No one, including the growing internal opposition in Belarus, doubted that the country’s long-lived dictator Alexander Lukashenko would formally win a sixth presidential term in the 9 August 2020 elections. Many people in Belarus want change, but he himself is not ready to go.
He seemed unable to find inspiration from the paths chosen by leaders in other member states of the Russian-led Eurasian Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, ruled Kazakhstan with a firm fist for 29 years. He stepped down in 2019, appointing Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as his formal successor, only to take up the post of Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan and remain the country’s de facto leader. His daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, meanwhile, served as Chair of Kazakhstan’s Senate for more than a year after her father’s resignation.
In principle, a similar scenario could have satisfied Lukashenko but, apparently, did not. He likely has insufficient trust in the power structures around him and is reluctant to let someone else succeed him, even if only as a front. Not to speak of the unlikeliness of Minsk being renamed Alyaksandr(grad), just as Kazakhstan’s capital Astana suddenly became Nur-Sultan. Russia’s Putin-Medvedev-Putin trick of 2008-2012 would also not work as Lukashenko does not have his own Medvedev and a collection of trusted siloviki, oligarchs and old friends (a “collective Lukashenko”) to carry off such a scheme.
More recently, Putin changed Russia’s Constitution to secure his lifetime right to rule the country. The referendum of 1 July 2020 was unnecessary in a legal sense, as the State Duma could have rubber-stamped the amendments, but it served to create an illusionary aura of legitimacy and popular support. But Lukashenko did not like this idea either, perhaps because it was already too late to bring about, or perhaps because he wished to distance himself from the Russian scenario and be elected on his own merit without grand-scale manipulation. However, he so obviously and grossly underestimated the opposition and the mood of the Belarusian people that, in the end, he had to resort to even more blatant manipulation and threats than the Kremlin.
A scenario like Armenia’s ‘coloured revolution’ of 2018, which was neither anti-Kremlin nor pro-Western, could have served Belarus in the best possible way. Russia had no reason to intervene in Armenia to bring down the new popular leadership or to invade militarily. However, Belarus is in a different geopolitical situation than Armenia, Russia’s “Caucasian Prisoner”. Belarus neighbours the EU and NATO, as well as Ukraine and the likelihood of contamination with pro-Western ideals is significantly higher. This consideration may well have been in both Putin’s and Lukashenko’s minds.
So Lukashenko decided to offer his people no change at all, not even nullifying and restarting the number of his presidential terms. His manipulation and threats blatantly crossed any reasonable threshold of acceptability. Even the theatrical arrest of GRU-sponsored Wagner-group mercenaries near Minsk—an attempt to show Lukashenko’s patriotism and the imminent Russian threat that he claimed to resist—impressed nobody, including the Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov. The main issue now is whether the progressive Belarusians demanding change will continue their peaceful mass protests all over the country. In that case, it is unclear whether Lukashenko would resort to the use of real force, as he might fear that (at least part of) the country’s security forces and the military would join the people. That situation, even with Russia trying to support Lukashenko, could lead to a Nicolae Ceauşescu-type ending.
For now, Lukashenko remains isolated from all directions: the West, Russia and at least the protesters among his own people. His only ‘friends’, to the extent that he can trust them, are the security structures and the military. Lukashenko undoubtedly also follows the protests in Russia that are concentrated in Khabarovsk. There, too, Russia seems to be guided by the old Soviet tactics of ‘letting the steam off’ to prevent the situation from coming to a boil. The Belarusian dictator probably hopes that the protests in his country will likewise simply and gradually cease. But these hopes may fail to materialise if Russia decides that the time has come to (help) install a more convenient leader in Minsk. Or, if the situation gets out of control, to invade the country and allow Russia’s ground and other troops to move closer to NATO’s borders in Central Europe.
Lukashenko faces his most dangerous political period ever. He will soon be at Putin’s mercy and will probably have to choose between his own future as president and what is left of his country’s sovereignty. Then we will see the proof of his patriotism and support for the independence of Belarus.