In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko didn’t think much of the COVID outbreak, airily suggesting that the best thing for it was a few snorts of vodka and a sauna bath. Delightful, but the people weren’t buying it. The immediate aftermath of the presidential election, on Sunday, 9 August, was something of a lock down. It wasn’t the virus they are avoiding, but the cockroach - the local’s quaint nickname for the only president post-Soviet Belarus has ever known. The cockroach has remained in power largely by not evolving. Unlike Mother Russia and most former Soviet satellites, Belarus has avoided market shocks by retaining the Soviet era planned economy in the name of “stability.” Now the country seems set for the world’s next color revolution – white. Whether or not the throngs of white-clad women crush the cockroach, or get crushed, remains to be seen.
In more diplomatic circles, Lukashenko is known as “Europe’s Last Dictator.” Since 1994, Lukashenko has avoided the post-Soviet chaos caused by the wild west style capitalism of the 1990’s by avoiding it altogether. And in truth, that sort of thing isn’t for the faint of heart. Income has remained largely equal outside the ruling class by ensuring that no one has much of anything. Now, a quarter century on, other former bloc countries have modernized and normalized their economies while Belarus remains a centrally-planned agrarian laggard living off energy subsidies from Moscow and China’s appetite for fertilizer, and not much else.
Over the last decade, unrest to the stability cum lethargy of Lukashenko’s corrupt rule has been growing in the urban areas. Viasna – a human rights organization – reckons that over 1,000 protestors were detained this summer, with more than 200 spending some 15 days in custody. Into this, almost reluctantly, stepped a former teacher and stay-at-home mom, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of activist and video blogger Sergei Tikhanovskaya who himself was jailed for attempting to run for president. Sergie had made a name for himself going around the country, posting videos about the upcoming election and the need for change in the country. One man, calling himself Vladimir, said “I was two when the cockroach came to power. My child is two now, and I want things to change.”
If the arrest of opposition candidates sent the usual tremors through the country, election day led to a spasm. On Sunday, August 9, with the early results of the election coming in, and Lukashenko clocking in with 80% of the vote, and Tikhanovskaya 9.9%. Protests exploded in the country. Police have used stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon on protestors, detaining thousands. Polish based broadcaster Belsat TV aired footage of police charging protestors.
The protests have rallied around the reluctant Ms. Tikhanovskaya. If she was an unorthodox candidate – so was the rest of the opposition. With opposition candidates jailed, it was mostly made up of their extremely annoyed wives. The opposition coalesced around Tikhanovskaya, largely because has said she will won’t serve a full five-year term, but about 6 months, enough to ensure free and fair elections.
Lukashenka doesn’t see it that way. A long-time fan of the Foreign threat playbook, the president called Ms. Tikhanovskaya a “poor little girl” who is the being manipulated by foreign “puppet masters.” Like any good active measure, however, even this has some wisp of evidence to it. In late July, Belarus state television aired the raid of a sanitarium and arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner PMC A private military company. Russia has demanded the return of its citizens, claims no idea why they were in Belarus. The government has tied them to none other than Sergie Tikhanovskaya, Svetlana’s jailed husband.
Cheap energy subsidies from Russia, that Belarus can process and then resell, has kept what the economy afloat. That aid has been being pulled back, and Lukashenko needs to make up for the short-fall by begging to the EU or upping trade with China, which sees Belarus as a useful link in its global Road & Belt program into southern Europe, but not much else.
Monday, the day after the election, Ms. Tikhanovskaya said that the election results “completely contradict common sense.” She went to complain to the election commission to file an official complaint, telling reporters that shed won the election and demanded that authorities relinquish power peacefully. There she was detained (authorities referred to it as a friendly visit) for seven hours. Some three hours into what authorities characterized as a friendly visit, a video emerged wherein the former candidate, clearing reading from a script, pleaded with her country to obey the law and put her earlier opposition in context: “I thought the campaign had really steeled me and given me such strength that I could cope with anything… but I guess that I am still the weak woman that I am.”
Four hours later she was driven to Lithuania where her children had been sent for their protection before the election. (In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, opposition candidates were also detained and made similar “confessions.”)
Lukashenko labeled the protestors as terrorists, adding “We will wring their necks, as one might a duck.” Police and security forces patrolling the street, picking up protestors almost at random and hauling them into windowless vans kept crowds sparse. The days went quiet, even peaceful, the only sign of protest were the white bands worn on the wrists. Germany has called the election “problematic”, the EU has sniffed about sanctions and the US has remained silent. China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin have congratulated Lukashenko on his win. By Tuesday, a nation-wide general strike was called. Then was a partial internet shut-down and the state television went blank, only to come on a day later, with hardly a mention of the protests and several high-profile news presenters resigning. Lukashenko has maintained that Ms. Tikhanovskaya got ahead of herself, that a place like Belarus wouldn’t vote for a woman.
That was the wrong thing to say. The protests have emerged into the light of day – throngs of women clad it white, not destroying anything, but not going away either. The problem with completely discounting 51% of the population is that you activate them. There is likely some cultural truth to Lukashenko’s quip about Belarus not being ready to elect a woman, but these are strange times. And the sexism behind it may lead to his undoing. A macho culture has trouble roughing up ‘helpless’women and still look macho. The regime might jail husband Sergio for trying to run for president, but it can only send wife Svetlana into exile with her children. Such machismo covers an enormous political blind-spot for Lukashenko: the women of Belarus have come out in full force, dressed in white, to protest the election results, police brutality and the cockroach himself.
These color revolutions have had better luck in Europe than elsewhere, but the endgame is far from certain. Over the weekend, the fellas joined them for the largest protest in the country’s short history. Russia, predictably, has offered military assistance.
Which makes for a very strange marriage for those two in light of the reduced aid and those Russian mercenaries evidently plotting a coup. Moscow is playing dumb, but then they always do. It is far-fetched to think that Moscow would back a coup in favor of a modernizing leader who might move the country west. Better for Russia that an isolated Belarus call on Mother Russia to help. Lukashenko did win the election after all. Or at least the count.
Joe Caulfield is the author of the upcoming Cut Throat Dogs.