The rise of civic activism in Belarus shows the intricacies of developing civil society and political opposition in a country that has seen the former discouraged and the latter quashed. The decentralised nature of civic action is its greatest strength, but also its great weakness.
“The poisoning of the opposition leader, Mr Alexei Navalny, has shocked all of us. We can expect that this will have an impact on European Union-Russia relations.” This is how the EU Vice-President Josep Borrell addressed the EU Parliament last September. Navalny’s poisoning is yet another episode of the EU-RU relations saga, adding up to tensions stemming from the Belarus protests, conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh, clashes over energy and particularly the start of the Nord Stream 2 operations.
As the presidential election nears in Belarus—marked by strong countrywide opposition to President Alexander Lukashenka and a corresponding crackdown—the United States faces a choice. If the latest bout of repression continues or intensifies up to and after polling day, it will have to decide whether to once more take a tough line against Lukashenka, after a few years of tentative rapprochement, or to turn a blind eye because of geopolitical calculations.
Over the last six years, Belarus’ foreign policy has evolved significantly in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Compared to Ukraine’s political turmoil and subsequent war in Donbas, neighbouring Belarus seemed like a kingdom of stability. Minsk was quick to adopt a neutral role and put itself forward to host the main venue for negotiation on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The upcoming presidential elections in Belarus are likely to mark a critical (dis)juncture for the country in general and, in particular, for its relations with Russia. The two allies have exhausted the model of bilateral relations that served them well in the past and need to open a new chapter in their relationship. What this chapter might look like and how long and bumpy the road to it is going to be will depend to a large extent on the outcomes of this election.
On August 9, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will seek his sixth term in office. He has ruled over the country for a quarter-century, relying on a mix of repression, information control, and Russian subsidies. Past elections were foregone conclusions. But this one is different: the coronavirus epidemic has exposed Lukashenka’s incompetence and animated Belarusian civil society. No matter how the votes are counted, it will be remembered as an important moment in Belarus’s political history.
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.
The 9 August presidential elections in Belarus represent an unprecedented challenge to the power of Alexander Lukashenko. But as the autocrat is expected to achieve re-election in one way or another, little is likely to change as concerns the dilemma the EU (and the US) face in dealing with him.
On 9 August, Aleksandr Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by Western media, will seek re-election as president of Belarus for the sixth time in a row. This time, however, his regime is facing genuine popular resistance at a time when is also experiencing tension with its longstanding international ally, Russia, and economic problems related also to the COVID-19 pandemic. All this contributes to making these elections different. But could the times be ripe for a democratization process in the country?
The post-Soviet space is fluid and competitive with many actors, besides Russia, chasing their interests. Recently, also China has