In this year’s election, Belarus’ strongman Aliaksandr Lukashenka is facing genuine resistance to his rule and, it seems, has made several mistakes in dealing with his opponents - bad election timing, counter-productive violence and stirring up another source of tension with Russia. Although the state’s autocratic system has hindered electoral competition in Belarus since 1994, it is widely believed that Lukashenka would have won all previous elections even if votes had been counted fairly. Until recently, this kept civil society relatively unengaged but a last-minute twist has changed everything.
Lukashenka’s reluctant response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the consistent decline of people’s incomes and broader political stagnation has coincided with the emergence of popular alternative candidates. Some online surveys and leaked polls suggest that Lukashenka has lost the electoral majority, whereas his prime rivals - Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkala and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya - have enjoyed unprecedented support from the Belarusian public. They have collected more signatures in their support than most other alternative candidates in Belarus’ history and attracted thousands of people to their legal slates.
Not surprisingly, this situation has played on Lukashenka’s nerves. Even before the official registration of presidential candidates, the potential participants faced repression - something previously unseen even in Belarus. Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband and popular YouTube blogger, who initially planned to run for president), are now imprisoned in connection with what Amnesty International considers politically motivated cases. Tsepkala fled Belarus with his children upon - as he claims - getting reports of an expected imprisonment and parental rights deprivation.
Whereas such a radical government response to the rise of civil society in Belarus is indeed unusual, perhaps more so is its effect. After a suspected provocation at a legal picket put Tsikhanouski in custody, the queues of people willing to give their signatures in support of his wife Sviatlana have only risen. The detention of Babaryka and his son gave rise to “chains of solidarity” actions - perhaps the largest acts of unauthorized public protests in Belarus since 2010. Overall, the more the government has suppressed resistance, the more it has backfired.
This pattern, however, does not look surprising in view of a recent article by Daniel Treisman. His research reveals that only one third of all democratization processes since 1800 have occurred due to deliberate choice, while two thirds were the outcome of mistaken strategies which autocratic leaders adopted trying to maintain power.
Lukashenka has clearly been making mistakes. The first and most fundamental is “election mishandling”, a common mistake which accounts for around 22% of the democratization cases studied by Treisman. The incumbent president decided to hold the election right at the moment when his approval rating dropped to a supposedly all-time low due to the largely unpopular response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, he could have run in the presidential election instead of the parliamentary in 2019, but chose to postpone the former. Should Lukashenka have run for president last year, he would likely have found himself in less stressful circumstances.
The second mistake was “enforcing counterproductive violence” - the reason for another 22% of regime changes. Lukashenka personally initiated the arrest of Tsikhanouski, which many Belarusians did not believe was justified. The case against Babaryka fostered public disagreement too, as his supporters immediately started a petition asking for his release. Prominent bloggers and activists have been arrested and, what’s more important, even random passers-by have been held administratively liable. For example, one case that caught the public eye involved an oncology surgeon in Minsk receiving a fine for “participating in mass protests” while merely chatting with a friend nearby. Many people have been detained while queuing for a shop that sells clothes and products with national Belarusian symbols. These events prompted famous Belarusian figures, unusually including state TV hosts, to speak out against police brutality and political repression. Some of them have faced sanctions at work or lost their jobs.
Babaryka’s case has also potentially driven Lukashenka into making a third error - “major foreign policy failure” - which accounts for 17% of democratizations by mistake according to Treisman. For 20 years, Babaryka headed Belgazprombank - over 99% of its stock belongs to Russian state energy giant Gazprom and its associated bank, Gazprombank. Immediately after opening an investigation into the administration of Belgazprombank in mid-June, the Belarusian government appointed its own acting chairman of the board. While there is a debate on whether this action is legal, both Gazprom and Gazprombank have made their position clear: the actions of Belarusian officials are unlawful as only shareholders can appoint the head of Belgazprombank.
Whether this confusion about Russian assets will escalate Lukashenka’s relations with Vladimir Putin remains unclear. As Yauheni Preiherman writes in this dossier, the Belarus-Russia relations have already become bumpy, to the extent that Lukashenka and his officials keep speaking of Russian involvement in the ongoing election and Russian “puppeteers” behind Babaryka. With the EU presumably on the path to imposing new sanctions against Lukashenka, it may leave the Belarusian president deprived of foreign economic support needed to sustain his rule.
The most recent of Lukashenka mistakes concern non-registration of two of the most popular presidential candidates—Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsepkala—along with registration of the third most popular one—Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Presumably, the authorities considered Tsikhanouskaya incapable of running a proper campaign and attracting many voters as the key members of her team have been arrested. Yet shortly after her registration, it came as a surprise that the teams of Babaryka and Tsepkala would unite with Tsikhanouskaya to run a joint campaign. Instead of dividing the resistance movement and discouraging its supporters, the authorities’ decision has brought the opposition together for the first time since 2006. With support of the united team, Tsikhanouskaya has probably become the most popular alternative candidate to ever participate in Belarus’ presidential elections: her rallies gather thousands of participants even in small towns.
This is not to suggest that Lukashenka’s regime is on the verge of collapse. First of all, his mistakes have only triggered reaction in a proportion - no matter how significant - of the population. It is unclear whether they impacted the elites. Which is crucial as by far the most common way of regime change is a coup d’état - almost two thirds of authoritarian failures occur due to elites becoming disloyal.
In Belarus, there is no evidence yet that would hint about any sort of elite breakdown, especially as Lukashenka has recently refreshed his cabinet of ministers. Instead of market liberals, more representatives of the security and military services - the so-called siloviki - have entered the cabinet. Uladzimir Makei, the foreign minister who has been widely regarded as one of the most pro-Western members of Lukashenka’s cabinet, has recently shown his support for the actions of the incumbent government. “The regime is strong,” he claimed in one of his latest interviews. Hence even in theory, there is little room for transformation of the Belarusian political structure from the inside.
As for the foreign policy mistakes, they may end up without any significant consequences at all. Neither Russia, nor the EU have yet imposed any formal sanctions on Belarus and even if they do so, Lukashenka has long been developing friendships with wealthy actors such as China and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf (particularly the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia). In case Belarus’ usual partners decide to turn on the incumbent president, these countries might become alternative sources of international support and investment in the Belarusian economy.
Vitally, in Treisman’s analysis only one error was enough for most regimes to fall, so mistakes are not about their quantity, but quality. And so far, Lukashenka has been handling this aspect well, spreading out likely points of public unrest over time. Tsikhanouski’s arrest occurred in one media cycle, Babaryka was detained during another, and Tsepkala’s registration was denied during a third. This way, the regime may be continuously hitting the “boiling point” for unrest, but never exceeding it.
Mishandling the repressive apparatus seems to pose the most prominent threat to Lukashenka’s power. More people are becoming politically active and feel personally involved in the electoral process as their signatures are rejected, as they, their friends and family members get fined or detained for what doesn’t appear unlawful to them. Unusually and hence surprisingly, civil society does not seem to weaken however hard it is being hit.
It is definitely too early to write Lukashenka off as Belarus’ president, but his usually deft political strategy has never brought him as close to a defeat as this time.
An earlier version of this article appeared on openDemocracy