But the people of Belarus have changed. A vibrant popular movement has unfolded since May, culminating in a rally outside Minsk recently that drew a crowd of 60,000, the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike in previous elections, the grass roots in Belarus is being knit together with skillful use of social media, chiefly Telegram, the encrypted platform allowing people to share information beyond state control. The crowds are coming from all walks of life, being led by a younger generation, which has organized the huge turnouts in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Lukashenko, with his repressive KGB security service and all the levers of power, may well win reelection by force and coercion. But events in recent weeks suggest his authority is in terminal decay. He has resorted to pathetic, shopworn tactics such as declaring that a city square needs “repairs” and must be closed on the eve of an opposition rally.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has stepped forward as the charismatic voice of the opposition. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber, helped ignite the summer of protest when he summoned thousands of people to sign ballot petitions under an anti-corruption slogan of “Stop the cockroach.” Predictably, the police state moved against him. Mr. Tikhanovsky was charged June 11 with violating public order and assaulting police at a rally to collect signatures. But Ms. Tikhanovskaya, a political novice, managed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.
In recent weeks, she has become a rising political star. At the big rally outside Minsk recently, holding a bouquet of flowers in her left hand and punching the air with her right, she called for freeing political prisoners and re-running the election, free and fair. The people of Belarus, she declared, “do not want to live in misery anymore, they want to live in a free country where they do not grab people in the street, put them into a police van and then send them to jail for an invented reason.” She has been joined by two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery, fled Belarus for Moscow out of fear of being arrested after being ousted from the election, and Maria Kolesnikova, part of the campaign of Viktor Babariko, who was stopped from registering after being arrested on charges of bribery.
Mr. Lukashenko responded by saying “society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.” The burden of the presidency would cause her to “collapse, poor thing,” he said.
These are momentous days for Belarus. A new generation is on the rise. The real poor thing is Mr. Lukashenko, who cannot grasp what is taking place in his own country.