Report: BEARR’s 2021 Spring Lecture

Belarus: What happened and what next? with Nigel Gould-Davies

February 2021 

Protests against Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s 26-year regime grew ahead of presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020. After implausible election results gave Lukashenka a sixth presidential mandate, demonstrations intensified. Despite severe repression, large marches continued through the winter and into 2021. Yet the regime maintains its hold on power with – so far – no sign of concession or challenge within the elite. Against a developing situation in Belarus, the BEARR Trust invited Nigel Gould-Davies to give our first lecture of 2021, looking back at the events of the past year and considering the future for ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’.  

Nigel is well-qualified to understand what is happening in Belarus today. His career encompassing diplomacy, academia and business included service as the UK’s ambassador in Minsk. Currently, he is Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and editor of the IISS’s Strategic Survey.  

Events in Belarus represent the working out of a growing tension between a changing civic culture and the existing political elite. There are parallels here with the revolutions of 1989-91 in Central and Eastern Europe, which also saw peaceful mass protest. Describing Belarus’ cultural orientation towards its western and northern neighbours, Nigel sees current events as potentially completing the “last piece of the jigsaw” in the process of Central European democratisation. 

But why now? Lukashenka’s hold on power has been tenacious over many years; previous election protests have been successfully quashed. Arguably his only free and fair electoral victory was his first as president, in 1994. In 2020 however, a combination of long-term and more immediate factors contributed to much more widespread opposition.  

In the first place, there is now a generation of adults in their 20s and 30s with no political memories of the Soviet system or the early years of transition. Despite Belarus’ relative isolation, this generation is also globally connected and highly IT-literate. For this growing younger electorate, Lukashenka’s regime and its authoritarian appeal to nostalgia looks increasingly out of time. Meanwhile, economic stagnation and unpopular initiatives (such as punitive measures against the unemployed introduced in 2015) have weakened popular support.  

More immediately, the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic has been seen to be disastrous, with the regime denying the health crisis entirely for several months. Set against this absence of state action however, civil society mobilised itself effectively, providing a basis for future protests.  

The presidential elections themselves were the final driver of protest. Initially, Lukashenka appeared to have been successful in neutralising the opposition, with the three leading alternative candidates – Siarhei Tskikanouski, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkala – either detained or barred from standing. However, he did not bar Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from running following her husband’s detention, believing her to be a likely weak candidate.  

This was a political misjudgement. Tskikhanouskaya proved to be highly effective in building alliances with other opposition figures (Tsepkala’s wife Veranika and Barbaryka’s chief of staff Maria Kalesnikava both joined Tsikanouskaya’s campaign). In generation, gender and global connections, she also clearly demonstrated a contrast with the incumbent candidate.  

In the event, Lukashenka declared victory with over 80% of votes cast. This result was clearly fraudulent, as actual tallies released by election officials confirmed. The unprecedented protests in Minsk and across the country that arose in response prompted unprecedented levels of brutality by the regime. Tsikhanouskaya herself was forced to leave the country for Lithuania, while police and paramilitary action led to several deaths and life-changing injuries. With the exception of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Nigel Gould-Davies referred to the regime’s response as perhaps the worst episode of state brutality in Europe since the imposition of martial law in Poland in the 1980s. 

This has not, however, quelled the opposition. On the contrary, widespread public outrage has fuelled further protest, and encouraged a wider sense of public indignation. Peaceful protests have continued at scale, and although banned, the red-and-white flag of the 1918 Belarusian republic has become a ubiquitous symbol of opposition.  Protest has also extended to those groups previously seen as the bedrock of the regime’s support: in August Lukashenka was visibly taken aback by heckling when he attempted to rally workers at a Minsk tractor plant, and a series of strikes took place at factories across the country.       

Yet six months on, Lukashenka remains in power: his “Ceausescu moment” at the tractor factory did not turn into a “Ceausescu outcome”. Lukashenka has made it clear that he will not concede to a transfer of power and there have not so far been any defections from within the regime elite. At the same time however, there has been no real effort on the part of the government to positively rally support and any such attempts have been sparsely attended. The regime holds on, even as substantive support has evaporated. 

What happens next…?  

A long period of attrition is likely, as the authorities seek to escalate repression, while maintaining cohesion within the institutions of state. So far, this has worked. But rising repression and the absence of a positive “offer” from the regime appears unsustainable in the long run. Should the rolling economic and political crisis be accompanied by a financial crisis, events could burn at a faster rate.  

While the situation in Belarus is largely internally driven, it is important internationally: Belarus borders three NATO and EU member states, as well as Russia and Ukraine. The US, EU and UK have been united in their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election results, and the US position is likely to be more vigorous under the Biden administration. Sanctions have also been imposed, although more needs to be done to reduce access by regime elites to the financial “security and safety services” provided through Western financial centres and tax havens.  

For Russia, the Belarusian crisis presents difficult choices. While Lukashenka has asserted Belarusian political independence over the years, resisting Russian attempts to merge the two states, Moscow has endorsed the election results and has channelled media support to the Lukashenka regime. Clearly, the overthrow of an authoritarian leader in a neighbouring country on the border of the EU would have challenging implications for the Putin government. However, direct intervention would be extremely risky: given the extent of support for change in Belarus and the absence of anti-Russian sentiment, it would be difficult for intervention to be presented as a response to civil conflict.  

Finally, Russia has had its own wave of protests in recent months. The situation in Belarus has not been a major factor in these. But Lukashenka’s mistakes and responses are likely to be closely watched by opposition and government ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in 2024.  

Report by Ross Gill, BEARR Trustee 

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