Belarus lessons

By Nina Bachkatov

Whatever might happen in Belarus, the crisis that shacked the country is teaching lessons about the limits of antidemocratic regimes and the limits of outsiders’ influence. Weeks after his disputed reelection, Alexandr Lukashenko, president since 1994, is still confronted to an unusual form of contestation while his opponents face a president unwilling to follow the path of former Ukrainian president Yanukovich.

During pre- and post-electoral periods, President Lukashenko behaved like a typical leader of illiberal democracies, who play by some democratic rules (notably elections) to polish their “democratic” credentials, while refusing direct and indirect competition.

As other illiberal leaders do, he refused to campaign or to debate with rivals driven by a high dose of arrogance, an open despise for opponents he described as losers, puppets of external powers, even rats. They all share the same conviction that the incumbent’s actions suffice to convince voters, compared to vague promises of change by untested people, who are even unable to rally around a single candidate.

In fact, those leaders simply forgot the importance of competition, even in a semi-democratic system. Used to unchallenged power for too long, they are also kept insulated from the “real country” by courtesans driven by their own interests. In those conditions, they do not satisfy themselves with a majority vote; they want a plebiscite.

In the case of Belarus, most of the people, in the country and outside, were ready to accept a victory of Lukashenko with 52-54% because he still kept, and keeps, a solid electoral basis. But, with the economic crisis and the mismanagement of the Covid epidemy, even supporters were ready to teach him a lesson, by voting not so much for an opponent than against him. It did not prevent the president to make the extravagant claim that he won with 80%.

Like illiberal leaders, Lukashenko miscalculated the political impact of social and demographic changes, convinced that voters will continue to be ready to trade human rights for stability and good living conditions. The effects of the crisis, notably on workers and small entrepreneurs, has broken the social contract. For those people, and even more for a new generation, stability means stagnation.

At the moment, the question is not “will Lukashenko survives”, but to prevent an escalation of the violence turning into civil war and an economic collapse. Belarus is not Ukraine, nor the opposition a national version of Poland’s Solidarity. The international situation is different, with the outsiders acting behind the curtains and drawing red lines – but clearly refusing to get directly involved.

Hence the idea of a round table between president Lukashenko’s representatives and the opposition’s, under the mediation of EU and Russia. That is a credible, but not an easy task for different reasons, mostly:

1/ the personal hostility between presidents Putin and Lukashenko, and Putin’s obsession with a Belarus-Russia Union that most people reject both in Russia and in Belarus; plus his versatile position on Belarus situation.

2/ the difficulty to select representatives of the opposition to sit around the table; they have no political programme further than ousting Lukashenko and indulge in a growing competition for leadership in the absence of symbolic figures who are now silenced or living abroad; a typical case is that of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, based in Vilnius and poorly advised, claiming her right to the presidency on the basis of electoral results no more credible than Lukashenko’s 80% victory.

3/ the capacity of EU’s action, with competing institutions all claiming a say in the Belarus crisis, and the limits to an unified position due to heavy involvement of members states at national level (the 3 Baltic states, Poland and even Ukraine), all wanting to teach a lesson to Russia, to impose their own model for regime change in post-communist societies, and to project a new Eastern dimension into EU.

4/ the lack of trust between EU and Russia, lately aggravated by the Navalny’s poisoning.

5/ the meddling of Washington, more interested in its anti-Russian power games than in European stability; and not ready to accept EU going “geopolitical”, on Brussels’ own terms.

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