What was most remarkable about the campaign and the voting — evident to those in the cities and villages — is that a large swath of society abandoned Mr. Lukashenko and voted for the opposition led by the charismatic Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who attracted huge crowds on a promise to hold free and fair elections, free political prisoners (her husband, Sergei, is one) and end the age of dictatorship. Citizens have broken the fear barrier and want change, and the lively and effective use of social media was a sign of their deeper desire to move beyond Mr. Lukashenko’s regime of stagnation, paternalism and atrophy.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya probably won the election. But Mr. Lukashenko used his formidable state and security apparatus to falsify the outcome. In a sad note, shortly after the vote, Ms. Tikhanovskaya surfaced in Lithuania with her children. In a video statement, looking distressed, she indicated she left Belarus for their sake. “I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will begin to hate me,” she said. “But God forbid anyone face the choice I had.” While details are still unclear, it appears she was detained for several hours by the authorities. In a second video posted more than an hour after the first, Ms. Tikhanovskaya spoke in a monotone and appeared to be reading a prepared statement. She asked her supporters to stop protesting, and said, “The people of Belarus have made their choice.” It seems that they chose her — but Mr. Lukashenko could not face the truth. The video has all the markings of police-state coercion.
Further evidence of Mr. Lukashenko’s theft came after the election when the Internet in Belarus was switched off, and riot police flooded the streets. Does a leader who has just legitimately won 80 percent in an election need to kill the Internet and send truncheons flying? No. But Mr. Lukashenko does. In his crackdown over the past two days, a protester was killed in Minsk and scores were injured as police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. More than 2,000 people were detained for taking part in unsanctioned protests throughout the country. Citizens have vowed to carry on with strikes and demonstrations.
Mr. Lukashenko probably assumes he can weather this storm by cozying up to his soul mate, Russian President Vladimir Putin, at least for a while. But he cannot roll back the profound shift in sentiment among the 9.5 million people of Belarus. They have had enough. Sooner or later, they will win the new dawn they voted for in 2020.