5 reasons why Lukashenko may hang on to power in Belarus

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MINSK — Friday marks two months of popular protests against the official results of the disputed presidential election in Belarus, but Alexander Lukashenko shows no sign of budging.

Every weekend, tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets of Minsk to demand his resignation, despite bursts of violence from riot police.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the lead opposition candidate in the August 9 election, is touring European capitals and is seen by many as the president-elect of Belarus.

The EU has levied sanctions against some backers of Lukashenko’s regime — albeit not against the top man himself. Other countries, from the U.K. to Lithuania have instituted their own measures against Belarus, which include a travel ban and asset freeze aimed at Lukashenko.

But Lukashenko is digging in. Backed by his military and police, and by neighboring Russia, he looks prepared to try to ride out the largest wave of protests since he took power in 1994.

Here’s five reasons why the wily authoritarian just might hang on.

1. The police and military remain loyal

There were some highly publicized cases of police and army officers throwing their uniforms into the trash in the early days of the protests, but the vast majority of the security services continue to back Lukashenko.

That’s despite efforts by opposition leaders and civil society activists to get them to switch sides. Some demonstrators have handed out flowers to riot police — which hasn’t prevent the police from arresting them and throwing the flowers away.

Tikhanovskaya last month urged law enforcement “to stop the violence and go over to the side of the Belarusian people … Otherwise you will not escape a fair trial and punishment.”

She also branded Lukashenko’s secretive presidential inauguration “a farce,” adding that his orders to security forces “are no longer legitimate and should not be carried out.”

However, those appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

Police continue to beat up and arrest protest-goers  — although not with the same ruthlessness as immediately after the election. Almost all opposition leaders are either in jail or out of the country, leaving the ongoing protests largely leaderless.

2. He continues to control the domestic levers of power

The country’s judiciary and parliament are under Lukashenko’s strict control, unlike in some other post-Soviet states like Ukraine, Armenia and now Kyrgyzstan, where popular revolutions succeeded in shaking or overthrowing authoritarian leaders.

“In Belarus, Lukashenko is able to appoint any judge, even to the Constitutional Court. The whole system is subordinated to one person,” Stanislav Shushkevich, the first leader of Belarus after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, told POLITICO in a phone interview.

In neighboring Ukraine, during the mass protests of 2003-2004, the country’s Supreme Court retracted the results of the controversial second round of voting in the presidential elections.

During Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, parliament voted to oust pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

In Belarus, however, Lukashenko and his entourage barred any opposition figures from entering the nation’s parliament in 2019 elections — which international observers considered unfair.

3. Most government officials are reluctant to switch sides

Mayors, MPs and civil servants are by large continuing to stick with the regime.

Diplomats have been the exception. In recent weeks, Belarusian ambassadors in Slovakia, Spain and Argentina have publicly voiced support for the anti-Lukashenko movement.

Around 30 other diplomats of lower ranks are reportedly going to be dismissed soon because of their disagreement with the official results of the election and the post-election violence, according to Pavel Latushko, the former ambassador to Poland and France, and now one of the leaders of the opposition.

4. Workers aren’t striking

The biggest blow to the opposition is that spontaneous workers’ strikes, which broke out in reaction to the brutality of the police in the immediate aftermath of the election, quickly fizzled out.

“The strikes didn’t have a foundation in the form of some organizational center that would allow planning and coordination, even at a single enterprise, let alone for the whole country,” said Dmitry Kruk, a senior researcher at the Belarusian Research and Outreach Center, a Minsk-based think tank.

Kruk, who is also among 50 core members of the opposition Coordination Council, which was created immediately after the August election to negotiate a transfer of power with Lukashenko, attributed that to the weakness of the independent trade unions.

Unions have long been under systematic pressure from the Lukashenko regime and haven’t been able to break free of government control.

“Since the spontaneous strikes did not produce a quick political effect, crushing them was no longer such a difficult task for the authorities,” Kruk said. “Many tools were used, from arrests of leaders of spontaneous striking committees to the exploitation of the fears of workers — threatening the loss of their jobs and salaries.”

Belarus’ big industrial plants — ranging from trucks to potash and refineries — provide crucial cash to keep the economy, and the regime, afloat. If they continue to produce, there’s less pressure on Lukashenko to quit.

5. The Kremlin has his back

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t make much of a secret of his personal distaste for Lukashenko, but he has no interest in seeing a popular revolution overthrow a longtime authoritarian leader. That might give increasingly restive Russians ideas.

In August, Moscow deployed “a reserve” of security forces on the border with Belarus, aimed at supporting Lukashenko if the situation in the country “starts getting out of control,” Putin said.

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One month later, Putin threw a financial lifeline to Minsk, promising a $1.5 billion loan to support the nation’s struggling state finances.

Russia even issued a warrant for Tikhanovskaya’s arrest.

Lukashenko has been regularly calling Putin, and made an obsequious visit to Moscow last month to ask for support.

Shushkevich believes that Russia keeps supporting Lukashenko because “Putin really wants to absorb Belarus and to return to [a new] Russian empire, at least to something that almost resembles USSR.”

Moscow’s backing means Lukashenko can shrug off EU sanctions, imposed against only 40 senior officials after weeks of fraught negotiations among member countries.

“Personal sanctions are not a powerful tool for influencing the Belarusian authorities. But, in reality, that is not their purpose. They only provide symbolic support to Belarusian society,” Kruk said.


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