Lukashenko had a five-year head start. After coming to power in a free election in the mid-1990s, he succeeded in dismantling democracy by the end of that decade. His government silenced independent media outlets and cleansed the opposition from parliament. The constitution was altered to expand presidential powers. Elections became prearranged rituals. And Lukashenko’s political rivals — including the former interior minister and the former chairman of the central electoral commission — were allegedly murdered by government-sponsored death squads.
For a while, in the late 1990s, beleaguered opposition leaders from Belarus traveled to Moscow for a taste of freedom, appearing on Russian television and meeting with like-minded democrats. Dozens of lawmakers boycotted the Belarusan dictator’s address to the Russian parliament in October 1999. One of them warned of a “dangerous precedent” for Russia itself — a concern that soon proved justified.
From the early days of his rule, Putin has followed his neighbor’s playbook down to the last detail, even starting with national symbols. Lukashenko had restored the Soviet-era emblem and flag; Putin brought back Stalin’s national anthem. For dictators in our part of the world, controlling historical memory is no less important than controlling elections.
What Putin did next — from shutting down private TV networks to taming parliament and the courts — followed a familiar pattern. Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and Putin’s most prominent opponent, described this process early on as the “Lukashization of Russia.” In 2015, Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow just as Lukashenko’s rivals had been in Minsk years earlier. To complete the parallel, this summer Putin held a sham plebiscite to waive constitutional term limits for the presidency, effectively allowing himself to rule for life — mirroring Lukashenko’s move nearly two decades ago.
This year, things went off-script for the Belarusan strongman for the first time. The 2020 presidential election began in the usual fashion, with tight government control over the media, disqualification of most opposition candidates and large-scale ballot fraud. Officials announced 80 percent for Lukashenko — the same figure he has scored in every vote since 1994.
This time, however, something had changed. “Even in 2010, there was still some support [for Lukashenko]; … because there were disputes with my relatives and with friends and with neighbors,” said Natalia Radina, editor of the opposition website Charter ’97. “Not any longer. There is a consensus in society that everyone has had enough and that he must go. Not just among ordinary folks, but also among the elites, businesspeople and the military.”
The opposition rally in Minsk on Aug. 16 was the largest ever recorded: Some 200,000 people defied the official ban and astounding police brutality of the previous days to demand Lukashenko’s resignation. Similar rallies took place all over the country. There have been reports of police officers, state television journalists and senior government officials resigning their posts in solidarity with the protesters. Perhaps most ominously, workers in Minsk’s largest factories — long considered the regime’s most loyal supporters — went on strike in support of the opposition’s demand for new elections. Lukashenko’s appearance at a tractor factory where he was openly jeered by workers recalled Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s final days.
For Putin, the stakes could not be higher. The fall of Lukashenko’s regime would mean much more than a geopolitical setback or the loss of a reliable ally. Given the inescapable parallels between the two systems, what is happening in Minsk today hints at what may unfold on the streets of Russian cities in 2024, when the next presidential election is due. The ongoing protests in Russia’s Far East and the collapse of public confidence in Putin — support for him is down to 23 percent — are clear warning signs.
Putin could send his military into Belarus — but it’s a risky option. A new military escapade at the center of Europe could mean both a public backlash in Russia and even stricter sanctions from the world’s democracies. Contradicting Lukashenko’s previous announcement that Putin has offered “security assistance,” a Kremlin spokesman said “there’s currently no such need.”
As often with anti-authoritarian uprisings, international opinion matters. There have been encouragingly strong statements on non-recognition of Lukashenko’s “election” from both sides of the Atlantic, notably from the European Union, Canada and Britain. This position must hold firm — both for Belarus today, and as a precedent for Russia in 2024 if Putin runs again in violation of the term limit. The main movers are undoubtedly the citizens on the streets who are tired of authoritarian rule, but they should be able to count on support and solidarity from the free world. In the 21st century, even two dictatorships in Europe are two too many.