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Alexander Lukashenko | The autumn of the autocrat

Belarusian President Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, who was re-elected in a disputed poll for a sixth term on August 9, remains unfazed by the groundswell of resistance stemming from allegations of vote rigging. Few believe that the main opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s challenge to the official claim of an 80% vote share for the incumbent will translate into concrete political change in Minsk. But by arbitrarily detaining and debarring many opposition candidates, unleashing violence on thousands of protesters after the vote and ridiculing the COVID-19 pandemic, the ex-head of a collective farm has helped, unwittingly, unite The country against his 26-year dictatorship.

Mr. Lukashenko was once affectionately nicknamed ‘Batka’, meaning father. That was some 26 years ago, when he won a landslide for his first term in a newly-independent former Soviet republic. In more recent years, Mr. Lukashenko has earned a reputation as Europe’s last dictator. On the external front, he has leveraged the country’s geography and contemporary history to ensure that Belarus did not swerve too much towards either the European Union or Russia.

Lacking credibility

Mr. Lukashenko’s manoeuvres to remain in elected office have lacked even a modicum of credibility, as he went about rewriting the Constitution, marginalised the opposition and entrenched his grip on power. The autocrat eventually dispensed with presidential term limits in a 2004 constitutional referendum. The country was given a few weeks’ notice to vote on that basic democratic principle, but the ballot was held two years ahead of his 2006 reelection. The move sparked outrage and the EU responded with sanctions against top Belarusian officials and a freeze on assets.

After the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the early 1990s, almost all the other Soviet republics coveted future membership of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Mr. Lukashenko initially cast his lot with Russia, signing the 1997 establishment of the Union State of Russia and Belarus with the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Minsk is also the founder member of Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union to forge unity among ex-Soviet Republics. In 2010, Belarus joined a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan. While the former two initiatives remain largely symbolic, Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the continuing military stand-off in Ukraine have alerted Mr. Lukashenko to the need to bolster Belarusian sovereignty and integrity. The two Minsk peace deals he brokered in its aftermath allowed him to project himself as a neutral arbiter in the region and build a rapprochement with the EU.

Crackdown on opposition

Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the President’s main contender in the August 9 election, who has since pledged to steer the country towards a free and fair poll, plunged into the fray as a replacement for her husband. Sergei Tikhanovsky was jailed in June for a highly provocative and wildly popular anti-corruption slogan, targeting Mr. Lukashenko. Authorities also linked the 33 Russian private military contractors they arrested in July on suspicion of plotting to sabotage the elections to the detained Mr. Tikhanovsky.

Another prominent candidate, a banker who entered the race on a plank of restoring presidential term limits and separation of powers, was similarly detained on charges of financial fraud. A notable opposition politician barred from contesting the August poll was Mr. Lukashenko’s 2010 challenger, who was subsequently released after a long imprisonment.

Mr. Lukashenko’s response to the violent crisis over the fortnight has been to blame other countries for orchestrating opposition to the election results. As thousands took to the streets against what they viewed as another stolen poll, his reaction was much like his dismissal of the COVID-19 pandemic. While thousands have contracted the infection and large numbers have died, the President has described it as a frenzy and psychosis; advising citizens to down vodka and get back to work.

But as the tragic human consequences from the public health crisis and the economic downturn extract a toll, the country is likely to turn more hostile to Mr. Lukashenko’s bluster. Even this master survivor must recognise sooner that he is fast running out of options.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 4:26:25 AM |

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