Here’s why Belarus’s president since 1994 will probably be elected for a sixth term — and what this tells us about the survival of autocratic regimes.
Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime faces internal pressure
One thing is different in 2020: For the first time in the history of independent Belarus, there are signs of citizens becoming politicized from below. A series of street protests against Lukashenko became known as the Slipper Revolution. Besides Minsk, the capital, these protests have spread to at least 35 other regional centers.
A popular meme — “Sasha3%” — has proliferated, reflecting an opinion poll by independent Belarusan media that put Lukashenko’s electoral rating at about 3 percent.
But Lukashenko had ways to fight back. He banned polling by the Belarusan media, which would avoid the release of additional negative polls, and arrested two candidates with the potential to reach a broad audience — a blogger named Siarhei Tsikhanouski and the former head of Russia-owned Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka.
Since May, the Viasna human rights group has documented allegations of 1,259 politically motivated repressions of citizens. Belarus courts handed down short prison terms for 211 people and fined 336 more.
In the weeks before the election, the Belarusan opposition united around a housewife with no political experience. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of imprisoned blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, ended up participating in the election in support of her husband. Tsikhanouskaya describes herself as lacking presidential ambitions, openly saying that she doesn’t intend to stay in office. She has attracted large crowds at rallies across the country, her popularity mounting on the chance to vote Lukashenko out.
The Belarusan government, however, managed to terminate Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign early by scheduling concerts on all allotted campaign sites in Minsk. Officials in Minsk also accused Tsikhanouskaya of planning to devalue the official election results of the vote and organize mass riots through the creation of the Internet platform “Voice,” designed for an alternative vote count to counter any falsification of the election results. The Central Election Commission of Belarus deemed the Voice illegal.
Is Belarus heading toward geopolitical isolation?
Moving forward, Belarus may find itself increasingly isolated. For the first time, Lukashenko has accused Russia of election meddling and arrested a major challenger, Viktar Babaryka, former head of Russia-owned Belgazprombank, on corruption charges — a move that drew criticism from Western politicians and human rights activists. Lukashenko also detained 33 Russian mercenaries and accused them of plotting a terrorist attack ahead of Sunday’s vote.
In the East, Lukashenko has been pressured to join with Russia in a “unified state” in exchange for an oil deal. In the West, Lukashenko has looked to restore ties with the United States after a 12-year freeze and pursue a closer economic relationship with the European Union, but these efforts appear to have stalled. Both the E.U. and the United States condemned the pre-election arrests, calling for open democracy and threatening to impose sanctions on the Lukashenko regime.
This election will have no outside observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the first time. The Belarusan government failed to extend an OSCE invitation in time, calling the delay a result of the covid-19 pandemic.
The new wave of arrests suggests that Minsk’s relationship with the West may deteriorate further after the elections. But Belarus may be able to limit the negative responses from the West regarding arrests of opposition activists or falsification of election results by silencing domestic critics and discouraging mass protests before the election, effectively minimizing the need for brutal crackdowns on the opposition.
What does this tell us about survival of autocracies?
Researchers at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center looked at authoritarian regimes in 137 countries, and it found that the longevity of a regime is determined by the ability of the ruling elite to strike a balance between the three pillars of stability — legitimation, repression and co-optation.
After 26 years in power, Lukashenko increasingly relies on Belarus law enforcement agencies to repress any opposition. His eldest son, Viktor Lukashenko, serves as the national security adviser; Raman Galouchanka, the newly appointed prime minister, has experience in the defense sector; and Ihar Siargeenka, the new head of the presidential administration, is a former first deputy chairman of the KGB.
Belarusan authorities have been exercising complete control over the political landscape between elections by undermining political and social opposition, even while the chances of the opposition defeating Lukashenko in a real competition remained minuscule. Moreover, the government has restricted state media and, increasingly, Internet access.
By removing the opposition, Lukashenko has avoided potential political opportunities for change and ensured himself a longer political life span — elections have little meaning in Belarus. Concurrently, by detaining and imprisoning opposition leaders, Lukashenko has also demonstrated that he is willing to use force to stay in power.
Tatsiana Kulakevich is a permanent instructor of quantitative research methods at the University of South Florida School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and research fellow at the USF Institute on Russia.