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Belarus protests pose a threat to Lukashenko

August 10, 2020

The Belarus election was a farce, and the dictator's reelection was rigged — but it was also a victory for civil society, DW's Christian F. Trippe writes, adding that time could be up for President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus protest
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Gapon

Dictators live through lies. They censor the media, control the communications of citizens in the countries they rule over and systematically rig elections.

Alexander Lukashenko assumed control of Belarus in 1994, shortly after the country became independent in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. For 26 years, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist. Though he was officially declared the winner of Sunday's election — with 80% of the votes — it remains to be seen how much longer he will be in power.

Nobody in Belarus or abroad has ever believed the official results of an election in the country. This time, Belarusians are rising up against their leader. They have taken to the streets in the thousands to protest the rigged election.

Read moreBelarus election: Germany threatens sanctions over Lukashenko's controversial win

Loss of confidence

Over the years, Lukashenko has developed a vast security apparatus: Belarus has one of the tightest systems of repression in the world: If the president's rule survives the present protests, it might be thanks to rubber bullets, water cannon, truncheons and censorship.

Christian F. Trippe
Christian F. Trippe heads DW's Eastern Europe programsImage: DW

But the calls for regime change in Belarus are unlikely to be silenced. Even the officers and commanders of the country's security and defense organs seem to have understood that the situation cannot go on as it is. Their supreme commander, who was particularly nervous and aggressive during the election campaign, seems to be losing his grip and intuition.

Lukashenko's attitude toward the coronavirus appears to have brought about this turn of events. As the pandemic brought most of the world to a standstill, Lukashenko — a former collective farm director who had always presented himself as an authoritarian-but-caring leader — no longer seemed to care about the people of his country. He denied the significance of COVID-19, his hubris got the better of him, and he contracted the virus himself.

People who had appreciated his paternalistic style lost their respect for their newly naked emperor; those who had been scared of him lost their fear. 

International challenges

EU officials will have to rethink their policy on sanctions against Belarus in order to hold accountable the authorities responsible for rigging the elections and ordering brutal attacks on the opposition. The European Union will also have to reach out much more to Belarusian civil society, which is oriented toward the EU and its allies.

Unfortunately, Russia has the upper hand when it comes to influencing the economy, security policy and politics of its small neighbor. Lukashenko may have been an awkward partner for the Kremlin, but he has been a manageable one. Conditions in Russia seemed pretty good when compared with the situation in Belarus. But what would happen if Lukashenko were no longer in the presidential palace in Minsk — if he were replaced by somebody more pro-EU, as he should be?

Russian officials are probably already drawing up plans for the army and the secret services should Lukashenko be overthrown. And the tragic irony is that this dictator, who has lied to his country for 26 years, might be proved right on at least one point: He warned during the election campaign that Belarus could end up losing its independence and be absorbed by Russia.

Upheaval from within

The people of Belarus have put aside their fears to rise up against repression and the surveillance state. Lukashenko's main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and her supporters have thus achieved something that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago: They presented an alternative to the president's authoritarian model, and they did this from the grassroots, without any help of influence from abroad.

Thus, they belied the claims that uprisings in the former Soviet sphere are always manipulated by foreign agents.

This is surely a source of some concern to Moscow.