Lukashenko Is Putin’s Future
The Russian president may seem invincible, but the descent of his Belarusian comrade may hint at what’s to come.
The announcement that Russian President Vladimir Putin won last week’s national vote to rewrite the country’s constitution and allow himself to run twice more for president was not exactly a surprise. Putin has a long track record of winning elections through a mix of genuine popularity, electoral skullduggery, and—most important of all—ensuring that no real alternatives are allowed on the ballot. This most recent plebiscite took Putin-era elections to new depths of meaningless. The constitutional changes had already been rubber-stamped by the requisite branches of Russia’s government by the time the vote occurred. So the vote’s only purpose was to express a view on what Putin had already done. According to the official tally, 78 percent of Russians who participated cast their vote in favor.
One interpretation is that the vote demonstrated the strengths of Putin’s political machine. Despite a ravaging COVID-19 epidemic, a slump in the price of oil, and a severe economic downturn, the Kremlin was able to convince or coerce 65 percent of Russians to vote, and the vast majority of those to vote in favor. Set aside the evidence that outright fraud was more prevalent this time than in previous elections. Or that the Kremlin offered prizes to lure people to the polls. The ability to get a large number of people to show up for an utterly pointless vote demonstrates that the government retains its ability to mobilize at least a substantial chunk of the Russian populace. After several months of bungling and obfuscation as the coronavirus tore through Russia, the Kremlin can claim competence at organizing a supposed election in traditional Russian style.
Putin now faces no legal obstacles if he decides, as appears likely, to stick around in the Kremlin until 2036. His next time at the polls is not scheduled until 2024, and he can rule for two more six-year terms. This would let him remain president well into his 80s, potentially making him the oldest Russian leader in at least a century. True, he must actually win the votes in 2024 and 2030, but if he can pull off a plebiscite, we must assume that he can also win those, too.
At least this that is the argument that the Kremlin’s spin doctors are making. Putin remains somewhat popular, even if his approval rating is down substantially from earlier highs after Russia seized Crimea in 2014. He has hardly any credible rivals, in no small part because would-be rivals face spurious legal cases, jailing, and even violence. And the Kremlin’s offering of nationalism coupled with social spending remains somewhat popular, even if the gap between promises and reality when it comes to living standards is growing ever wider.
Socioeconomic stability, Soviet nostalgia, and repressive politics have been a potent cocktail in Russia and other parts of the post-Soviet space. But in the former Soviet country most like Russia—Belarus—something is going awry. Belarus’s President Aleksandr Lukashenko faces reelection on Aug. 9 after a campaign that has already demonstrated the depth of his government’s unpopularity. He may well win the election, most likely by locking up his opponents, but he cannot shake the statistic that only 3 percent of the population supports him, as one opinion poll reported before Lukashenko banned polling.
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, so his troubles cannot be explained by a lack of political skill. Compared to other European leaders, his approach to the coronavirus—denying its importance and recommending treatments such as vodka and tractor-driving—has been uniquely inept, sapping his popularity. Yet the roots of Lukashenko’s dilemma are deeper. After 26 years of ruling Belarus, his economic promises ring hollow, the salience of Soviet-era imagery is waning, and even the threats of repression appear to be losing their potency.
It is easy to see why Lukashenko’s promises of higher living standards no longer work. Belarus, like Russia, is falling ever further behind neighbors such as Poland and Lithuania due to a period of economic stagnation that the pandemic has only deepened. Soviet nostalgia has limits, too, as the Soviet era drifts ever further into history. Lukashenko has gotten extraordinary political mileage out of lamenting the Soviet collapse and the socioeconomic crisis that followed. But that was almost 30 years ago. Well over a quarter of the population was born after the Soviet Union’s demise. It is growing ever harder to blame Belarus’ problems today on these historical boogeymen.
The collapse in Lukashenko’s support will transform politics in Belarus even if the old dictator survives by jailing his rivals. For the rest of the world, what happens in Belarus matters more as a glimpse into Russia’s potential future. There is no country more similar to Russia than Belarus. And Lukashenko is probably the best-known foreign politician in Russia. A quarter of Russians even think that Belarus and Russia should become a single country.
There are differences between the two countries, of course, most notably Russia’s great-power status, which enables Putin to wrap himself in the flag in a way that no Belarusian president ever can. But the many similarities in the political platforms offered by Lukashenko and Putin—promises of social spending, Soviet nostalgia, and strongman tactics—mean that Lukashenko’s fate matters greatly for Russia’s future. If Lukashenko relies more heavily on repression to retain power, it will undermine Putin’s claim that their shared political promises are widely popular. If Lukashenko is ousted, it would set a precedent very dangerous for Putin as he eyes 16 more years in power. The Kremlin must hope that Lukashenko somehow restores his credibility, lest his popularity sink any deeper—and drag Putin down with him.