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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
EPC | 18 Nov 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 25 Oct 2020
EPC | 19 Oct 2020