Is the Belarusian dictatorship doomed?


When he ran for president of Belarus in 2020, Viktor Babariko, a middle-of-the-road successful banker who pledged to bring democracy, separation of powers and term limits after nearly three decades of Alexander Lukashenko’s autocracy, was leading in the polls, The Washington Post reports:

Mr. Babariko was summarily arrested before the vote to prevent him from campaigning and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison on trumped-up charges of bribery. Now, he and other prominent political prisoners have vanished….As of May 18, Viasna has identified 1,497 political prisoners in Belarus, and the true total is likely higher. 

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tells Yahoo News (below) that she believes free and fair elections will not be possible under current President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and is closely allied with Russia.

Amid rumors that Lukashenko is seriously ill, Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, told Reuters that the opposition was working on a joint action plan “with democratic forces” for “when something happens.”

Lukashenko’s departure cannot come soon enough. It would end nearly three decades of repressive rule and open the possibility for a more democratic future for Belarus, say Eric S. Edelman, Vlad Kobets and David J. Kramer.* This would end the nightmare for millions of Belarusians, many of whom protested his theft of the 2020 presidential election, they write for The Bulwark:

  • As reports of Lukashenko’s hospitalization surfaced, news came that Belarusian blogger and political prisoner Mikalai Klimovich died in custody at a penal colony in Belarus’s Vitsebsk region. Thousands of others have been imprisoned for their protest against Lukashenko’s continued rule or their news coverage of his illegitimate reign.
  • Roman Protasevich, a journalist whose flight over Belarusian territory Lukashenko forced down in 2021, was sentenced to eight years in prison for “slandering” Lukashenko. Another blogger, Igor Losik, who also contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, suffers in a Belarusian prison, as does Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ales Bialiatski, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on absurd smuggling charges.

According to Viacorka (right), one of the National Endowment for Democracy’s celebrated 30under30 generation of activists, the opposition is banking on increased support as a result of growing dissatisfaction with the president’s stance on Russia and his backing of its military campaign in Ukraine. However, there are concerns over what could happen in Belarus if the rumours are true.

“We wish to have peaceful, non-violent changes but we should be ready for any eventuality,” Viacorka tells The Monocle Minute. “The key unknowns are what Russia plans to do, how to stop it from interfering and how to prevent a possible takeover.”

The EU should also be making contingency plans. A democratic and stable Belarus is in the interest of the EU, too, analyst Craig Turp-Balazs writes for Emerging Europe:

  • It should at the very least ensure that lines of communication with the Belarusian armed forces, senior diplomats and officials are in place, along with public statements of support for the territorial integrity of the country.
  • Then should come incentives for a peaceful, democratic transition of power. Political prisoners should be released in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions, with assurances that others would be lifted once a free and fair election to choose Lukashenko’s successor had been held.

They share a common ideology and vision of totalitarian power yet reportedly, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko hate each other, according to a new @ZDFinfo documentary, Undercover in Belarus,from Pierre Chabert and Emilie Lob, filmed undercover in Belarus in the weeks up to and just after the invasion of Ukraine (above). As popular opposition in Belarus and the war in Ukraine force them closer and closer together, it examines the relationship between these two men, looks back at Lukashenko’s rise to power and hears from some of the protestors brave enough to oppose him.

*Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. Vlad Kobets is executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security. David J. Kramer is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration.

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