Protests’ Crisis in Belarus and the Likely Scenarios

​Bassem Rashed | 06 Sep 2020

The internal turmoil in Belarus has exacerbated since the announcement that the 65-year-old incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko has won a sixth term in the presidential elections on 11 August 2020. The announcement was followed by angry protests that roamed the streets of the capital Minsk, and whose repercussions spread to several other cities, rejecting the results of the elections, which were described as rigged. The protesters called on President Lukashenko to leave office and end his authoritarian rule of Belarus.

The internal context of the crisis

The Belarusian presidential elections were held in a non-democratic political context, witnessing efforts to clamp down on competitors from their inception until the announcement of the results and the subsequent protests. This was reflected in several manifestations:

  • Lack of competitiveness. The electoral commission in Belarus registered only 5 candidates. Victor Babariko, a banker who was arrested in June 2020 due to a criminal case against him, was disqualified. Valery Tzipkalo, a former ambassador, was also excluded after the signatures of a petition submitted in his support was annulled. Both candidates were widely seen as the two remaining favorites to beat Lukashenko. In addition, the registration of the former candidate for the 2010 elections Nikolai (Mikola) Statkevich was refused on the grounds that he has a criminal record, in reference to his leadership of the opposition demonstrations in 2010.
  • Restriction on registered candidates: opposition candidate 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhnovskaya was Lukashenko's most prominent rival. She ran in the elections in place of her detained blogger husband Sergey Tikhanovsky who was unable to sign his candidacy documents because he was under administrative detention. Her campaign chief was arrested and released on the eve of the presidential elections to weaken her chances of winning.
  • Suppression of protests prior to the elections. Belarusian police arrested hundreds of demonstrators in an effort to quell anti-government protests before the elections. According to some allegations, they were subjected to investigations and at times torture.

In this political climate, the presidential elections were held where Lukashenko won 80.23 percent of the vote, while his most important rival Tikhanovskaya got 9.9 percent. Tikhnovskaya accused President Lukashenko of rigging the election results in his favour. She soon fled the country to Lithuania in the wake of the announcement of the final results for fear of being arrested. This led to a series of regular demonstrations demanding the departure of Lukashenko, in the aftermath of which some demonstrators were killed and thousands arrested so far. As the demonstrations became more widespread and more intense, Lukashenko threatened to use the army to defend his power.

Despite the violent police confrontation with the demonstrators, demonstrations are being organized every Sunday by the thousands in the capital Minsk, as well as daily smaller protests in several cities other than the capital to express the continued rejection of Lukashenko and the determination not to back down from the demand to overthrow the regime. There are even calls among the demonstrators for escalation and continuing to pressure the Belarusian regime, for example by refraining from paying taxes.

Motives for the protests

Rather than being the main cause of the protests against Lukashenko's regime, the recent presidential elections revealed – according to some observers – the flaws of his regime and his failure to achieve the aspirations of his country’s citizens for a better life. At the same time, they constituted an expression of the distress of those citizens over the political, economic and social conditions in Belarus. That is why most categories of the Belarusian people participated in those demonstrations, from students to members of the middle class who for many years had accepted the restrictions imposed by Lukashenko's dictatorship in exchange for the provision of decent public services and a comfortable life by Eastern European standards.

Those disorders were motivated by a host of causes. While some of them have accumulated for years, others have resulted from emerging crises such as the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic. The most prominent of those motives are as follows:

  • Long authoritarian rule: Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus since its independence in 1994, that is for 26 years. He is accused of being Europe’s last dictator as he controls the main media channels, imprisons dissidents, marginalises independent voices, and limits freedom of opinion. He is also accused of violating the human rights of not just opponents but ordinary citizens as well.
  • Elimination of political opposition: at the political level, the opposition in Belarus does not get any opportunity. For example, the opposition parties did not obtain any parliamentary seats in the November 2019 elections which resulted in the assumption by parties loyal to the President of all of the 110 seats in the House of Representatives, as a result of widespread fraud, as described by the opposition parties as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) which monitors the Belarusian elections.
  • Decline in economic and social conditions, especially after the long recession experienced by Belarus since 2014 where no initial positive indicators were recorded except in 2017. While the government has implemented some economic reforms such as granting concessions for doing business, according to economists, such measures are not expected to lay the foundations of a stable economic growth.
  • Poor government response to the Covid-19 crisis. Since the emergence of the virus and its spread in the world, Belarus has not taken concrete measures and actions to confront it, such as lockdowns or tightening social distancing measures and other usual measures. Instead, Lukashenko even downplayed the epidemic and advised citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease. As a result, the virus has spread significantly in Belarus. Nearly 70,000 citizens were infected and nearly 600 people died out of Belarus’ total population of 9.5 million people.

International interaction

The recent political developments in Belarus have received remarkable global attention. Accordingly, international interaction can be monitored in two main directions:

The first trend supports the peaceful demonstrations and rejects the violations that occurred in the presidential elections. This trend is led by the European Union (EU) and the US, both of which have taken the following steps:

  • EU leaders have denounced the use of water cannons and stun grenades by the Belarusian riot police to confront the crowds which accuse the authorities of rigging the election results. The EU foreign policy representative Joseph Borrell emphasised that there is "unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters".
  • On 28 August 2020, the EU agreed to impose sanctions on 20 high-ranking officials in Belarus, including President Lukashenko, on the pretext of their involvement in the rigging of the presidential elections, campaigns to impose order, and the use of violence against the demonstrators.
  • On 1 September 2020, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia announced that 30 Belarusian officials were banned from entering their territories, including President Lukashenko. Those sanctions are the first against Minsk following the recent developments.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the situation in Belarus after the last presidential elections as a "tragedy", stressing that the election in Belarus was “not free and fair”, and pledging that Washington would support the "democratic forces" in the country.
  • US President Donald Trump said that he is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Belarus. He urged the Belarusian government to “respect the right to peaceably assemble and to refrain from use of force”. He also announced that he would speak with Russia about the situation in Belarus, describing the protests of its citizens as peaceful.

In the second trend, Russia strongly supports its ally the Belarusian president. It relies on a twofold political strategy, namely:

1. Offering full support for President Lukashenko at both the security and political levels. On 16 August 2020, President Putin announced Moscow's readiness to provide military aid to ensure the security of Belarus in the event that it faces foreign military threats (given that Russia has 3 military bases in Belarus). On 27 August 2020, he also announced the formation of a reserve security force to assist Belarus by intervening if necessary in the event of riots, theft and looting.

2. Rejection of outside interference in the internal affairs of Belarus. On more than one occasion, Russia warned European countries and the US against interfering in any way in Belarus’s affairs, including public support for anti-government demonstrations.

Possible scenarios

Given the developments on the ground, demonstrators are unlikely to back down from their demands for Lukashenko's departure. On the other hand, the latter is not willing to give up power. However, the situation in Belarus is getting more complicated with the increasing state of polarisation both abroad and at home and the resignation of some of the president’s loyalists from both the media and the diplomatic corps, given that two ambassadors have so far resigned. This situation puts Belarus in front of several possible scenarios:

First scenario: President Lukashenko voluntarily resigns from office in response to the pressure by the demonstrators, a new government is formed, and subsequently new elections are held, provided that a council would be formed to run the country that includes symbols of the opposition until the constitution is amended and elections are held. This scenario would not materialise without prior agreement with all the actors, especially Russia, the EU, the US, and President Lukashenko himself.

Second scenario: the army and police side with the demonstrators and intervene to remove the President from office by force, in which case a new government would be formed and new elections would also be held similar to the Ukrainian scenario. This scenario is threatened with the possibility that Russia would intervene to rescue Lukashenko if the security forces refuse to obey his orders.

Third scenario: the protest movement is suppressed and President Lukashenko remains in power with Russian help. In that case, Lukashenko would remain a prisoner of Moscow which may impose on him a federal or quasi-federal agreement, so that he would turn from the head of an independent and sovereign state to more of a regional governor inside Russia. At the same time, he would also remain besieged by the EU and rely more on Russian aid.

Conclusion

None of the above scenarios is likely to materialise in isolation from the interests of external actors in the crisis, especially Russia, the EU and the US, although removing Lukashenko from office is the most likely possibility in the coming period. However, this scenario would only materialise based on prior and clear coordination with Russian President Vladimir Putin who would never allow a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. In addition, Putin would fear the possibility of spread of the Minsk contagion to other countries such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and indeed Russia itself. In this context, it should be noted that the EU and the US are in continuous contact with President Putin to contain the crisis and find an appropriate solution thereto without harming the interests of any party. This means that the scenario of Lukashenko's exit from power remains the closest to materialisation.

On the other hand, despite Lukashenko’s apparent toughness and determination to retain his position, according to some analysts, he is in fact negotiating about his future with those around him and some outside players. Hence, the political fate of Belarus remains dependent on developments on the ground, the consequences of agreements of external actors, and the limits of pressure that can be exerted on Lukashenko by Russia.

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