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Belarus: Why this time is (not) different

During his 26 year long rule, Lukashenka has centralised the power structure around himself. This could be why there has been little incentive from the elites in Belarus to remove him so far.

August 17, 2020 - Alexander Lanoszka - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Independence square in Minsk. A site of both anti and pro-Lukashenka demonstrations in the last few days. Photo: Dennis Jarvis flickr.com

There is no doubt that recent scenes in Belarus are as unprecedented as they are shocking. Not long after the official results of the presidential election earlier this month, many Belarusian citizens took to the streets to protest Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s supposed ‘victory’. Although demonstrators were quickly met with repression by state forces, many observers have suggested that Lukashenka’s autocratic rule may finally be coming to an end after twenty six years.

The end of an autocracy is something that is inherently difficult to predict. Every historical account of revolution emphasises its contingent nature, as nothing is inevitable. After all, dictators take measures to defend their power, whilst citizens often hide their true beliefs about the authoritarian regime in order to avoid recrimination.

One reason for optimism regarding the current situation in Belarus is the scale and spread of the protests. Certainly, this is a clear sign that the opposition is much stronger than once thought. The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, appears to have generated an unprecedented level of support against Lukashenka’s rule. Social media has also proved effective in spreading information about the regime’s abuses and helping its opponents coordinate their protests. Workers at major state-owned enterprises not only have expressed their support for Tsikhanouskaya but also have participated in strikes. Most encouraging is the size of the protests in Minsk and other cities this past weekend. The Lukashenka regime has never been this vulnerable.

Nevertheless, there is also sufficient cause for pessimism. Consider the historical record of leadership changes in dictatorships. One major study finds that only about a fifth of these changes occurred due to a popular uprising or general public pressure for new leadership. The vast majority of dictators have found their rule cut short as a result of intrigues pursued by regime insiders, such as members of the dictator’s inner circle, government figures or other officials within the repressive state system. Of course, dictatorships in more recent times have proven vulnerable to mass protests thanks in part to social media. However, insider-led plots remain the primary reason for their overthrow.

Currently, Lukashenka’s inner circle has little reason to abandon him. Within the country the elite structure has long been tightly centralised around the president. In June, as if anticipating a contentious election, Lukashenka reshuffled his cabinet and got rid of ministers who appeared supportive of liberalisation and market reforms. He elevated Raman Halouchanka to the role of prime minister and Ivan Tertel to head the State Control Commitment. Halouchanka previously worked in the defence sector whilst Tertel had served as the deputy head of the KGB. Lukashenka’s eldest son, Viktar, continues to serve as his National Security Advisor. It would be surprising if any of these individuals would launch a coup d’état against the Belarusian president.

Belarusian security forces have largely done what they have been tasked to do. There have been a few instances of police units lowering their shields when faced with protesters, as well as soldiers renouncing their positions in the military. In Lida, a town of 100,000, video footage showed police cars honking in support of demonstrators. It remains to be seen whether such fissures widen. Yet the number of arrested citizens is still in the thousands, with many prisons and detention centers already at capacity. Ghastly footage has revealed detainees lying face down on the ground whilst under guard. Videos show police striking their truncheons against honking cars, eager to silence any sign of protest. At least two protesters have already died as a result of ongoing events, whilst many more have been injured by rubber bullets or physical blows meted out by police officers. Elite special forces have also been deployed to the country’s streets in order to suppress the protests. Tsikhanouskaya appeared to have been evacuated from Belarus to Lithuania shortly after making a video—almost certainly under duress—at the Central Election Committee headquarters in Minsk.

So far, there have not been any major defections by regime insiders or from its security forces and none look imminent. The Belarusian army is largely made up of conscripts. Those in the lower ranks may indeed be sympathetic to the opposition and its ambition for political change. Military defections often reflect soldiers’ beliefs about the strength of a regime. Strong regimes can quickly become weak if soldiers see that the opposition enjoys much more support than previously thought. Nevertheless, the top and middle ranks of the military will probably remain loyal to Lukashenka, while the majority of those under them will continue to follow orders.

Russian infiltration of the military may also hinder the expression of anti-government sentiments among the ranks. Although the Kremlin increasingly sees the Belarusian leader as an irritant, it is unlikely to take active measures to replace him. If Lukashenka restores order, he might end up aligning himself even closer to Russia. This would help him to mitigate the effect of any sanctions levied against him as punishment for his brutal crackdown.

Even if Lukashenka survives the electoral fallout (admittedly, that remains a big question), his leadership must come to terms with the fact that it has clearly lost popular legitimacy. Lukashenka now relies on brute force to retain control with little pretence. The economy is contracting while public debt is growing. The country’s industrial output is falling alongside exports as a whole. Lukashenka’s casual dismissal of the public health threat posed by COVID-19 simply provided new evidence as to how divorced his government has become from the needs of ordinary citizens.

Lukashenka and his government will subsequently face great difficulty if they wish to regain the confidence of Belarusian citizens. Indeed, even a successor government with popular legitimacy would encounter immense difficulties. How much longer Lukashena can hold onto power despite such challenges remains to be seen. His speech at a pro-government rally on 15 August was lackluster and rumors abound of him seeking some sort of exit. Anything is possible, but in the event that change does take place, it will likely happen behind closed doors within elite circles than by way of the streets. Accordingly, the country’s future may ultimately be decided by its existing political and military leaders, as they wonder whether or not they are best served by the current Lukashenka regime.

Alexander Lanoszka is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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