Vladimir Kobets is executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security. David J. Kramer, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, is director of the European and Eurasian studies program at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
On Wednesday, Belarusan authorities announced a criminal investigation against 33 employees of Wagner PMC, a Russian security contractor involved in nefarious activities in places such as Ukraine, Syria and Libya. A unit of the Belarusan KGB — yes, they still call it the KGB — arrested the Russians in a sanatorium near Minsk, the Belarusan capital. Belarusan authorities claim that 170 other militants are still at large across the country. The Kremlin strongly denied the Belarusan accounts.
Still, post-Soviet Russia does have a long history of meddling in Belarusan affairs, and circumstances have recently conspired to make Lukashenko vulnerable. He has dismissed the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving the country’s businesses wide open and citizens unmasked even as polls show that an overwhelming majority would prefer decisive action against the virus. The economy, suffering from decades of mismanagement, is on the verge of collapse.
All this helps to explain why the opposition’s latest rallies have been drawing huge crowds. Among the Belarusan people, Lukashenko’s act is getting old, and people are fed up with his 26 years of authoritarian rule. This is especially true among the younger generation. Those in their late teens and 20s want change, and they are not shy about calling for it. They want to live in a democratic and free country. They see integration with Europe, despite all its challenges, as their preferred orientation, not Russia. And they rely on social media, rather than official information sources, for news about what’s happening in the country.
Lukashenko is feeling the heat and has pulled familiar tricks in the lead-up to the election. Three opposition candidates were excluded from running. Two of them — blogger and protest leader Sergei Tikhanovsky and banker Viktor Babariko — were thrown in jail on spurious charges.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took her husband’s place, persevering in the fight to register as a presidential candidate. She has emerged as the chief rival to Lukashenko despite the president’s absurd arguments that under the country’s constitution the presidency is meant for a man, not a woman.
The wives of other men denied registration as candidates have rallied around Tikhanovskaya and become a political force in the country. Despite concern about the pandemic, these women are generating unprecedented turnout for preelection rallies across the country.
Crowds in the thousands are showing up even in small provincial towns with no history of protests. That Tikhanovskaya is a language teacher, not a politician, is a big draw for voters. If she wins, she has pledged to hold new, fair and free elections within six months.
The official media are playing up the alleged Russian plot as evidence that Moscow is waiting to strip Belarus of its independence if Lukashenko doesn’t win. That can’t be entirely discounted. Yet while Belarusans are well-advised to remain wary of the Kremlin, they should also keep in mind that their current dire condition is the result of Lukashenko’s incompetent and brutal leadership.
It is Lukashenko, after all, who left the country vulnerable to Russian pressure and dependence, including when he signed a treaty in 1999 creating a “union state” with Russia. Lukashenko thought this treaty would ultimately enable him to become ruler of a united Belarus-Russia state. Instead, it remains the Kremlin’s main instrument for potentially bringing the country under Moscow’s direct control.
Lukashenko’s dictatorship is the main reason his country’s relations with the West have stayed in a deep freeze for decades. Despite a recent warming in ties with the West that included an ill-advised visit to Minsk on Feb. 1 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Western leaders should have no illusions. Lukashenko is neither a friend nor the solution to his country’s problems. Should Lukashenko “win” — the most likely scenario, given his long history of rigging elections — the West should push for an end to the government’s repression and urge a start to a national dialogue with the opposition and civil society.
In a free and fair election, Belarusans would likely vote for a change in leadership and a shift in their country’s orientation toward the West. Neither Lukashenko nor Moscow wants that to happen. The stakes are high, and Western leaders should make clear that they stand for a free and fair process and with the people of Belarus, no matter what.