I was a teenager when my family moved to the United States in 1994, leaving behind what was then the newly independent nation of Belarus. As we packed up, our neighbors in the capital Minsk were cautiously watching preparations for the country’s first ever multi-party elections, wondering what would change after the long years of Soviet rule.
In the end, the answer was not much.
Over a quarter of a century later, the man who won those elections, Alexander Lukashenko, still holds the presidency. I have watched from a distance as my former homeland largely stayed out of the headlines, delivering jobs and keeping most changes at bay at a time when other parts of the former Soviet Union, including Russia itself, suffered political instability and economic upheaval. This came at a cost–independent civil society was violently suppressed, and critical voices sought refuge in exile, while a rigged electoral system quickly jettisoned potential political rivals.
Now all that has suddenly changed. At a time when democracy seems in retreat in so much of the world, the people of Europe’s forgotten dictatorship have surprised us all; they have taken to the streets by the tens and even hundreds of thousands, outraged at Lukashenko’s attempt to steal the Aug. 9 presidential elections. The mass protests have been met with club-wielding riot police, followed by vicious beatings and abuse for those detained by the security forces. Battered and scared-looking young people have been paraded on state television in handcuffs, publicly recanting their involvement in street protests.
Yet, the demonstrations continue in cities and towns large and small across a country of some 10 million. The accompanying support for a round of industrial strikes suggests Lukashenko, the former collective farm boss, is losing the blue-collar supporters he has long cultivated with his populist policies.
The weekend saw the largest demonstrations yet, with the capital Minsk, my hometown, gathering a crowd of more than 200,000. Belarusian analysts say it is the largest demonstration in the history of sovereign Belarus. The people of Belarus have spoken.
But a dictator who is in a fight for his life cannot be defeated by peaceful demonstrators alone.
A Constructive Role for the U.S.
Lukashenko has successfully played the West and Russia against each other for decades. Yet it is a mistake to consider what is happening in Belarus purely through the lens of rivalry between Russia and the West, be it the European Union or the United States. The opposition candidates who united against Lukashenko in the presidential vote this time are not anti-Moscow; they are comfortable with Belarus’ close relations with Russia. This is not Ukraine.
Moscow knows this. After formally congratulating Lukashenko on the outcome of the poll, the Kremlin has remained mostly silent on the protests, which are being fully covered by the Russian state media. A number of phone calls that Lukashenko has made to Putin during the protests have been much hyped by the propaganda machine in Belarus — Lukashenko said Putin promised military assistance to quell the protests; but Russia was quiet on the matter. Perhaps Putin knows that the game is up with Lukashenko, and is keeping his options open.
Even as the West and Russia jockey for political influence in Belarus, the more important question is how will events in Belarus reverberate across its borders? In a rarity in recent years, an authoritarian regime is being called to account by the courage of its own people, most of whom have never taken part in political activities before. The response from the United States and the European Union will be watched closely both by other authoritarians, and by would-be authoritarians.
That includes others who seem equally eager to take on the mantle of autocrats of total political control of a managed “democracy.” Next door, Poland’s Andrzej Duda just won a second term despite strengthening opposition to his wresting of control over the judiciary. Or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in June made the first trip to Minsk by a Hungarian prime minister, declaring that “the two peoples and the two countries are much closer than one might think.” Just before the Belarus election, Orban urged the easing of EU sanctions on Belarus, but Budapest has remained conspicuously silent on Lukashenko’s violent suppression of the protests.
The West’s response will also be watched by Putin, who will seek a third consecutive six-year term in the March 2024 elections. By 2030, he will have equaled Lukashenko’s current total of 26 years in power.
Urgent, Joint Action
Washington needs to take urgent action on Belarus. It needs to demonstrate that the rigging of elections and violent action against peaceful demonstrators will not be tolerated in the heart of Europe or anywhere else, and that those responsible will be held accountable. It can do that most effectively by following the EU’s lead.
The EU, which had only limited sanctions in place against Belarus, showed remarkable unity on Aug. 14 by denouncing the elections as neither free nor fair. Yesterday, the EU formally announced that it does not recognize the Aug. 9 elections and will impose sanctions on individuals responsible for what appears to be systematic and widespread use of torture against detainees.
The U.S. should join suit to isolate Lukashenko and his top lieutenants with targeted sanctions. None of them should be able to travel or get access their U.S. dollar and euro bank accounts, or their foreign assets.
The U.S. also should work with the EU to facilitate a peaceful transition and new elections, while supporting civil society organizations and protecting activists whose lives are under threat. This is an opportunity not only to strengthen the U.S.-EU relationship, but also to engage with a post-Soviet country on terms that are neither pro- nor anti-Russia.
Lukashenko is likely hoping the people of Belarus will tire of protest, and that the outside world will again move on. That makes sustained external support for the opposition, which is not interested negotiating with Lukashenko or in any power sharing arrangement, particularly vital.
The hoped-for outcome—a peaceful transition of power to a properly elected democratic leader in Belarus—is within grasp. After 26 years of waiting, it’s time.
IMAGE: Opposition supporters protest against disputed presidential election results at Independence Square in Minsk on August 18, 2020. (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)