While You Weren't Looking

In Belarus, an Unlikely Trio Challenges Lukashenko

The president’s sixth term in office is all but guaranteed, but an unexpected groundswell of support for the opposition has exposed his unpopularity.

People protest at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, during a rally of solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus on July 3.
People protest at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, during a rally of solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus on July 3. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Three women unite to challenge Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko ahead of the Aug. 9 presidential election, what to make of talks over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and a U.S. fighter jet causes a near miss in Syrian airspace.

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Lukashenko Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is often described as Europe’s last dictator and for good reason. For over a quarter of a century, the former pig farm manager has deftly navigated his country’s precarious position between Europe and Russia while maintaining a tight grip thanks to Soviet-style governance where arbitrary arrests, collective farming, and the KGB persist. Lukashenko now faces his greatest challenge to date, as an unlikely trio of women have united to challenge him in the presidential election scheduled for Aug. 9.

Fed up with economic stagnation and Lukashenko’s apparent disregard for the impact of COVID-19, Belarusians lined up for hours to sign petitions to qualify opposition candidates for the race. Predictably, two of the main opposition candidates, the blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and the former banker Viktor Babariko, have already been arrested and remain imprisoned. A third, former Ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, was prevented from registering.

But the story did not end there. Tikhanovsky’s wife, the language teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, picked up her husband’s campaign and last week was unexpectedly able to register her candidacy with the Central Electoral Commission. She has joined forces with Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika Tsepkalo, and Babariko’s campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, to form the new, all-female face of the Belarusian opposition.

Elections are neither free nor fair in Belarus, and Lukashenko’s sixth term in office is all but guaranteed. But the public groundswell of support for the opposition has exposed his growing unpopularity and could precipitate a brutal crackdown. Tikhanovskaya, whose husband is still in prison, has already sent her children abroad after receiving threats. Female activists in Belarus often face gender-based reprisals, including threats of having their children placed in state custody, according to a recent Amnesty International report.

Lukashenko has faced unrest in the past, mostly confined to the capital of Minsk and quickly suppressed. This time, the persistence and the fact that protests have spread to smaller towns and cities once considered to be the core of Lukashenko’s base make things different, said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst. At least 700 opposition supporters and 17 journalists have been arrested since May. Undeterred, thousands of people turned out to support Tikhanovskaya at a rally in the small city of Barysau on Thursday.

In a bid to shore up his power, Lukashenko reshuffled his cabinet in June, stacking it with officials with ties to the security services. “It’s pretty obvious that he will have to rely more on force and on the Siloviki [people connected to the military and security services],” Shraibman said. “I don’t see any peaceful resolution here,” said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 prompted Minsk to rethink its dependence on Moscow, as Lukashenko began to pursue a rapprochement with the West. A series of recent diplomatic breakthroughs with Washington, including an agreement to exchange ambassadors for the first time in over a decade, could now be thrown into question. “Lukashenko is digging his diplomatic grave now with his own hands,” Shraibman said.


What We’re Following

Nile dam dispute sows confusion. Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have agreed to resume talks over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile, which Cairo and Khartoum fear could limit their access to vital water supplies. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the countries had reached a “major common understanding which paves the way for a breakthrough agreement” but did not provide further details after Tuesday’s discussions, mediated by the African Union.

While negotiations over plans for the dam have stoked tensions in East Africa, they have also sown confusion within the U.S. government. In this exclusive, officials told Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer that they fear the Trump administration is siding with Egypt in the dispute and is weighing withholding some aid to Ethiopia.

Near miss over Syria. Several people on an Iranian passenger jet were reportedly injured when the plane was forced to swerve and drop abruptly to avoid a U.S. fighter jet as it flew over Syrian airspace on Thursday. Videos shared by an Iranian state news agency showed passengers screaming, with one man apparently unconscious on the floor of the aircraft. A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said on Thursday that a F-15 jet had conducted a “standard visual inspection” of the Mahan Air plane, adding that it was done at “a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters.”

The incident comes as Tehran is already on edge following a series of fires and explosions at factories and military installations across the country, which Iranian officials have suggested could be acts of sabotage. Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said the country was investigating the incident and would “take necessary legal and political measures.” Also this week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, renewed threats to retaliate against the United States over the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in January.

Egypt’s next move in Libya. On Monday, the Egyptian parliament unanimously authorized military intervention in Libya, setting the stage for a potential clash with Turkey in the proxy war. The authorization did not specify exactly where the troops would be deployed, but a statement made reference to a “western front”—widely interpreted as a reference to neighboring Libya. Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have thrown their support behind the renegade Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who ended his assault on Tripoli last month.

In January, Turkey deployed troops to Libya in support of the embattled U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, which proved decisive in turning the tide of the conflict. On Thursday, a Turkish presidential spokesperson described the Egyptian authorization as “counterproductive” and a “dangerous military adventure.”


Keep an Eye On 

Hungary’s press freedom dwindles. The Hungarian government is edging closer to complete control over the country’s media landscape. Szabolcs Dull, the editor in chief of the country’s most widely read news site, Index.hu, was fired on Wednesday, putting the site’s independence in jeopardy. In March, the businessman Miklos Vaszily, who is closely aligned with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, acquired a 50 percent stake in the site’s advertising business.

Vaszily previously transformed the independent news site Origo into a pro-government mouthpiece. On Friday, around half of Index.hu’s staff—some 60 people—announced that they would resign en masse in protest.

Ireland’s hate crimes legislation. People of color in Ireland report experiencing some of the highest rates of racial harassment in Europe, yet hate crimes prosecutions are low. That’s because Ireland is one of few Western countries without any effective laws to distinguish attacks motivated by religious or racial hatred. The one law on the books—regarding inciting violence based on hatred—is extremely difficult to prosecute: As of 2019, only five people had been convicted in the past 30 years.

Global Black Lives Matter protests have now fueled calls for new hate crimes laws in Ireland. The government formed last month said it plans to introduce new legislation, a move supported by the country’s main political parties.

Controversy over Nazi artifact in Uruguay. A Nazi-era giant bronze sculpture of an eagle with a swastika in its talons is set to soon go on auction in Uruguay, but a U.S. holocaust research center has urged the authorities in Uruguay to stop the sale. The center suggests that it be given to a museum or educational institution to prevent it from falling into the hands of white supremacists in the growing international trade of Third Reich artifacts.

The eagle was recovered by private investors in 2006 after a two-year effort to salvage it from the Graf Spee, a German warship scuttled in port at Montevideo in 1939. It is currently housed in a warehouse owned by the government and has been the subject of fierce debate over who can claim ownership. In 2014, the country’s supreme court ruled that if the item, which is estimated to be worth $26 million, were ever to be sold, the profits should be split between the government and the company that paid for its recovery.


Odds and Ends

Key to release. A gunman took 13 people hostage on a bus in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk on Tuesday. His demand? That President Volodymyr Zelensky recommend the Ukrainian public watch a 2005 documentary film about animal rights narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. The 12-hour standoff was brought to an end after Zelensky posted a video to his Facebook page saying, “Everyone should watch the 2005 film Earthlings.” The video was subsequently deleted, although copies were widely distributed online. The hostages were released unharmed, and the gunman was detained.


That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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