A year has passed since the landmark presidential elections in Belarus, but the further development of events is still in question. It remains unclear whether Belarusians will be able to soon start on a path towards democracy or whether they will continue their historical rollback towards the BSSR-2 against their will under even greater control from Moscow.
A woman versus a dictator
On August 9, 2020, an event that was unique not only for the country but also in the context of modern European history took place in Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, one of the longest reigning rulers in the world, was bypassed in the elections by an opponent with no civic or political experience.
In a twist of fate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became an accidental human symbol, who, due to the imprisonment of two of the most popular opposition presidential contenders (including her husband, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky), was forced to act in a very short election campaign and under extremely repressive conditions.
Belarusians have proved that they are a full-fledged nation that respects universal values and wants to restore the rule of law in their country. And for Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya’s success was a double blow. In his belief system, Belarusians were not ready to support an opponent, let alone a woman.
One of the most important causes of the protest mobilization of Belarusians in 2020 was Lukashenko’s irrational actions on the coronavirus epidemic and those of the entire state apparatus, which turns on his personal views and wishes. The Belarusian authorities followed the worst Soviet practices of censoring, propaganda, conspiracy, and manipulation to downplay the epidemic.
The authorities are still hiding mortality statistics for the past year and judging by indirect data on the excess mortality rate Belarus is one of the most affected countries in Europe. At the same time, state media continue to talk about the “catastrophe” with the coronavirus in Poland, Lithuania, and other Western countries.
40,000 arrests and the theater of the absurd
However, Tikhanovskaya’s excellent election result turned out to be only a symbolic victory. Despite everything, Lukashenko gave himself 80% of the vote and ordered the security apparatus to suppress it, turning to the Kremlin for media, political, and economic support.
In the year after the elections, according to human rights activists, more than 40,000 people were arrested. In proportion to the total population, this would mean over 150,000 arrests in Poland. More than 600 people have been recognized as political prisoners, and this number is constantly growing. The number of people who were recognized as “terrorists” by the Belarusian authorities (including bloggers and pensioners) numbered in the dozens.
Last month, the Prosecutor General of Belarus Andrei Shved reported more than 4,200 criminal cases “related to terrorism and extremism.” The latter includes, for example, criticism of a police officer or an official through social media.
The fight against dissent has begun to resemble the theater of the absurd; humor and the resourcefulness of Belarusians is punished with heavy fines and arrests. Hanging white-red-white underwear on your balcony, a snowman inscribed with “Long live Belarus!” in a courtyard or wearing white-red-white elements of clothing are interpreted by the Belarusian courts as an “unauthorized demonstration” and the witnesses are often law enforcement officers with fictitious names and with their faces hidden behind a balaclava.
One could laugh at these and other documented court cases if not for the harsh conditions of serving a sentence for such a creative act. Human rights activists have documented hundreds of cases of torture against peaceful protesters and political prisoners. A common practice in places of detention is the deliberate placement of detainees in cells with people sick with coronavirus.
Lukashenko’s three key pillars
Despite major internal political problems and impending financial difficulties, including those in connected with Western sanctions, Lukashenko’s three key pillars – the security apparatus, the power vertical, and the Kremlin – remained steady.
Security structures experienced an outflow of workers, and many became disillusioned with Lukashenko, but the block of power remained under his control. The power vertical – that is, the heads of cities, districts, and regions that are not elected in Belarus, but are appointed by the presidential administration – have not undertaken any political steps. Local officials are tightly controlled by the special services and Lukashenko’s personal assistants of high military rank. The Kremlin continues to support Lukashenko politically, financially, and in media.
Immediately after the elections, Russian media, still quite popular in Belarus, began running stories about Lukashenko as the certain winner of the elections and claiming that the Polish special services, an aggressive West and Ukraine, controlled by the West, were behind the protests. A group of Russian propagandists for several months even replaced local media workers, who quit their jobs in protest.
Moscow’s goal is a subordinate status for Belarus
The main unresolved issue for Lukashenko is the economy. Financial collapse is inevitable without significant support from Russia. If Moscow is ready to provide minimum vital support to Lukashenko he could continue to be in power by force.
The Russian leadership would not do this for a “thank you.” It requires tough military-political control of Belarus. The Kremlin is seeking even greater concessions from Lukashenko in the military sphere and the signing of a large package of integration agreements that will emasculate Belarus’s independence in internal and external affairs. Moscow is insisting on bringing Belarusian legislation in line with Russian legislation in almost all areas.
From a historical perspective, a close analogy is the transition of the Belarusian lands to the Code of Laws of the Russian Empire after the abolition of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1840. In this instance, Belarus will turn into a kind of BSSR-2, even more dependent on Moscow, and Lukashenko can bargain for his staying in power and even a subsequent dynastic transition in favor of his son in the medium term.
A year after elections, the situation in Belarus remains uncertain and it is difficult to predict which way the pendulum will swing. On the one hand, the acceleration of events and the confluence of circumstances that would be able to critically shake one of Lukashenko’s main pillars may provide Belarusians with a chance for a long-awaited democratic transition. On the other hand, a successful agreement between Lukashenko and the Kremlin on a new model of relations may preserve the status quo for a long period and even lead to a dynastic transition.
Maintaining the current situation in Belarus will mean inevitable socio-economic degradation and the hastening of the departure of Belarusian professionals in various fields to Poland and other Western countries. This is a potentially positive development for the Polish economy.
However, the BSSR-2 scenario would mean the transformation of Belarus into an increasingly unpredictable neighbor for Poland. For several months the Belarusian authorities have been trying to create difficulties for Lithuania with the help of thousands of refugees from the Middle East. The range of other possible levers of Belarus’s pressure on neighboring EU countries and Ukraine is limited only by Lukashenko’ imagination of and that of his Russian “advisers.”
The article was written specially for Wyborcza.pl
Материал доступен на русском языке: Год после выборов