Whether or not Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko succeeds in stifling the protests in Belarus with violence, the writing is on the wall: his regime has lost all support.
Moreover, Lukashenko should not put his faith in Moscow, as the Kremlin may not be inclined to continue its support.
Belarus in Chaos
The footage in the news over these last days has shown the carnage currently occurring in Belarus. So far, security forces have been able to drive the demonstrators in Minsk and other cities from the streets. It may be a temporary success but it’s not a win. In fact, the current situation is testimony that the regime’s time might be over.
The recent election Day made it apparent that Lukashenko no longer has any significant support in the population – despite the rather dubious election results claiming he won with 80 percent. However, the regime is cognizant that, in reality, it does not carry 80 percent of the public’s support – arguably not even close. Moreover, by placing Minsk in a state of siege long before the polls closed on Sunday and severely obstructing the internet, it admitted that it could only stay in power by force and not via democratic processes. The latter is hardly a promising recipe for sustained success. Naturally, reliable information about the actual election result is not yet available.
How Far Will Lukashenko go to Hold on to Power?
However, autocrats enjoy few privileges more than being in power. Thus, opponents of the regime have never had any illusions: Lukashenko would also shoot demonstrators to defend his power. On the weekend, it was rubber bullets, but worse must be expected. Furthermore, even if Lukashenko should manage to crush the demonstrations by force again, the fact that he has lost the country remains.
One reason the lack of support is so notable now is that the protest movement is broader than ever before. When the regime violently crushed a massive demonstration against Lukashenko’s electoral fraud ten years ago, it was a single protest march of 50,000 people on the central street of Minsk to the government building. On the outskirts of the capital and in the rest of the country, things remained calm.
On Sunday evening, however all over Belarus people gathered in front of the polling stations and demanded an honest count; there were demonstrations in all of the larger cities, which the security forces initially found helpless in some places. Moreover, in Minsk itself, the protesters challenged the security forces in many different places until the early hours of the morning.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tichanovskaya and her colleagues have announced that they are ready for permanent protests. However, their success or failure does not depend primarily on their political skills. The demonstrations on Sunday had no apparent organizers and no leaders. One of the crucial questions now is how far the security forces are prepared to follow Lukashenko.
Moscow’s Perspective on Lukashenko and Belarus
Just as much now depends on how Moscow behaves. For them, a weakened Lukashenko as Belarusian president would be ideal in the short term. The not precisely warmhearted telegram of congratulations from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Lukashenko shows what he expects in return for support: closer political, economic and military integration — de facto Putin wants an extensive abandonment of the country’s independence.
Nevertheless, it could be that the Kremlin will be doubtful about whether it is worth it to pay a high price for supporting Lukashenko in the long run: If Putin keeps his neighbor in power, he will gamble away the still strong ties of the majority of Belarusians with Russia. After Russia lost Ukraine because it wanted to keep a corrupt and violent regime in power, it could also lose Belarus.
It will thus be interesting to see how and if the Kremlin decided to support Lukashenko. In any case, Belarus may be on the precipice of change – one way or the other.