Although the streets of Minsk are quiet today and people appear to behave in a usual way, it is the peace of the prison cell. Life is far from normal. The persecution of Belarusians who flooded the streets to protest against the stolen presidential election of August 9, 2020, and the brutality of the security services continues.
At least 37,000 people have been prosecuted to date (higher than during the Solidarity resistance movement in communist Poland) and thousands more have fled the country including, most recently, the Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, following an attempted regime kidnaps. NGOs and independent media outlets are being closed down — during the last week of July alone, more than 50 NGOs were liquidated.
Legal provisions are being tightened to raise the price of protest: the amendments to the law on extremism, for example, criminalize any criticism of the regime and may even lead to people being stripped of Belarusian citizenship. Numerous Telegram chat forums that popped up across the country last fall and were instrumental in mobilizing society have been branded “extremist” too and infiltrated with KGB agents who have detected and arrested the chats’ administrators.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka is battling for survival. He has canceled local elections due in the winter, through which local activists had hoped to remobilize the protest vote and elevate at least a handful of its representatives into municipal roles. The regime is now preparing for a constitutional referendum in February, through which Lukashenka hopes to consolidate his power. The most recent draft of the amendments suggests vesting the so-called All-Belarus Assembly, an ad-hoc body comprising several thousand regime loyalists, with the highest state authority, including powers over the legitimacy of elections. Lukashenka’s likely plan is to become the head of the new body’s presidium.
Yet Lukashenka’s grip on power has come at the cost of a heavy and growing dependence on the Kremlin. Since last August’s election, he has seen Russia’s President Vladimir Putin six times, with the meetings lasting on average five hours. Clearly, some negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, which may be compromising Belarus’ sovereignty and its officially neutral military status, while transferring more control of the economy and foreign policy to the Kremlin. The question remains, however, whether such a pivot to Russia might eventually provoke a rebellion by some elements of the regime. Although the dictatorship appears strong and consolidated, there are tentative signs that it is insecure and lacking initiative and, most importantly, that its loyalty to Lukashenka may be gradually waning.
Chief among the factors underlying this is the regime’s failure to establish its legitimacy after openly stealing the election. Public feeling has not changed. Lukashenka continues to enjoy low public support — his rating stands at about 20% (and anecdotal evidence puts it even lower in the regions, where the economic situation is particularly dire) compared with above 70% support for the opposition. Viktar Babaryka, who was Lukashenka’s main rival last August but instead is serving a 14-year sentence on trumped-up charges, remains the most popular presidential candidate.
The opposition has also grown into a solid political grouping. It has managed to stay united — a big achievement compared to its incarnations in previous decades — and committed to the cause of toppling Lukashenka’s dictatorship. Its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has firmly established herself in the international arena, relentlessly lobbying against the regime. She is no longer viewed as an inexperienced stay-at-home-mom — and she certainly acquired more credibility in the eyes of Belarusian officials, after she was received by the political leaders of the U.S., France, Germany, and Britain.
Understandably, the opposition hopes that international pressure will help to bring down the regime. But the reality is that Belarus must free itself. Society needs to resume its efforts at mobilization and self-organization — with some clear guidance from the opposition.
Western governments also lack a coherent strategy for dealing with Lukashenka. Its behavior is increasingly unpredictable and bellicose — from the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to the attempt to kidnap Tsimanouskaya in Tokyo to create a refugee crisis on the Lithuanian border, and murdering its opponents abroad. The political crisis in Belarus now risks spilling over its borders and threatening the security of the country’s EU neighbors. The West should base its approach towards the country on its values and interests and not simply treat Belarus as Russia’s proxy.
The West’s response should be firm. European and U.S. policy must include:
- Toughening sanctions and closing loopholes in the current sanctions regimes (according to some estimates, current sanctions will hit Belarus’s GDP by just 5-12%);
- Targeting Lukashenka’s personal wealth and his cronies’ financial assets;
- Creating a large Belarusian democracy fund to help victims of repression and their families; assist the civil society with self-organization and underground operations; help journalists to relocate to safe countries; and facilitate academic exchanges, trade union, and political party cooperation; and
- Establishing a high-level international conference to keep Belarus on the agenda.