Who is the Legitimate Leader of Belarus?
Nikola Mikovic considers the future of the opposition movement in Belarus, after autocrat Alexander Lukashenko was secretly inaugurated for a sixth consecutive term
Alexander Lukashenko was this week secretly inaugurated for a sixth consecutive term as the President of Belarus. The privacy of this ceremony is thought to stem from his desire not to further provoke protestors, who have been on the streets since the autocrat won a rigged election on 9 August.
However, this logic didn’t play out as Lukashenko hoped, with hundreds of people still reportedly clashing with riot police all over the country and several Western countries calling the inauguration illegitimate.
Former Belarusian presidential hopeful Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said that she is “the only leader elected by the Belarusian people”. While Lukashenko officially won the Presidential Election with 80% of the vote, the opposition never recognised the election outcome, and instead staged mass protests, road blockades and nationwide strikes.
This political crisis is far from over, despite Russia propping up Lukashenko’s regime for now. On 10 September, the Lithuanian Parliament voted to recognise Tikhanovskaya as the President of Belarus, with the European Parliament recognising the opposition coordination council as the interim representative of the people of Belarus.
After the secret inauguration in Minsk, many countries are expected to follow Lithuania’s lead and officially recognise the exiled Tikhanovskaya as the Belarusian leader. But since she is not in Belarus, and has no formal levers of power, there is very little she can do to change the situation on the ground. Instead, she will serve as a symbolic figure of democracy, while the autocratic Lukashenko will keep pulling the strings.
In this spirit, Lukashenko is deliberately entrenching the loyalty of the country’s security apparatus, while working to convert the undecided section of the Belarusian population.
Anti-Maidan propaganda has flooded Belarusian television – the Maidan Revolution took place in Ukraine in 2014 – and, even before the unrest broke out, Lukashenko repeated on several occasions that he would prevent any Ukrainian-style demonstrations that could lead to regime change.
Even during his inauguration, he said that authorities “prevented the catastrophe [and] thwarted another hybrid revolutionary scenario to shake the foundations of the Belarusian statehood”.
Following the ceremony, the Belarusian Army swore an oath of loyalty to the nation – a symbolic gesture to show that Lukashenko is still supported by the country’s security structures. In other words, as long as the police and army remain loyal to him, the chances of a revolution in Minsk are very slim.
Toppling the Last Dictator
Over the past month-and-a-half, the opposition has held several mass rallies, but their marches in Minsk and other Belarusian cities hardly represent a serious threat for Lukashenko, who retains the support of military generals and the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Indeed unless there is a provocation similar to the “unidentified snipers” in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2014, anti-Lukashenko demonstrations are unlikely to gain a critical mass of people needed to stage an uprising.
The only other resort is long-term term pressure, applied to Western states from the opposition, and then in turn applied by these countries to Lukashenko and Russia.
Given that for the West Lukashenko is ‘the last dictator in Europe’, there is an incentive to see his demise. The next step that Western powers could take is to impose sanctions on countries and entities that do business with Belarus. Russia has already been sanctioned by the EU and the US over its actions in Ukraine, which means that anti-Russian sanctions over Belarus would be another method of pressure to apply on the Kremlin.
In such a scenario, Belarus could become a burden on Putin, with the country increasingly cut off from the world and Moscow continuously asked to bail-out Lukashenko with loans and investment. Unless a resolution is found, it even seems plausible that Belarus could turn into another Venezuela or Syria, heavily reliant on political and economic support from the Kremlin while its citizens suffer.
It is also worth noting that, after the inaugural ceremony, Lukashenko emphasised that he would do everything to preserve peace, which means that he is aware that his country could eventually sink into chaos.
So far, the Belarusian security services have not needed to apply much force when dealing with protestors – but following the inauguration they reportedly dispersed demonstrations in a more brutal way than usual.
The coming days will show if protests will radicalise further, as tensions rise in the former Soviet republic.