For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a Stalin-like grip on power in Belarus: jailing political opponents, eliminating free media and civil society, and terrorizing critics. Yet with a presidential election just around the corner on August 9, it is increasingly clear that the Belarusian people are no longer afraid, and that it is Lukashenko who fears his own people. The end of the last dictatorship in Europe at the hands of a public ready to move toward the democratic West would have enormous strategic consequences for the United States—and Russia.
Could the time for democratic reform in Belarus finally have arrived? A recent protest in Minsk—which drew 60,000 citizens—gives reason to hope that Lukashenko’s time may be up. The definitive answer may come with Sunday’s elections—if Lukashenko allows them to be credibly conducted. If the results are rejected and democratic opposition silenced, it is crucial that the United States and its European partners insist upon the Belarusian people’s right to self-determination.
Several recent developments have converged to make political change in Belarus conceivable. The government has disastrously managed the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing added strains on an economy already in free fall. The one-two punch of a Russian cutoff in oil supplies and the dramatic collapse in global oil prices has caused the economy to sharply contract. According to World Bank forecasts, Belarus’s economy is anticipated to shrink by at least 4 percent in 2020—the largest decline in 25 years.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko has continued jailing political activists and journalists, declaring that he will not allow a “Maidan” to take place in Belarus. The reference to the historic demonstrations in Ukraine that ousted autocrat Victor Yanukovych in 2014 shows Lukashenko sees the threat to his own power posed by the mobilization of the citizens he has repressed for so long.
Despite the dangers, an energized opposition coalition has united around the goal of political change. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former language teacher, has emerged from political obscurity to become the democratic movement’s presidential candidate. She joined the race after her husband, prominent blogger Siarhei Tikhonovskii, was arrested shortly after announcing his own presidential campaign. Tikhanovskaya has attracted the support of candidates who were denied a place on the ballot and jointly formed the United Campaign—a rarity in Belarusian opposition politics, where infighting has long stymied progress and allowed the regime to divide and weaken its opponents.
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign for change is resonating with the Belarusian people, carried through social media and massive public rallies. If she can turn out those voters—and if they can express their will without interference from the regime—she could either win the election outright or force a runoff. Either scenario would constitute a stinging rejection of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
How likely is it that Lukashenko would countenance a defeat at the ballot box? Unfortunately, we can expect him to resort to falsifying results during early voting and on Election Day—and popular protests could be met with a harsh response if earlier arrests and televised riot police drills are any indication.
It is vital for the United States and Europe to stand behind the Belarusian people as they assert their democratic rights. Given the cautious interest in a new economic and diplomatic relationship expressed by Western countries as Belarus’s relationship with Russia has shifted, the allies have both an interest in a democratic outcome and an important source of leverage over Lukashenko. To this end, NATO and EU nations must send a simple, united message to Lukashenko: The West expects a credible election process that reflects the will of voters.
Unfortunately, U.S. official support for political change in Belarus has been mixed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the regime to conduct clean elections. Peaceful political change at the ballot box would be a setback to the Kremlin’s efforts to build a shadow empire in former Soviet states and could enable greater Belarus-NATO cooperation, advancing the historic American goal of a Europe whole and free.
But other American officials believe continued engagement with Lukashenko’s repressive regime following a flawed election is the key to drawing Belarus out of Russia’s orbit. They worry that alienating Lukashenko would only push him further into the arms of the Kremlin—even though Russia-Belarus tensions are at historic highs given Moscow’s predatory designs on its neighbor.
The wiser American course would be to recognize that a democratic, reforming Belarus would be a better partner and surer source of European security. Democratic institutions would protect Belarus’s sovereignty more than corrupt, closed-door dealings between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.
Belarus’s political future is in the hands of its citizens, not any foreign power. For the first time in decades, the Belarusian people may be on the cusp of finally breaking free from the bonds of Soviet-style dictatorship. The United States should stand with them.