For Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, the presidential elections promise to be the biggest challenge in a quarter of a century. Gone are the years in which he ran the terms of office with monster scores. A sluggish economy, dissatisfaction with the lack of freedom and a pitiful approach to the coronavirus gave his popularity a blast.
As usual, Lukashenko did not take any risks in the run-up to the elections: opposition figures, critical journalists and election observers disappeared behind bars or had to flee the country. One nevertheless managed to slip through the net: opposition candidate Svetlana Tichanovskaya, a 37-year-old housewife and former English teacher and translator. Flanked by two other opposition women, she has drawn tens of thousands of Belarusians to her election rallies in recent weeks. This is unseen in a country that in the West is sometimes called the last European dictatorship.
Tichanovskaya is the wife of a well-known blogger who spoke of dissatisfied Belarusians in his YouTube videos and was arrested at the end of May. Although Lukashenko boasts that she poses no danger – ‘A woman can never win the elections’ – she has since received the support of a wide group of Belarusians, from the united opposition, over townspeople to rural residents. Tichanovskaya does not have major political ambitions: she promises to stay on for six months and then organize free elections. She is combative. She sent her children to her mother abroad for safety reasons.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls, it is impossible to say how great Tikhanovskaya is. It is certain that the popularity of Lukashenko is in free fall. Many Belarusians no longer accept his dream image of a Belarus as a stable island in a turbulent world.
It is certain that President Alexander Lukashenko will win the elections. The big question is what happens next.
Some problems have been around for years. The economy is dominated by heavily subsidized state-owned companies and relies heavily on the supply of cheap Russian oil and gas. Tensions with Russia halted that supply at the end of last year, which severely hit the economy. The corona outbreak did the rest. Many Belarusians look with wide eyes at Lukashenko’s approach to the crisis. The president dismissed the virus as a mass psychosis and suggested it could be cured by drinking vodka, driving a tractor, and grabbing saunas.
Although popular anger is rising – the largest demonstration in ten years took place in Minsk last week – it is certain that Lukashenko will win the elections on Sunday, if necessary thanks to massive fraud. The question is what happens next. Tichanovskaya called on her supporters to photograph their ballots and wear white en masse on election day, so that observers have a better view of their numbers. This is reminiscent of the start of a new color revolution, such as the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine in 2004-2005.
Lukashenko has already warned that he will not shy away from violence if protests break out. The question is how big they will be and how far he wants to go. As president of a buffer state between Russia and the West, he tried in recent years to safeguard his interests by courting both. That split threatens to become very difficult now.
Free violence threatens to torpedo relations with the West, but Russia is also panting in its neck. If Lukashenko loses control, it is not inconceivable that Vladimir Putin will take matters into his own hands, as he did in Ukraine at the time. The Russian president will not tolerate a strategically important partner drifting to the West. Besides, he could use a little distraction now that his own people are growing louder. The Russian presence in Belarus already appears to be increasing. Just last week, the authorities arrested 33 Russians from the notorious Wagner mercenary group.