The so-called “Last Dictatorship” of Europe seems to be on its deathbed as protests all over Belarus enter their third week. Alexander Lukashenko, the former Soviet strongman who has ruled over Belarus since 1994 is facing immense pressure to step down and is responding to the protests with an iron hand after facing allegations of another rigged elections. Mr. Lukashenko has returned to power after securing an overwhelming eighty percent of the total votes polled as compared to his rival candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who has bagged only ten percent of the votes. But, in the absence of a transparent electoral watchdog and exit polls which are banned in Belarus, the results hardly seem to be true. The protesters have made their demands crystal clear. Firstly, they want Lukashenko be replaced with a free and fair elections and set all political prisoners free.
Strangely, unlike other dictatorships like those of the Middle East and North African region which have brought misery to their respective countrymen, Lukashenko’s rule has been able to maintain stable economic growth and socio-political stability until the middle of the last decade. But the economic growth and stability had come at a huge cost with civil and political rights, freedom of the press being trampled upon for nearly three decades. The elements of Soviet Communism arestill visible, generally to appease the masters sitting in Moscow, with majority of manufacturing sector still under state control and the local police still known by the name of KGB.
The state-owned enterprises have announced a strike and with the Belarusian economy already predicted to contract by two percent as an effect of Covid-19, this is another setback to the national growth which has been debilitating since 2014. This scenario which is going to affect the industrial output coupled with the sanctions imposed by the European Union will further weaken the position of Lukashenko. Further, sympathies and prayers for the protestors have already started pouring in with protests being organized in embassies of Belarus in Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin.
These democratic protests won’t just remain confined to Belarus only but have already started affecting the international political scenario with Vladimir Putin already upping the ante with statement that Russia will provide military assistance against any possible external threat. Russia which considers Belarus as a strategic buffer zone against NATO has enjoyed more or less amicable relations with the former Soviet republic although the neighbors had exchanged diplomatic blows time and again over oil pipeline dispute threatening whole European Community with disruption in oil supply. Despite the controversial statement by the Russian President, it is unlikely that United States which is already reeling as a result of the deadly pandemic and is headed for the presidential elections in less than three months, will respond in a manner which is likely to exacerbate tensions. Until now, the United States has only condemned the violence against protection and has threatened to impose sanctions.
How Are The Events Likely To Unfold
From the present state of affairs, it will not be wrong to assume that the people of Belarus are unlikely to tolerate Lukashenko anymore. Although protests have erupted in past over various policies and actions of the leader but those protests largely remained peaceful. Moreover, the present protests are unprecedented in nature which have left things in stalemate.
There are two options before Lukashenko- Resign and thus pacify his people similar to the path adopted by Presidents like Robert Mugabe and Nursultan Nazarbayev or meet the fate similar to Presidents cum dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Nicolae Ceausescu. But the stubborn president is unlikely to retreat so easily. In the midst of the protests, Lukashenko along with his son was seen arriving in the presidential palace in a helicopter wearing bullet-proof vest and brandishing the classic Soviet Kalashnikov. No picture other than this can depict a leader’s severance of relationship from its own people.
It appears that Lukashenko plans to go more hard on his population as is evident from his statements to use military might to quell the protests. Going hard on people is definitely going to isolate Belarus from the rest of European community leaving only Russia as its partner. Even Russia will not want disturbance in its near west as bulk of Russian oil to the western Europe passes through Belarus transported through the famous Druzhba pipeline. Putin has suggested military assistance only if some other group of nations pose threat to Lukashenko’s regime and that also in order to protect the Russian interests in Belarus.
Although, a supporter of Russian policies, Lukashenko is probably useless for Russia and has even started creating trouble for it. He had defied Putin on various instances, was staunchly opposed to Russia’s campaign in Ukraine and had even expelled the Russian Ambassador to Belarus alleging that Russia has been using Belarus as a vassal state.
The responsibility to bring peace to nation lies solely on the shoulders of Lukashenko. The protestors have desired for change and have defied the Stalinist way of ruling through iron hand and the obsolete Soviet-era policies. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main face of the opposition, needs to play a more proactive role for Belarus’ transition and should demand the return to the pre-1994 constitution which had a provision for parliament, an independent constitutional court and a limit of two terms on the Presidential office.