All eyes on Belarus, where the dictator’s script has changed and people are pushing back

Supporters of Belarusan opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attend a rally in Minsk on Thursday ahead of the election on Aug. 9. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA-EFE)
Supporters of Belarusan opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attend a rally in Minsk on Thursday ahead of the election on Aug. 9. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA-EFE)

Suddenly, something is stirring in Belarus. After 26 years of rule, “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko, is facing protests and resistance by young people from all over the country who hope that this Sunday’s election will bring real change.

What they hope is what Lukashenko fears.

He has prevented the most obvious opposition alternatives to him from standing in the elections by arresting them; he has detained hundreds of opposition activists; and recently he has tried to ride nationalist sentiments by playing up real or invented Russian attempts to destabilize the country.

While a new trio of powerful female leaders, with presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at the center — “miserable little girls,” according to Lukashenko — have energized many tens of thousands of people at their huge outdoor rallies, Lukashenko hasn’t been seen outside of a hall of well-behaved bureaucrats.

We can be sure that on Sunday evening, the electoral authorities will announce that Lukashenko has been reelected. They will probably decide on a figure of support slightly higher than what Vladimir Putin achieved in his latest election in Russia. Vanity requires that. But the key thing is what happens next.

Belarus has changed significantly during the past months and decades. Lukashenko’s mishandling of the the novel coronavirus crisis has eroded trust in the authorities, and during the past decades there has been a gradual increase in awareness of Belarus separateness from Russia and a rise of a national consciousness.

Ironically, the Lukashenko who previously pushed for a state union with Russia has played an important part in this, and it’s highly symbolic that his election campaign now plays on fears of Russian destabilization. He has refused Kremlin demands to recognize the independence of the Russia-supported regions of Georgia, and he has been even more clear in not toeing the Kremlin line on its aggressions against Ukraine.

But at the same time, his dependence on Moscow is critical. Luhkashenko, who runs an economy to a large extent composed of old ex-Soviet state-owned inefficient industries, has had to rely on de facto subsidies for oil and gas deliveries from Russia. A new thriving IT sector in the Belarus economy has certainly brought both change and hope, but not enough to make a strategic difference.

For Russia, Belarus, with its 9 million citizens, is a key piece of territory between Smolensk in westernmost Russia and Brest, on the border with Poland. Here the armies of both Napoleon and Hitler came marching on their way to Moscow, and there are certainly minds in the Kremlin that see even the distant prospect of a “color revolution” of popular democratic change here as a similar threat.

If things get difficult, there is little doubt that the Kremlin will put aside all its reservations over Lukashenko and encourage him to use violence if necessary to preserve power. They dislike and distrust him, but they can still effectively limit what he can do, as they know that there is no option for a Belarus under Lukashenko to develop a much closer relationship with the European Union or the United States.

Moscow is squeezing the country into a deeper relationship. Lukashenko is resisting institutional integration, but he has little room to maneuver as long as he refuses to liberalize the economy.

High on the list of Russian demands is an increased military presence in the country. There is already an integrated air defense system, as well as some Russian aircrafts at a base, but Moscow wants more. With the United States augmenting its presence in Poland, that pressure is bound to increase.

The E.U. has slowly augmented its relations with Belarus within the framework of its Eastern Partnership, but this has been dependent on Lukashenko freeing political prisoners and tolerating at least some degree of social freedom, in addition to developing a somewhat more independent foreign policy. If all of this goes in reverse, there will be obvious consequences for the relations with the E.U.

There will likely be popular protests in Belarus next week against the results of an obviously manipulated election. Will it be enough for Lukashenko to throw all leaders in jail and blanket cities in tear gas? Or will events spiral out of his control?

So far both Brussels and Washington have said very little on what we see happening in Belarus. The E.U. and the United States should make it clear that they see Belarus as an important and independent country and that they will watch both the elections and the aftermath very carefully; they must send a strong message that violations of fundamental human and democratic rights will have immediate consequences. Anything short of this will be to risk being complicit in what might happen.

One day Belarus will emerge as a truly independent country with a modern economy and an open and democratic society, part of the family of European nations. It should be remembered that for centuries it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, and remnants of those traditions are still there. That day might not be here yet, but the inspiring images of demonstrators coming out of the country these days clearly show the direction in which the young people of Belarus want to go.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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