President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years and wants to stay in power. He has been called the last dictator in Europe and is not ready to pass this title to Vladimir Putin—although, after introducing the latest amendments to the Russian Constitution, all the “requirements” have been met for the Russian leader too.
This time, winning the presidential election is much trickier for Lukashenko than ever before. The Belarusian leader’s relationship with Moscow has been tense over recent months.
Lukashenko has publicly accused Russia of “meddling” in Belarus’ upcoming elections. The reaction by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that “Russia has never intervened … in any country’s electoral processes, let alone in our ally Belarus” sounds like a joke, of course. Without Moscow’s firm and comradely support, Lukashenko would never have been elected or re-elected. His self-destructive curse in fighting with Moscow therefore looks pretty remarkable. The incumbent president has been much more critical of the Kremlin than his main potential rivals, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkalo.
Lukashenko has brought the Belarusian security and armed force structures under the supervision of his family members and closest confidants. At the same time, however, similar to the situation in Ukraine, professionals have been infiltrated into the Belarusian security services not only with the ability to share sensitive information with Moscow but also ready to influence events on the ground in Belarus. The suggestion that not all members of the security services are ready to accept orders from Lukashenko was recently deliberately leaked to the public.
The open opposition to Moscow by the Belarusian leader and his irritating statements and behaviour have offended the Kremlin. Capturing the 9 May parade from Moscow at the peak of the pandemic crowned it all.
It is an open secret that Lukashenko has always been a laughing stock in the Kremlin’s eyes, with his support for collective farms and the socialist economic model. Moscow has been quoting the classic line “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard” since Yeltsin’s time. A leader like Lukashenko has been useful for Russia, both domestically and internationally. Moscow believes that it is helpful to have an immediate neighbour that is heavily politically and economically dependent on the one hand and with limited democracy and lower living standards on the other.
In the past few months Lukashenko has refused to agree the final chapters in the roadmap for a Russia-Belarus “Union State”. However, throughout his time in power virtually everything he has done has brought his country’s sovereignty to Moscow’s doorstep. Making a quick U-turn now seems something of a mission impossible.
Lukashenko’s most dangerous rivals for the presidency—Babaryka, with a banking background, and Tsepkalo, an entrepreneur and former diplomat—are both convenient candidates from Moscow’s point of view. Both have confirmed that Russia will remain the main partner for Belarus. As technocrats, they seem to be more acceptable to the West, too. As Lukashenko has done in recent months, both are talking about the multi-vector nature of Belarusian foreign policy (Russia, China, the West). Unlike Lukashenko, however, they do not have as many skeletons, either in the closet or in unknown locations—former political rivals or activists who have gone missing.
It is obvious that Lukashenko wants to prevent his main rivals registering as candidates. Babaryko has been detained and is behind bars. Tsepkalo has indicated that the necessary files have already been prepared. Or – which seems now more likely – a large proportion of the collected signatures, required for his application, will be invalidated by Central Election Commission and he is out from the presidential race.
The international community has its own capacity to influence Lukashenko’s decision-making. However, much more powerful levers certainly lie in Moscow.
The prospects for the Belarusian economy are very poor. Whoever is the new (or old) president, he or she needs to act immediately to prevent economic and social collapse. Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia is total, so Moscow must be asked for help. The topics will be the usual: refinancing existing loans and taking out new ones, favourable prices for energy carriers, access to Russian markets and so on. However, the price for Russia’s “help and goodwill” will be no less than “real steps ahead from where we left off last autumn,” signing and implementing the roadmap for the Union State. Similar to its attitude to Ukraine, the Kremlin considers the statehood of Belarus to be a temporary phenomenon; president Putin has spoken about this relatively openly.
The Kremlin’s phobia of all sorts of colour revolutions and Maidans is well-known. Even if the current demonstrations in Belarus work in favour of Moscow’s current interests and tactics, you never know when things may get out of control.
In the case of Belarus, the variety of protesters is particularly wide. At one end of the spectrum are those who genuinely want to be part of a single state with Russia and Mr Putin to be their president. They are really angry with Lukashenko for his insulting statements and delays in creating a common state. At the other end are people who want to live in a sovereign democratic country, far from Moscow’s ideological influence.
Opposition to Lukashenko is the only factor that unites the two sides. It cannot be ruled out that the Kremlin’s Maidan-phobia will outweigh the accumulated insults and, once Lukashenko has met the conditions set by Moscow, he will continue to serve as president. At present, in the face of growing protests, such a decision would have the effect of pouring fuel on the fire.
In his recent speeches, Lukashenko has emphasised the importance of maintaining the country’s sovereignty. The right message, but from the wrong person. For a quarter of a century, Lukashenko has forced Belarus in the opposite direction, towards a common state with Russia. Visiting a military parade in Red Square recently, he called Moscow “the capital of the homeland”. Lukashenko has a peculiar understanding of Belarusian sovereignty.
The presidential election on 9 August is not the main domestic political event in Belarus in the summer of 2020. We are seeing the emergence and development of a civil society, people who stand for dignity and rights. That is much more meaningful.