Belarus has seen dramatic political developments over the past few days. First, the Election Commission announced that long-term President Alexander Lukashenko was the winner of Sunday’s election. His main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, rejected the results and called for a recount. Protests broke out in the capital, Minsk, which was met with a violent security crackdown. At least 2,000 people were detained and dozens injured. Then, as the country was slipping into chaos and anarchy, she fled to neighbouring Lithuania, saying she made “a very difficult decision”. But her campaign committee has said that it would continue to support the protests against the “election fraud”. This was the hardest fought election in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, since the USSR’s disintegration. There has been widespread anger against the government over a stagnant economy. Mr. Lukashenko, often touted as Europe’s last dictator, had cracked down on the Opposition even before the election. Ms. Tikhanovskaya entered the race after her husband and a popular YouTuber, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was to contest against Mr. Lukashenko, was detained and barred from contesting for allegedly inciting unrest. Throughout the campaigning and the election, the Opposition accused the government of intimidation, cracking down on journalists and activists, and prohibiting independent observers. All these raised doubts about the fairness of the election.
It is too early to say if Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s departure would remove the hurdles Mr. Lukashenko faces in extending his term further. If the protests questioning the legitimacy of his presidency continue, at a time of growing economic troubles, it could substantially weaken him. The crisis has already derailed his plans for a strategic realignment in Eastern Europe. In recent years, Belarus, a geopolitical ally of Russia with cultural links, has shown a willingness to work closer with the West. His bet was to raise the strategic profile of his landlocked country at a time when the contest for influence in Eastern Europe between Moscow and Washington was hotting up. But many western countries have condemned the handling of the election and the protests, and called for a peaceful settlement. Moscow immediately sensed an opportunity to cement ties with Belarus, which is an important transit route of Russian gas to Europe as well as a buffer between Russia and European powers. Mr. Lukashenko has nowhere to turn to other than Moscow. He has to decide whether he wants to extend his 26-year reign at any cost or ensure the formation of a legitimate government that could address the country’s vital problems. If he chooses the last, he has to rein in the police, reach out to the Opposition and offer talks to find a peaceful settlement to the crisis.