As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka has found himself in a predicament. Domestically, he has cracked down on his political opposition, with police officers arresting and torturing scholars, journalists, political prisoners, and protestors. International organizations have recorded numerous human rights violations by the Belarusian government, and the international community has imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and his cronies. Regardless, the political oppression continues.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition remains strong. While Lukashenka continues to imprison the innocent, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on citizens to continue peaceful demonstrations against the Lukashenka regime. She has also been consulting with Western leaders and other bodies to discuss the fate of her country. Last month, Tsikhanouskaya met with US President Joe Biden, as well as the Council of Europe. During these sessions, the participants exchanged ideas on how to empower democratization and civil society in Belarus. It would be strange if they did not also discuss what might happen if the regime suddenly collapsed.
The campaigns of Lukashenka and Tsikhanouskaya could not be more different. But eventually, something will have to give. As Russia’s failing attempt to erase Ukrainian statehood continues, time will favor Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition movement.
Throughout his 28-year tenure as Belarusian leader, Lukashenka has relied heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus’s economy is highly dependent on Russia. The Russian Federation is its largest trading partner, Putin has provided various billion-dollar loans and in return, Belarus has aided Russia with its imperial ambitions in Ukraine. While the international community is providing a variety of aid to Ukraine as it fends off the ongoing Russian invasion, Lukashenka has allowed Russia to use his country as a staging area for Russian troops and as a launch pad for aggression against its neighbor. In short, the Lukashenka regime has isolated itself from the international community.
This decision has also seen him lose additional domestic support. While Lukashenka aids Putin’s war, several Belarusian military officers have resigned in protest, while former service personnel has volunteered to fight alongside the Ukrainian army. These events suggest that Lukashenka may have problems within the ranks of his own military, something hinted at by the most recent polling showing only a quarter of the population would support soldiers fighting or following orders if deployed in Putin’s war.
Realizing this, the Belarusian dictator has decided against ordering his troops to invade Ukraine. Lukashenka’s key concern has always been to remain in power and it’s therefore unlikely he would do anything to risk it.
Yet even his choice to offer less than wholehearted support to Russia has allowed the Belarusian opposition to grow. Lukashenka failed to eradicate the opposition movement when it first emerged in the summer of 2020 after they protested the rigged results of the presidential election. While many opposition figures were forced into exile, it also allowed these leaders to develop and extend relationships with the democratic world, making them better known to international audiences through television and radio appearances, and writing analytical pieces in major Western publications. They are technologically and politically savvy, and this has allowed them to spread their message more easily.
The Belarusian opposition has staunchly supported Ukraine throughout the war. When the invasion began, railroad workers risked their lives to sabotage Russian military movements, and some joined Ukrainians on the streets as they protested the war. Members of the Belarusian diaspora have sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Finally, these communities are working hard to ensure that Russia does not succeed in its war.
“When Ukrainians win, it means that Putin and Lukashenka will be weaker,” Tsikhanouskaya said while attending the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. “The war in Ukraine is a chance for Belarus to gain [its real] independence,” she added.
Russia’s failure in Ukraine is now quite apparent. Given Lukashenka’s heavy reliance on Putin, and the uncertainty for his regime in the light of a worsening defeat, means it’s very possible that he would be left to fend for himself.
A weakened Lukashenka regime would allow the opposition to challenge the current Belarusian government. This, in turn, could see Tsikhanouskaya emerge as a post-revolutionary, democratic leader.
There is much uncertainty for the future, but Putin’s defeat would be certain to ripple into Belarus and the opposition will need to be ready.
Lukashenka must be worried. And he should be.