Belarus: What if Lukashenko Dies?
Nikola Mikovic looks at what the dictator’s demise would mean in terms of the Belarusian opposition, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and the struggle between Putin and the West for regional influence
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Despite ruling Belarus for almost 30 years, sooner or later the era of Alexander Lukashenko will come to an end. If rumours of his poor health are true, Belarusian strongman may no longer be in a position to pull the strings in Minsk. But what awaits Russia if its only ally passes away?
Alexander Lukashenko was last seen in public laying flowers in Minsk during the Victory Day celebrations on May 9 — a few hours after returning from Moscow. In the Russian capital – where he attended the same event, marking the Soviet World War 2 victory over Nazi Germany – he looked visibly tired while his hand was bandaged.
On May 14, he did not appear at the celebration of the Day of the State Flag, State Emblem and National Anthem of Belarus. To this day, Belarusian media and officials remain silent on Lukashenko’s health.
In Russia, Konstantin Zatulin, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, confirmed that Belarusian President is ill, but did not name the diagnosis. Lukashenko is believed to suffer from an acute knee problem, which is, ironically, the last thing that he wanted to experience.
“It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees”, Lukashenko said in 2020 when he repeatedly dismissed the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zatulin, however, claims that Belarus’ President does not have Covid, although he did not specify if Lukashenko has any problems with his knee.
“There’s nothing supernatural there. He just got sick, but it’s not Covid”, Zatulin, said pointing out that despite his poor health, Belarus’ strongman “considered it his duty to come to Moscow” to attend the Victory Day parade.
Earlier this year, during one of the numerous meetings he held with his Belarusian counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked Lukashenko for visiting his residence near Moscow, to which the Belarusian leader replied: “As if I could disagree”.
Indeed, it sounded as if he had no choice but to meet with Putin. Could it be that the Russian leader on May 9 yet again forced ill Lukashenko to come to the Russian capital and help him create an illusion that Russia is not isolated in the global arena?
Such a move could backfire. If Lukashenko is really gravely ill, in the mid-term Russia may have a hard time preserving Belarus in its geopolitical orbit. According to Andriy Demchenko, State Border Guard Service of Ukraine Andriy Demchenko, Russia has withdrawn most of its troops from the Eastern European country. In his view, the Russian Federation now has only around 2,800 servicemen in Belarus, which means that, if the situation in the neighbouring allied state escalates, it will be extremely difficult for Moscow to react and save its proxies.
Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia does not have enough troops to deploy to Belarus in case of a potential uprising there. In addition, under the current circumstances, Russia’s annexation of Belarus is off the table.
However, at this point, it remains rather uncertain if the remnants of the Belarusian opposition – given that most of Lukashenko’s opponents have either been exiled or arrested – have the capacity to use the momentum and overthrow the regime. Even with the help of around 1,000 Belarusian volunteers fighting on Ukraine’s side against Russia, chances for the opposition to come to power remain slim.
But without Lukashenko, the Belarusian elite is unlikely to remain monolithic, which means that internal political turbulences in the former Soviet republic can start to take place.
According to Belarusian laws, if the head of state dies of natural causes, until the new elections Chairperson of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus will act as the President. In other words, it is Lukashenko loyalist Natalia Kochanova who would try to preserve stability in the country until the elite find a figure who can replace Belarus’s autocrat.
They may try to put his eldest son Viktor in power, given that he served as an Assistant on National Security to his father, and is believed to still have close ties with the country’s powerful security apparatus. But will Belarusian police and army remain loyal to him, as they were loyal to the 68-year-old strongman?
Although the authorities seem to prepare the ground for a post-Lukashenko Belarus, they will almost certainly seek to ensure the continuity of the political system. But given that “Europe’s last dictator” never named a successor, if he dies a power struggle in Minsk will become inevitable. Sooner or later, Belarus would need to hold new presidential elections, which would be an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin to interfere and make sure the country remains in its zone of influence. On the other hand, the West could use Moscow’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to improve its position in Belarus. Thus, a post-Lukashenko Belarus could easily become a battlefield for influence between Russia and the Western powers.
Finally, it is not improbable that Lukashenko will eventually recover and come back to the public arena. Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled public appearances after he fell ill during a live televised interview, but he reappeared three days later. Previously, in March 2015, Putin disappeared and was not seen for two weeks. The official explanation for his absence was never given. But Lukashenko, unlike Putin, will almost certainly openly talk about his illness, if he is alive and is still able to speak.