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Lukashenko’s Nine Lives

On the eve of elections in Belarus, the long-lasting dictator shows that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep his grip on power.

PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

MINSK— Let there be no mistake: The presidential election in Belarus on Sunday, Dec. 19, will produce the same outcome as elections in Belarus have for the past 16 years. For the fourth time in a row, Alexander Lukashenko -- dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- will win the vote. His dismal human rights and democratic record notwithstanding, Lukashenko's skill at political survival never fails to impress. Like a cat with nine lives, he always seems to land on his feet.

MINSK— Let there be no mistake: The presidential election in Belarus on Sunday, Dec. 19, will produce the same outcome as elections in Belarus have for the past 16 years. For the fourth time in a row, Alexander Lukashenko — dubbed "Europe’s last dictator" — will win the vote. His dismal human rights and democratic record notwithstanding, Lukashenko’s skill at political survival never fails to impress. Like a cat with nine lives, he always seems to land on his feet.

While the outcome of the vote will surprise no one, the campaign season preceding it has been marked by two unexpected developments that hold significance for Belarus’s future. 

The first surprise came when Lukashenko promised the European Union a democratic election. During last week’s summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow, a smiling and confident Lukashenko boasted that "[w]e have already become such a democratic state that I am afraid the leaders of other states might start bolting from me because I am such a huge democrat."

Given Lukashenko’s reputation as an autocrat, one might be tempted to laugh at this statement. However, a fresh veneer of political liberalization has indeed emerged during the current electoral campaign season in Belarus. At an informal meeting with local journalists earlier this month, Michael Scanlan, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Belarus, praised steps taken by the Belarusian government to facilitate greater freedom of association and electoral participation. Remarks like these from a U.S. diplomat would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Indeed, in a departure from past practices, there have been no widespread pre-election arrests of political activists this campaign season. To the contrary, public spaces have been made available for rallies, protests, and meetings with voters. Similarly, opposition presidential candidates have not been arbitrarily disqualified from running against Lukashenko. As a result, nine candidates are running against him for the presidency, three of whom have run sophisticated campaigns and two of whom are reasonably well-funded.

Commenting on the recent political liberalization in Belarus, one human rights activist in Minsk wistfully remarked, "I hope this change will stay and there will be no wave of repressions after the election." Whether this will happen remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding improvements in the ability of opposition candidates to run for office and to meet with voters, their access to the media and the composition of precinct electoral commissions have been heavily skewed in favor of Lukashenko. According to an interim report presented earlier this month by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Election Observation Mission in Minsk, the three main Belarusian television channels have devoted nearly 90 percent of their election coverage to the president — the remaining 10 percent has been shared by his nine opponents. 

Of course, opposition candidates also have fears that extend beyond biased media coverage. They have routinely expressed concern that the results of the election will be falsified by precinct electoral commissions under the influence of Lukashenko. Likewise, media reports regarding early voting suggest that some students and factory workers have been pressured by supporters of Lukashenko to vote in order to boost the number of early votes available to manipulate.

The second interesting twist this campaign season is that Lukashenko, who has long thumbed his nose at the international community, has recently expressed for the first time his desire that the European Union recognize the results of the election as legitimate. This concern has largely been driven by the deterioration of Lukashenko’s relationship with Moscow, his traditionally political and economic ally, which is likely one of the primary causes of the recent political liberalization.

The last time that Western nations recognized the results of an election in Belarus was during the country’s first presidential election in 1994 when Lukashenko, then 39 years old, was first elected. During the past 10 years, the United States and the European Union — in an effort to promote democratization and human rights in Belarus — pursued a policy of diplomatically isolating Belarus. This effort culminated in 2006 with the imposition of economic and travel sanctions against the Belarusian regime.

The U.S. and EU sanctions on Lukashenko and his top aides arguably gave Moscow more leverage over Minsk by increasing Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia and straining its relations with the West. In the past three years, however, the relationship between Belarus and Russia has suffered from intermittent sparring over various trade and strategic issues. Since the winter of 2007, Belarus and Russia have been engaged in a tug-of-war over renegotiating an increase in the price of gas supplied by Russia to Belarus. In addition, Belarus and Russia commenced a "milk war" in June 2008 over protectionist measures by Russia, which has harmed Belarusian dairy producers. The Belarus-Russia relationship has been further strained by Lukashenko’s reluctance to acknowledge the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia recognized following its 2008 war with Georgia. Likewise, Lukashenko has frustrated Moscow by delaying the signature of further economic and military cooperation agreements with Russia and its Central Asian neighbors.

The Kremlin, which has found Lukashenko increasingly impossible to deal with, unleashed the Russian media on him and his sons this summer, leading to speculation that Russia would not support his reelection or recognize falsified election results.

Paradoxically, Lukashenko’s spat with Russia has gained him ground with some of his past critics, many of whom privately say that tomorrow they will vote for the incumbent president — albeit while "holding their nose." Reflecting on the election, one taxi driver in Minsk recently explained, "In the past, I crossed out every name on the ballot, but this time I think I will go and fucking vote for him. I don’t want the Russian oligarchs taking over Belarus. Just look at what’s happening in Russia."

Sensing a political opportunity in light of the faltering Russia-Belarus relationship, several E.U. member states threw a diplomatic lifeline to Lukashenko two months before the election. First, the Lithuanian president paid a working visit to Minsk in late October, the first time in over a decade that Lithuania’s head of state has done so. Although she also met with opposition candidates, her visit was interpreted in Belarus as indirect support by a state wary of Russian influence for Lukashenko’s reelection campaign during his standoff with Moscow.

Then, in early November, two E.U. envoys — the Polish foreign minister and the German foreign minister — traveled to Minsk to state that the European Union cared primarily about "the quality" rather than "the results" of the election, and was willing to recognize Lukashenko’s reelection provided the election is held in accordance with democratic standards. While most observers believe there will be some voting irregularities in this election, it remains to be seen how extensive they will be and whether the European Union will recognize the election results as legitimate notwithstanding their imperfection.

The U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks confirm that Western states have made a concerted effort to normalize relations with Lukashenko for the past two years. One cable from the U.S. embassy in Warsaw indicates that the Polish foreign minister felt — as early as 2008 — that engaging with the authoritarian regime in Belarus was a "lesser evil" than a Russian "resurgence" in the region. According to this cable, Poland lobbied for a temporary repeal of the 2006 EU sanctions against Minsk and for an increase in Western investments into Belarus, so as to counterbalance Russian economic influence and to create a buffer between Poland and Russia.  

The WikiLeaks cables also show that Belarus may have been open to this resurgence in Western engagement. Another cable from the U.S. embassy in Stockholm revealed that the Belarusian foreign minister privately communicated to a senior EU diplomat in 2009 about pressure from Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following this conversation the EU diplomat was quoted as saying, "Belarus is bankrupt, and therefore vulnerable to Russian exploitation."

Belarus’s democratic opposition is growing jittery about Lukashenko’s attempt at normalizing relations with the European Union, as well as the diplomatic breakthrough he achieved with the United States earlier this month, after agreeing to relinquish his country’s stockpile of enriched uranium. They fear that Western actors will shift their support to the current Belarusian government for pragmatic and strategic reasons, causing a further retrenchment of the political status quo in Belarus.

The opposition, however, has shot itself in the foot this campaign season by failing to unify around a single candidate. Despite opposition candidates’ greater visibility and access to voters, the existence of nine opposition candidates has made it difficult for many Belarusian voters to believe that a credible and electable alternative to Lukashenko currently exists.

According to one reputable poll conducted two months ago by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, nearly half of the respondents favored Lukashenko, while his closest rival had an approval rating of only 17 percent. Thus, Lukashenko has the chance to legitimately win the election outright by securing an absolute majority of the vote during the first round of voting. And if he does not legitimately win the election outright — or wishes to boost his perceived mandate — precinct electoral commissions might engage in creative vote counting to assist him.

In a final surprise move this election season, Lukashenko — at the eleventh hour — patched up his relationship with the Kremlin a week before the vote. In a swap for energy concessions that are likely to win him political points at home, he recently signed documents facilitating the further integration of Belarus into the Russian economic space. These energy concessions will eliminate Russian tariffs on oil consumed in Belarus while retaining tariffs on the export of petrochemical products refined in Belarus.

In light of Lukashenko’s last-minute truce with Russia, the Kremlin will likely endorse the results of tomorrow’s presidential election and will support Lukashenko in the near term. Accordingly, at the moment Lukashenko’s life in politics appears to be safe.

But whether or not Lukashenko is now on his ninth life in politics ultimately will depend on how he acts as president during his fourth term and on how external actors react to his policies and actions. One thing is clear: With its foreign debt mushrooming and its currency reserves dwindling, Belarus, like its long-lasting president, finds itself between a rock and a hard place economically. According to the International Monetary Fund, Belarus’s foreign debt, which has tripled in the last three years, now stands at a record 52 percent of GDP.

To survive as an independent and economically viable state, Belarus must revamp its predominantly state-controlled economy, which has long helped Lukashenko cement his hold on power. However, liberalizing the economy could bring about Lukashenko’s ultimate political undoing. Accordingly, while the results of tomorrow’s election will be unsurprising, the surprises of this campaign season suggest that the election may mark an important crossroads for both Belarus and its president.

Ludmila Krytynskaia holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is an independent analyst in London.

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