All Bets Are Off in Belarus

Sunday’s election results are predictable, but no one knows what comes next.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A woman holds a poster depicting the icons of the Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's presidential campaign at an unofficial rally in the capital of Minsk on Aug. 6.
A woman holds a poster depicting the icons of the Belarusian opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's presidential campaign at an unofficial rally in the capital of Minsk on Aug. 6. Celestino Arce/NurPhoto

Elections are a predictable affair in the country often called Europe’s last dictatorship: There will be few surprises when Aleksandr Lukashenko is reelected to his sixth consecutive term as president of Belarus on Sunday. 

But the real political upset has taken place on the campaign trail, as the president has faced an unprecedented challenge from the teacher-turned-opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has drawn big crowds in smaller towns and cities across the country that were once thought to be Lukashenko’s base. 

Increasingly defiant political opposition, and the crumbling of the social contract that guaranteed moderate prosperity in exchange for authoritarian rule, has apparently undermined what popular support Lukashenko still had.

“The level of dissatisfaction among the population has been growing all the time,” said Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian-born Ph.D. researcher at University College London who studies the country’s political economy. “It’s clear for everyone that Lukashenko’s time is over.”

The closely watched election comes after several weeks of cascading incidents. Tensions with Russia have spiked after Belarus arrested 33 operatives from Russia’s quasi-private military contractor the Wagner Group in Minsk, claiming they were part of a Russian operation to destabilize the country. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, described the arrests as “offensive” this week and warned that they could have “sad consequences.”

On Monday, Moscow said 3,000 men would take part in war games near the border with Belarus. The next day, Minsk announced that it was going to conduct military training for reservists near the border with Russia. 

But tensions, defiance, and intimidation have also marked the final stretch of the campaign. Last week, some 63,000 people attended a rally in Minsk—thought to be the largest since the 1990s—in support of Tikhanovskaya, whose two campaign promises are to free political prisoners and hold new elections. Another scheduled rally in the capital on Thursday was canceled after Tikhanovskaya’s campaign chief, Maryya Maroz, was briefly detained and warned about the potential consequences of holding “unsanctioned” rallies. Other members of the campaign team were detained across the country. 

Between May 6 and July 20, some 1,140 people were detained for taking part in protests, rallies, and other election-related activities, while almost 200 people have been sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment, with some receiving multiple sentences, according to human rights groups in the country. The crackdown widened this week and at times took a turn for the absurd. 

After Tikhanovskaya’s rally in the capital was canceled, the candidate and her team announced that they would instead attend a pro-government rally as “ordinary Belarusian citizens.” It’s unclear if the opposition leader actually attended the rally, but as her supporters arrived, two DJs at the event began to play the song “I Want Changes!” by the Soviet rock group Kino, a well-known protest anthem in the former Soviet Union. They were later detained and charged with minor hooliganism and disobedience, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Several popular Russian singers and the American rappers Tyga and Saint Jhn, who were invited to perform in Minsk and other cities on the eve of the election, thought to be a bid to overshadow opposition protests, canceled their concerts. Tyga canceled his participation in the event after receiving a letter from the Human Rights Foundation imploring him to pull out. 

Meanwhile the Belarusian Football Federation has postponed all soccer matches in the capital this weekend after fans began chanting “Long live Belarus” at a match Thursday, perceived as an anti-Lukashenko chant. 

As if that weren’t enough, in late July Belarus got into a diplomatic tiff with the United States, detaining Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-born U.S. citizen who worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, in his hometown of Gomel. Shkliarov told BuzzFeed News that he was in town to visit his mother, who has cancer. On Friday, he was charged with organizing an unsanctioned political rally for the opposition and could face up to three years’ imprisonment. 

Shkliarov is married to a U.S. diplomat and travels on a diplomatic passport. A spokesperson for the State Department told Foreign Policy that the department was aware that a U.S. citizen had been detained in Belarus and called for Shkliarov to have his right to consular notification honored. State declined to provide further comment due to privacy considerations. 

Tikanovskaya launched her presidential campaign when her husband, the popular video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested after trying to mount his own bid for the presidency. He remains in prison on charges of violating public order and election laws, and the couple have sent their two children to live abroad after receiving threats. Female activists in Belarus are often threatened with having their children removed from their care and placed in state custody, according to a recent Amnesty International report. 

The very fact that Tikhanovskaya is a woman may explain why she was unexpectedly allowed to register her candidacy last month after two previous candidates were jailed—Tikhanovsky and the former banker Viktor Babariko—and a third, former Belarusian Ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, was prevented from registering.

Lukashenko has previously said the country was not ready for a female president and that the stresses of the job would cause her to “collapse, poor thing.” 

What seems to be collapsing—though it’s hard to measure—is Lukashenko’s true support.

In the early 2000s, Belarus enjoyed strong economic growth, with GDP growth topping 11 percent a year at one point, tamping down any embers of unrest at the country’s authoritarian bent. But the economy never recovered after the global financial crash just over a decade ago. The World Bank has predicted that the Belarusian economy will contract by 4 percent this year, the largest decline in 25 years.

Lukashenko’s response to the pandemic, like that of other authoritarian leaders, proved to be a turning point for many Belarusians. “The virus attacks the weak,” Lukashenko said amid the outbreak, refusing to implement lockdown measures and instead recommending that people drink vodka and visit the sauna to ward off the virus. He revealed last month that he had contracted and recovered from the virus. 

The country’s last remaining independent pollster shuttered in 2016, facing increased pressure from the authorities, so it’s hard to know just how far his support may have fallen. 

A wily political operative who has successfully played Russia and the West against each other, Lukashenko increasingly looks to have painted himself into a corner as his popularity plunges at home and tensions flare with his longtime backer Russia.

In a fiery state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday, Lukashenko accused Russia of lying about the arrested Wagner mercenaries, which Moscow had claimed were using Minsk as a transit point before traveling to a third country. 

“So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled, but an attempt to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk is already obvious,” Lukashenko said. He also claimed, without evidence, that a second group of fighters had been deployed to the south of the country. 

In a phone call on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for the extradition of a number of the Wagner mercenaries to Ukraine, where several of them are reported to have fought alongside separatists in the Donbass. Moscow, which has long sought to obfuscate its role in stoking the conflict in eastern Ukraine and in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, will likely be nervous about what the men could reveal if they are handed over to Kyiv. 

“I am not confident anymore that it [extradition] was just an empty threat, though I believe it is still quite unlikely,” said Andrei Yeliseyeu, the research director of the Warsaw-based Eurasian States in Transition Research Center. In case they are extradited, one cannot rule out that the Kremlin will seriously think of betting against Lukashenko and creating a controlled chaos in Belarus to bring another person to power favorable to the Kremlin.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack