In a surprise ceremony on Wednesday, embattled President Alyaksandr Lukashenko was reportedly sworn in for a sixth term after Belarus’s contested elections in August. Opposition leaders are calling the unannounced ceremony a “thieves’ meeting” and a “farce” and are urging condemnation of the action.
Victoria Martinchik, a 21-year-old attorney in Belarus, is fed up with years of authoritarian rule under Lukashenko. So she and family members have joined tens of thousands of their fellow Belarusians to protest what they consider to be a blatantly rigged August 9 presidential election.
Belarusian political activists face a difficult situation, caught between a ruthless dictator and a potential Western takeover of their country.
“We are tired of enduring this injustice,” Martinchik says in a phone interview from Minsk, Belarus’s capital city. For three days, “riot police threw grenades at us during the protests, beat people, and simply killed us.”
For years, Lukashenko angered Belarusians by mismanaging the economy and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Conn Hallinan, an old friend of mine who works as a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus.
“The demonstrations in the streets are genuine, not foreign-inspired, as claimed by Lukashenko,” says Hallinan in a phone interview. “But Western leaders certainly want to take advantage of the situation to expand their interests.”
Only a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, President Bill Clinton promised Europe “prosperity and security” through the expansion of NATO. In reality, Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics got impoverishment, kleptocratic ruling elites, and in some cases, neo-fascist governments.
The United States and other foreign powers engineered “color revolutions” in these countries, including an “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and “Rose Revolution” in Georgia. These were seen as steps toward breaking alliances with Russia and expanding Western economic, political, and military dominance.
Lukashenko was an outlier in that he sought to maintain friendly ties with Russia, even signing a pact aimed at eventually reunifying the two countries. State-owned industries still dominate the Belarusian economy. And while these industries provided much needed blue-collar jobs, profits often trickled up to Lukashenko and his capitalist cronies.
Belarus developed a thriving computer-game and software industry that provided jobs for middle income professionals. The government made a tacit agreement with this sector: if they stayed out of politics, they could enjoy relative economic prosperity.
But, for most Belarusians, the new state-capitalist system has meant a drop in their standard of living, particularly since the pandemic. Unemployment continues to climb, and the country’s GDP is expected to shrink by 3.4 percent this year.
The final straw came when Lukashenko joined other authoritarian leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic. Lukashenko even suggested that the virus could be eliminated with saunas and vodka.
“Go to the sauna,” he advised his compatriots. “When you come out of the sauna, not only wash your hands, but also inside [with] 100 grams [of vodka].”
During the election in August, Lukashenko claimed to receive more than 80 percent of the vote, a figure most Belarusians are skeptical of. Rival presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who received 10 percent of the official vote, claims she won a majority.
Tikhanovskaya, who ran as an independent, and other opposition leaders in several parties receive support from Western countries and media as heroic “defenders of democracy.” But their shared political platform, known as the “Reanimation Reform Package for Belarus” is so conservative it could have been written by the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank.
“The labour market is over-regulated,” states the joint reform package, referring to laws that protect workers’ rights. “The difficulties of hiring and firing workers, the presence of a large number of administrative restrictions, block the modernization of the labor market.”
The party calls for creating a favorable business climate to encourage multinational corporate investment. That includes fully or partially privatizing state-owned enterprises and vastly reducing economic ties with Russia.
Belarusians, most of whom speak Russian, don’t harbor the anti-Russian nationalism of other former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine.
But if the opposition parties were to seize power in Belarus, European countries such as Poland and Lithuania would exert tremendous pressure on Belarus to break with Russia and join NATO.
It’s not entirely clear whether Trump is making a conscious decision or is just ignorant. “I don’t think Trump knows where Belarus is,” says Hallinan.
As the crisis continues, Lukashenko has sought support from Moscow, which officially is calling for a dialogue between the government and opposition. So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin is backing Lukashenko as the leader who will keep Belarus out of the Western camp and maintain friendly ties with Russia.
If the opposition ousts Lukashenko, there is, I think, a real possibility of some sort of Russian intervention.
Leftist parties in Belarus and internationally have taken sharply different positions on the crisis. The Communist Party of Belarus, an orthodox Marxist-Leninist group with ideological origins in the USSR, sees the demonstrations as yet another color revolution.
The CPB points to the neo-liberal policies advocated by the major opposition parties and argues that, under Lukashenko, “the state has maintained a system of strong social guarantees for children, young families, the disabled, veterans, and people with low incomes.”
A Just World Party, which split from the CPB in 1996, opposes both Lukashenko and the pro-Western opposition. The Russian Socialist Movement, affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International, supports the Belarus demonstrations and denounces any Russian intervention.
Belarusian political activists face a difficult situation, caught between a ruthless dictator and a potential Western takeover of their country. Some ally with Lukashenko as a lesser evil. Others side with the demonstrators, arguing that breaking Lukashenko’s grip on power is necessary before progressive change can take place.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Belarusians continue to peacefully demonstrate every Sunday. The government continues to arrest dozens of activists in an effort to stop the protests. And though blue-collar strikes at factories—an early sign of popular support for the opposition, have stopped—Lukashenko continues, at least for now, to have support among workers in state-owned enterprises, and among the police, the military, and intelligence agencies.
Activists like Martinchik, despite the confusion and turmoil, remain hopeful.
“I fall asleep with tears and wake up with tears,” she says. “Yesterday, against all this background, it seemed that we were losing. But after all darkness comes light.”
Diammyra Cruz contributed reporting and research for this column. Foreign Correspondent appears every two weeks. Reese Erlich is an adjunct professor in International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.