The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can people power topple Europe’s ‘last dictator’?

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On Sunday, as they had the previous week, tens of thousands of protesters converged on Belarus’s capital, Minsk. They chanted calls for the resignation and even the arrest of the country’s long-ruling authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, two weeks after he claimed victory in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Authorities issued warnings against the mobilization in Minsk, but perhaps as many as 250,000 people from across the country marched in defiance, dwarfing smaller pro-regime rallies with crowds Lukashenko’s proxies reportedly coerced to attend. So far, the heavy-handedness of security forces — including reports of disappearances, beatings and torture — has only emboldened a fledgling protest movement that’s knitted together a vast cross-section of Belarusian society in their demands for just elections and an end to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

In neighboring Lithuania, which is hosting leading opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, some 35,000 sympathizers, including the U.S. ambassador, linked hands to form a human chain that spanned some 21 miles. Earlier in the weekend, Lukashenko had railed against supposed foreign meddling in his country and deployed troops to the western border, placing them on full combat readiness. But his concerns were far closer to home — on Sunday, as protesters massed near the presidential palace, footage emerged showing the 65-year-old post-Soviet strongman clutching a rifle as he entered his residence.

Momentum seems to be on the protesters’ side as pressure mounts on Lukashenko. His dubious claim of an “election victory with 80.1 percent of the vote has knocked holes in his legitimacy,” reported my colleague Robyn Dixon. “His regime’s future hangs on interlaced questions: how much violence it is willing to use to cling to power, how much staying power the protests have and whether Lukashenko can depend on help from Moscow.”

For the first time, Dixon added, Lukashenko’s regime is showing “signs of cracks from within: defections by some members of the security forces, strikes at state enterprises and state TV journalists who say they are tired of lying.”

International calls for action are also getting louder. E.U. officials have readied sanctions on Lukashenko and some of his allies for election fraud and violent crackdowns on dissent. They are urging Lukashenko to accede to a national dialogue to settle the crisis. President Trump, much to the chagrin of his domestic opponents, has taken a back seat and remained mostly silent about the situation. But the Trump administration’s second-ranking diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, is slated to meet Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania on Monday.

In neighboring Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky questioned Lukashenko’s reluctance to redo the election. “Let’s imagine that I am confident about myself, I am confident in the people’s vote, that I am a confident person. How can I calm everyone down?” Zelensky said in an interview with Euronews. “I would definitely say: ‘In one month there will be a new vote. And I am running for the new election. Whoever wants to run — go ahead!’”

Lukashenko rages against external threats, while hoping he can circle the wagons long enough to outlast the protests. “The opposition is hoping to maintain pressure through labor strikes and street protests, while the regime—besides begging [Russian President] Vladimir Putin for help—is deploying its motley crew of supporters,” wrote Dan Peleschuk in Slate. “The latter’s strategy,” he added, “revolves around Soviet-style admonitions to defend the state from supposed ruin.”

His opponents, instead, anchor their protest in the 21st century. Critical to their success and ability to mobilize has been the widespread use of Telegram, an encrypted messaging app through which they share news and plans for protests — and become part of a wave of uprisings around the world in which protesters managed to circumvent Internet blackouts and attempts by autocratic governments to stifle information.

What’s happening in Belarus “is just part of a global protest trend, only briefly interrupted by Covid-19,” Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times. “The past year has seen almost unprecedentedly large ­protests from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Minneapolis. We are reliving 1968, but bigger: an almost invariably peaceful street is replacing parliament as the main arena of opposition. The trend encompasses rich countries and poor ones, democracies and dictatorships.”

But it has its unique characteristics, too. The Belarusian protests are not — at least, not yet — akin to the pro-Western “color revolutions” that swept parts of the post-Soviet world in recent years. This is not a redux of Ukraine in 2014, where a revolt in Kyiv etched a fault line through Europe, pitting Moscow against Brussels and Washington.

“The Belarusian opposition wisely insists this is not a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the west,” Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian. He suggested that “realistically, a messy, negotiated transition to another, less autocratic leadership, as in Armenia [in 2018], is probably the best we can hope for in the near future – and with Lukashenko, things may get worse before they get better.”

Moscow’s tepid relationship with Lukashenko, who has sparred with the Kremlin in the past, may also help avert a serious conflagration. “They’re no longer wedded to Lukashenko, but what would an alternative to Lukashenko that supported their goals look like?” Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said to my colleagues. He said the Kremlin was “not passive at all in this, but they’re not sure how to do it and there are different considerations that pull in different directions.”

“For the moment it appears unlikely that Russia will intervene directly. Putin famously has no love for Lukashenko and, as of yet, there is no official Kremlin line on the protests,” wrote Christopher Hartwell, a fellow at the Polish think tank Center for Social and Economic Research. “So far Russian state TV has been covering the unrest in nightly broadcasts. In the longer term, Russia might be better served by a pluralistic Belarus that still sees its large neighbor as an ally.”

Read more:

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The crisis in Belarus echoes in Trump’s America

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