responsibility and act as the nation’s leader during this period so the country settles down and gets back to normality, so we can release all political prisoners, and prepare a legal framework and conditions to hold another round of presidential elections in the shortest time possible,” she said.
She jumped into the election and became the opposition leader after her husband, a popular anti-corruption blogger, was arrested when he posed a challenge to Lukashenko for the presidency.
“Much now depends on when and how Tikhanovskaya returns to Belarus to start a transition that has already started on the streets,” wrote Dempsey, the editor at Carnegie Europe. “The movement needs leadership for Belarus’s turn for change to come.”
In the immediate wake of the election, Lukashenko unleashed police and the military on protesters. There were widespread reports of abuse and torture committed against detained protesters. At least two people died during the crackdown.
But the brutal crackdown on protests seems to have weakened Lukashenko even more and rallied many of his traditional supporters, such as factory workers, to the cause of the protesters.
In the past week, security forces largely have left the protests unmolested, a sign that Lukashenko fears the crackdown backfired and left him even more isolated.
“Lukashenko doesn’t have an ideology; he is only fighting to keep a hold on power,” Gozman said. “He will be obeyed while he remains in control, but a drawn-out protest will demonstrate his weakness.”
“Nobody believes him anymore,” said Valery Tsapkala, a Belurusian ex-diplomat who fled his homeland for fear of arrest after he ran in the recent presidential election. His wife was one of the female candidates.
Speaking to Sky News television, Tsapkala predicted Lukashenko will only last in power a little while longer.
“Maybe a couple of weeks,” he said, “maximum a couple of months.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.