President Alexander Lukashenko faced the biggest threat to his 26-year rule in Belarus as riot police suppressed street protests in the wake of the Aug. 9 election, which critics denounced as rigged. His bid for a sixth consecutive term seemed a formality until opposition groups united behind a little-known challenger. As events unfolded, Russia, the European Union and the U.S. were jostling for influence in this strategically important country.
1. Why was there such a backlash?
Lukashenko, who’s accustomed to landslide victories, appeared to have taken no chances this time by having key challengers detained or kept off the ballot.
But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one jailed opponent, was allowed to register, and she drew huge crowds at rallies nationwide after opposition groups pulled together to support her. So when officials declared Lukashenko had won 80.2% with just 9.9% for her, public anger over suspected ballot fraud boiled over.
Discontent with Lukashenko, in office since 1994, had simmered for years as the state-dominated economy stagnated. It intensified with the coronavirus outbreak, after the president rejected lockdown measures to slow the epidemic and dismissed health fears by joking that drinking vodka and playing ice hockey offered protection.
2. Was the election fair?
Lukashenko is the only one of the five candidates to have accepted the results.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the elections were neither free nor fair, while Germany said Belarus failed to meet minimum election standards and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was “unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius has said his country would go ahead with national sanctions if EU-wide measures fail.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent monitors for past elections, didn’t this year, citing the “lack of a timely invitation.” It also expressed “serious concerns” afterward about the way the election was run.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus said foreign partners should avoid making hasty statements based on what it called “one-sided information.”
3. How big is the threat to Lukashenko?
Bigger than before.
After previous elections, Lukashenko easily crushed opposition protests, which were generally small and confined to the capital, Minsk.
This time, thousands took to the streets nightly in more than 30 towns and cities in the days following the result, defying baton-wielding riot police armed with flash grenades and water cannon.
More than 6,000 people were detained in the first three nights alone. Tikhanovskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania after being detained for as long as seven hours when she filed an official challenge to the results at the Central Election Commission on Aug. 10.
4. Does Lukashenko have the support to survive?
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign claimed she won between 60% and 70% of the votes and called for a recount, but Lukashenko has a fearsome propaganda and security apparatus — the secret police in the former Soviet republic is still called the KGB.
Interior Ministry forces and the military remained loyal in the days after the election, despite appeals from the opposition for them to side with the people against the government. The longer the protests go on and the harsher the response, the more their loyalties may come into question as they confront family and friends on the streets.
5. What does the opposition want?
Opposition leaders in Belarus have appealed to Western governments to recognize Tikhanovskaya as the winner.
She had pledged to release political prisoners and to hold new, fair elections within six months if she won.
Her campaign has since called on Lukashenko to begin talks on ending the violence and organizing a peaceful transfer of power. He’s dismissed them as “sheep” who are under the direction of foreign powers, and called the protesters criminals.
6. Can Tikhanovskaya lead the opposition from abroad?
It’s unclear what role she may play from Lithuania, another former Soviet republic but part of the EU since 2004.
Tikhanovskaya, a stay-at-home mother, had sent her children there during the campaign. Her husband, a political blogger, was jailed earlier in 2020 after announcing his plans to run against Lukashenko.
In two videos apparently filmed under duress and posted after her arrival, Tikhanovskaya appeared distraught. In the second, she seemed to read from a script and called for protests to end. For her supporters, it was more evidence of why they should continue opposing Lukashenko.
She released a further video on Aug. 14 backing calls for a general strike in Belarus.
7. What outcome would most suit Russia?
Lukashenko resisted intense pressure last year from Russia to agree to deeper political and economic integration, fearing a takeover of Belarus by his larger neighbor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideal outcome would be a weakened Lukashenko emerging from this crisis, having spoiled all chances of an accommodation with the West and being forced to accept a renewed push for integration on Moscow’s terms.
Russia views Belarus as a crucial buffer against NATO and EU encroachment toward its borders. After losing influence in neighboring Ukraine to the West, Putin’s determined not to let another part of Russia’s backyard slip from his grasp.
8. What can the U.S. and the EU do?
They have condemned the conduct of the election and the violence, but may lack the will and the leverage to do much more.
Both courted Lukashenko as he turned West in response to the Russian pressure, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Minsk in a quarter-century in February. The EU is weighing a renewal of sanctions that it previously lifted against Lukashenko’s regime, though the requirement for unanimity among member states makes agreement difficult. While Pompeo said on a visit to the Czech Republic Aug. 12 that the U.S. will “try our best to deliver” freedom to Belarus, in reality the Trump administration’s attention may turn increasingly to November’s presidential election.