FP Guide

Meltdown in Minsk

Massive violence in the wake of Sunday’s sham election has thrown a spotlight on Belarus and the growing backlash to a quarter century of one-man rule.

A protester walks in front of riot police making a heart gesture with his hands, one of the symbols used by the leading opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 9.
A protester walks in front of riot police making a heart gesture with his hands, one of the symbols used by the leading opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 9. Celestino Arce/NurPhoto

Security forces arrested some 3,000 people overnight in Belarus after protests broke out in response to Sunday’s dubious election results, the results of which have been questioned by opposition activists as well as European governments.

Dozens of people were injured as riot police used rubber bullets, water cannons, and flash grenades to suppress the protests. NetBlocks, a service that tracks internet freedom, reported severe disruptions in internet access in Belarus on Sunday, while security forces blocked off access to main roads into the capital, Minsk. Early on Monday evening, further protests were violently dispersed, and opposition activists have called for a general strike to begin on Tuesday. 

As political unrest threatens to engulf another country on the borderlands between Russia and the European Union, we’ve gathered our top reads to help make sense of what’s going on in Belarus. After 26 years in power, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko faces the most significant challenge yet to his rule. Frustrations are mounting over economic stagnation and his laissez-faire handling of the coronavirus pandemic, driving support for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose preelection rallies were some of the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

On Monday, the Belarusian Central Election Commission declared that Lukashenko had won with 80.23 percent of the vote to Tikhanovskaya’s 9.9 percent, with the remaining votes split between three other candidates. Tikhanovskaya rejected the election results and said her team would do everything they could to challenge them. Exit polls conducted outside of Belarusian Embassies in 19 countries with large diasporas suggested that Tikhanovskaya received almost 80 percent of the vote while results from some of Minsk’s more reliable polling stations also put the opposition candidate in the lead. In a statement on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United States is deeply concerned about the conduct of the August 9 presidential election in Belarus, which was not free and fair.”

“The authorities should start to think about how to manage a peaceful transfer of power because at the moment they only have one method: violence against peaceful Belarusians,” Tikhanovskaya said on Monday.

In the spring, it was already clear that the election would not pass quietly, as the opposition video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky announced on May 6 that he was going to run for president with the campaign slogan “Stop the Cockroach,” a reference to Lukashenko’s indefatigable rule. Voters turned out in droves to sign petitions in support of his candidacy. When Tikhanovsksy was arrested two days later, they collected signatures to put his wife on the ballot instead. 

“At root, it’s about the coronavirus pandemic. Lukashenko’s approach to the coronavirus has shown Belarusians how little their president cares for their safety and well-being,” Vitali Shkliarov wrote for Foreign Policy in June. (Shkliarov, a Belarus-born political analyst who worked on Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, was arrested in Belarus in July and charged with organizing an illegal political rally. If convicted, Shkliarov, who is based in Washington and married to a U.S. diplomat, could face up to three years in prison.)

Another leading opposition candidate, the former banker Viktor Barbaryko, was also arrested. Yet another, Valery Tsepkalo, the country’s former ambassador to the United States, was prevented from registering his candidacy. After Tikhanovskaya was unexpectedly allowed to register her candidacy—possibly having been underestimated by Lukashenko, who has previously said a women could not handle the stress of the job—Tsepaklo’s wife, Veronika Tsepkalo, and Babariko’s campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, rallied around Tikhanovskaya to form the new, all-female face of the Belarusian opposition

On Monday, Robert Biedron, the Polish MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s Belarus delegation, called for the European Union to reimpose sanctions on Minsk, while the Polish government called for an emergency EU summit to discuss the situation. The escalating crackdown on dissent could throw into question a delicate thaw in relations underway between Western countries and Belarus. In January 2019, Foreign Policy reported that Belarus lifted a long-standing cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to serve in the country, a major diplomatic breakthrough after the last U.S. ambassador was expelled in 2008, when Washington imposed sanctions on the country over growing human rights concerns. 

In September 2019, then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton became the most senior U.S. official to visit the country this century, a record soon broken when Pompeo traveled to Minsk this year during a tour of the region. In February, we reported that the Trump administration was to appoint Julie Fisher, a career foreign service officer, as the U.S. ambassador to Belarus. Fisher’s Senate confirmation hearing took place last week. 

Belarus has long been regarded to be one of Moscow’s closest allies in a relationship often described as “oil for kisses,” and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine prompted Lukashenko to rethink his dependence on the Kremlin and to pursue closer ties with both the West and China. In 2015, he freed the country’s remaining political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill to the West, prompting the United States and the EU to ease their sanctions on Belarus, paving the way for a diplomatic thaw. 

In late 2018, as Moscow’s chattering classes were consumed with the question of what would happen when President Vladimir Putin reached his constitutionally imposed term limit in 2024, Russian officials dusted off a 1999 treaty of union between Belarus and Russia, which, if fully realized, could create a kind of confederacy. Statements from former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev about deepening ties between the two countries prompted speculation that Belarus could become part of Putin’s plan to stay in power—and fears about Belarus’s independence. 

“We’re not going to cut off our ties with Russia, they are our neighbor and largest economic partner, but surrendering our sovereignty and independence is out of the discussion,” Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy’s Reid Standish in an interview late last year. “There are already three or four generations of people born in the new, independent state of Belarus, and they will never agree with giving up any independence.” 

While a constitutional referendum ultimately solved Putin’s term-limit problem, relations between the two countries—strained by a lengthy dispute over energy prices—took a nosedive last month, when Belarus arrested 33 suspected mercenaries from the quasi-private Russian military contractor the Wagner Group. Russia claims that the men were using Minsk as a transit hub to travel elsewhere. Lukashenko said it was evidence of a plot against him, part of a Russian destabilization campaign, and in a fiery state-of-the-nation speech last week claimed, without evidence, that a second group of fighters had been deployed in southern Belarus

Russia has never been shy about meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, but for now at least Moscow appears to be letting events in Belarus run their course. But that doesn’t mean that the Kremlin isn’t watching closely. Lukashenko’s present predicament could be a preview of what the future may have in store for Putin.

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

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