Belarus at a Crossroads: Authoritarian Rule or Liberal Democracy
Presidential elections in Belarus, held on August 9, may have marked the beginning of the end for President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. Every day since claiming an 80% share of the vote in what is universally regarded as a fraudulent election, thousands of protesters, from journalists to factory workers, have taken to the streets in one of the largest political demonstrations in the history of “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Protests and strikes have even emerged within critical state-owned companies, once a Lukashenko stronghold, indicating a broad coalition of citizens finished with the status quo. In a bid to shore up support with his traditionally reliable working-class base, Lukashenko’s speech at a Minsk factory was instead met with jeers and demands for his resignation. Lukashenko stood firm stating, “Until you kill me, there will be no new elections” before leaving the stage.
The Belarusian government has responded to the civil unrest with tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and arrests. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was detained by Belarusian authorities and forced to make a videotaped a concession statement before fleeing to Lithuania. As Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda remarked, “Not a single person in their right mind would believe that this video was recorded voluntarily.” Belarus now finds itself at a political crossroads.
After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Belarus, a former Soviet republic, became an independent, sovereign nation. However, unlike other former republics – the Baltic States, Georgia and Ukraine – Belarus failed to develop democratic institutions and cement ties to the West, opting instead to remain in Russia’s orbit. The Belarusian government used violence, intimidation and a tightly controlled economy to clamp down on public dissent. Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, relied on Moscow’s economic support to placate disgruntled citizens. Since 1996, Belarus has enjoyed membership in a Union State confederation with Russia and is a founding member of the Moscow-based Eurasian Economic Union, launched in 2014. The people of Belarus are among the current victims of communism whom we honor each year on November 7. ALEC model policy to establish a Victims of Communism Day is here.
Despite outward appearances, the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko has long been strained. Prior to Belarus’ controversial election, intractable energy disputes and attempts at greater political integration from Moscow motivated Lukashenko to seek greater cooperation with Western partners. Tensions came to a head with the arrest of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries in Belarus suspected of attempting to cause disruptions ahead of the presidential election – tactics similar to those Russia employed in neighboring Ukraine during their 2014 presidential elections. However, as Lukashenko’s grip on power is threatened, Russia has stepped in to offer support, with President Putin promising military resources should Belarus need them. Russian intervention may have already begun with German reports of Russian National Guardsmen moving into Belarus with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov using “foreign interference” in Belarusian affairs as a pretext.
Russia’s interests in Belarus go beyond that of an anxious benefactor. Regional hegemony is a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy, and over the past 20 years, pro-democratic “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine have eroded Moscow’s control over its near abroad. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea after Kyiv’s pro-Western Euromaidan revolution is Russia’s attempt to re-exert its regional authority. However, some reports suggest that Putin might abandon Lukashenko in favor of brokering a deal with Tikhanovskaya, viewing that as a superior way to maintain control over the former Soviet republic. Yet another complicating factor in this geopolitical puzzle is President Xi Jinping’s increasing interest in Belarus – granting loans and cooperating on a Belarus-China Industrial Park. Xi was the first world leader to congratulate Lukashenko on his electoral “victory” suggesting that China might be poised to rise to Lukashenko’s defense.
The West’s response has been swift but cautious. All 27 of the European Union’s foreign ministers agreed to levy sanctions against a list of individuals linked to Belarus’ election rigging and to violence against peaceful protesters. Officials from Britain, Germany and France have publicly condemned the sham election results and denounced the violent crackdowns, and US Secretary of State Pompeo urged the Belarusian government to extend more political freedom to Belarus’s citizens. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu rebutted Lukashenko’s criticism of the Alliance’s defensive presence in member states bordering Belarus, observing that any attempt by Lukashenko or his officials to implicate NATO or Western “external actors” for the breakdown in Belarus’ civil order serves only to obfuscate the crimes of the regime. A united, unambiguous Western response has the greatest chance of nudging Belarus in a democratic direction – the optimal outcome.
The political career and future involvement of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya remains unclear. Her husband was a presidential candidate until his arrest by Belarusian authorities to clear the field for Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya took his place on the campaign trail, pledging to release all political prisoners and call free and fair elections within six months of assuming office. She has emerged as a leader in Belarus’ now expanded opposition movement. With multiple videos recorded from Lithuania, the opposition leader has supported continued non-violent protests, the release of political prisoners, and called for internationally recognized free elections. She has also articulated a framework for a “coordination council” that would negotiate a peaceful transfer of power from the Lukashenko regime.
The “coordination council” concept, reminiscent of the Polish Solidarity trade union that helped Poland transition from communism in the early 1990s, is the best possible outcome. Poland’s “shock therapy” approach to economic liberalization in 1992 allowed for significant economic growth and a thriving business community. Like its Polish counterpart, a Belarusian umbrella organization designed to unite Belarus’ political opposition and facilitate free and fair elections could potentially channel anger against the current regime into constructive political and economic change.
ALEC’s Federalism and International Relations Task Force has promoted mutually beneficial international partnerships between the United States and countries around the globe. The Task Force has also been alarmed by the explosion of autocracy worldwide covering the phenomenon in ALEC articles about Hong Kong, the Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, Cambodia and Hungary, among others. The Task Force holds that commitments to rule of law and property rights will attract foreign investment and economic liberalization will help to create sustainable economic growth, ideas referenced in ALEC model policy here. NATO could also play a role to bring stability to Belarus. Contained in ALEC model policy commemorating NATO on its 75th anniversary is the idea that “sustained commitment of NATO to mutual defense has made possible the democratic and economic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe.” Perhaps, Belarus is the next nation in the region to integrate itself into the Western orbit so that Belarusians can finally enjoy the freedoms denied to them for far too long.