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After ruling the former Soviet state for most of its independent history, Lukashenko sees the walls closing in around him. The peaceful demonstrations showcased the vibrant civil society of Belarus, drawing in a cross-section of the country, from women to students to farmers to workers from myriad state-owned enterprises who joined a general strike.
“The strikes at state-owned factories indicate the crumbling of bedrock support from Lukashenko’s traditional base,” reported my colleague Robyn Dixon. “Even workers at Belteleradiocompany, state TV and radio, walked off their jobs demanding the resignation of the head of the Central Elections Commission, the release of political prisoners, and new free and fair elections.”
On Monday, Lukashenko went to a major tractor factory in Minsk in a bid to rally support from industrial workers. He was greeted with jeers and calls to “leave” the political stage, a humiliating scene that was broadcast live on state television. “You are talking about unfair elections and want to have fair elections?” Lukashenko asked the crowd of workers, who shouted “Yes!” in response. “I am answering your question,” he cried out in anger. “We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”
Quite a moment. Lukashenko flies by helicopter to the MKTZ plant in Minsk, giving a speech to what he must have assumed was a friendly audience of industrial workers. Instead, the crowd erupts with “Ukhodi” — “Leave!” #Belarus pic.twitter.com/08TVpwnJvF— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) August 17, 2020
Hours later, he appeared to reverse course, suggesting that he would be open to new elections after his government pushes through constitutional revisions that would redistribute its powers. Lukashenko said he wasn’t considering such measures because of street protests, yet his comments followed the release of a video message from the charismatic opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania last week. She urged the creation of a legal mechanism to hold new elections and volunteered to be an interim leader to shepherd a transition.
Lukashenko, ensconced in power since 1994, is unlikely to leave so easily. But he’s running out of avenues of support. Members of the security forces have posted videos of themselves on social media tossing away their uniforms in disgust over attacks on demonstrators. At least one ambassador, Minsk’s envoy to Slovakia, has publicly voiced support for the protests. The prospect of a Russian military intervention to buttress Lukashenko’s rule, which was rumored in recent days, is rather slim. The Belarusian president hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and the latter won’t be keen on turning Belarus into another Ukraine.
“The Kremlin is not wedded to Lukashenko: it has had enough of him,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It cannot, however, allow Belarus to follow the path of Ukraine and become another anti-Russian, NATO-leaning bulwark on its borders, and much closer to Moscow. Nor can it allow a rebellion leading to a bloodbath.”
“It’s unclear how Russia would behave, but I would say true military-style occupation would be overwhelmingly costly in these circumstances because Belarus isn’t Crimea,” Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy, told my colleague Isabelle Khurshudyan. “Belarusans do not want to be part of Russia or occupied by Russia, so there would be a lot of blood. And trying to reinforce authorities that are domestically weak is also a tough sell.”
Thousands of miles away, the Trump administration has only issued perfunctory statements over the crisis. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States, in coordination with European Union partners, would work to help “the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom.”
The scenes in Belarus play awkwardly for President Trump, an admirer of autocrats and skeptic of people-power uprisings such as those seen during the Arab Spring. The president is also mired in a domestic battle over the integrity of the upcoming November election, which he contends (with no evidence) is vulnerable to fraud thanks to many voters opting to vote by mail rather than risk polling stations in the middle of a global pandemic. His opponents, meanwhile, are up in arms against the Trump-appointed postmaster general. They fear the administration’s recent policies will impair, perhaps deliberately, the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to efficiently deliver and receive ballots.
“The last thing Trump wants to do is praise ordinary citizens mobilizing against an illiberal despot about a rigged election,” quipped PostEverything’s Daniel W. Drezner.
“Trump is already working to convince the public that the election results can’t be trusted,” wrote Nils Gilman in the American Interest. “He’s started this campaign already by claiming that voting by mail will lead to voter fraud, a claim his own intelligence officials have consistently rejected.”
Gilman noted that Election Day in the United States is bound to turn into an “election season,” with uncertainty over the ballot count extending weeks after the vote.
Thousands of Belarusians are marching toward the Okrestina detention centre. The goals are purely peaceful: to let doctors assess detained, let media see the conditions and let people know they are not forgotten. #Belarus #Minsk pic.twitter.com/nqNsZjzACn— Belarus Free Theatre (@BFreeTheatre) August 17, 2020
Current polls suggest that Trump will lose the popular vote by a bigger margin than in 2016. But the president has repeatedly indicated that he may not accept the result should he decide it’s unfair. And the vagaries of the United States’ archaic election model may create the circumstances for a fraught legal battle skewed by the White House’s executive authority.
“Belarus seems far away, but it is becoming increasingly, uncomfortably close,” wrote Julia Ioffe in GQ. “Trump, enabled by his attorney general and Republicans in Congress, is still striving to be like the authoritarians he admires. Despite our traditions, laws, and institutions, he has been successful to an alarming degree in an unfathomably short amount of time.”
“Just as Trump is already preparing to do, Lukashenko was counting on the support of his cronies among local election officials, police and Russia,” Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. That support for Lukashenko is looking all the more tenuous as protests mount.
“As Americans think ahead to November,” Snyder added, “we should learn from people who have taken risks for democracy, in circumstances more challenging than our own.”