Lukashenko’s iron fist in Belarus

The oligarch could be removed through an internal coup as opposed to losing his power in a free and fair election, an option far preferable for President Vladimir Putin, who is actively watching the situation.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Around the world, authoritarian regimes continue to growl in the faces of their own people as they demand freedom and reform. In Venezuela, Nicolas Máduro still clings to the presidency despite the fact that his continuing rule has been deemed illegitimate by more than 60 countries, including the United States and the European Union. In Hong Kong, a corrupt local executive is slavishly implementing the “national security law” decreed by the Chinese Communist Party, effectively destroying the basic liberties of the former British colony. And in Belarus, often described as “the last dictatorship in Europe,” the country’s iron-fisted ruler for the last 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, is in the process of brutally repressing the protests that erupted in the wake of this month’s fraudulent elections that again returned him to power.

When it comes to media coverage, though, Belarus has been a largely forgotten member of the club of authoritarian states for the past decade. The last occasion that protesters took to its streets en masse was in 2011—the cause, of course, being yet another election stolen by Lukashenko—and the regime responded then in much the same way that it is doing now—by viciously beating unarmed citizens, jailing and torturing activists, and shutting down the right of peaceful assembly.

A poor, landlocked republic in the northeastern corner of Europe, Belarus shares borders with Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia—a location that has increased in strategic importance with the resurgence of Russian power and influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Independent since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been ruled by Lukashenko since 1994, and his proudly authoritarian regime has retained all the practices of the Soviet period.

Neither the United States nor the Europeans have ever favored Lukashenko, and the European Union is currently preparing a new raft of sanctions to underline its rejection of the 2020 election. The U.S. State Department has adopted a similar position, denouncing the “serious flaws” of the election, though it has not explicitly called on Lukashenko to step down.

Lukashenko has never been given serious reason to believe that he might one day share the fate of Slobodan Milošević —the Serbian tyrant overthrown in 2000 in the wake of the NATO war in Kosovo. The principal reason for that is his alliance with Russia, which would never tolerate Western intervention in what Moscow regards as its European backyard.

Lukashenko’s ongoing survival hinges far more on Russian President Vladimir Putin than on any measures Western nations might take. In a week that saw Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny languishing in a coma after apparently being poisoned, one needs little reminding that Putin is hardly a friend of democracy. So, should he decide to abandon Lukashenko, it will be on the grounds that Russian interests are better served with him gone.

There is no public sign of Putin doing that, even though his personal dislike of the uppity, unreliable Lukashenko is no secret. Rather than risk a concession to democracy protesters by helping to unseat Lukashenko—the dictator’s version of the “do unto others” maxim—his preference is to use the situation to bring Lukashenko into line as far as he can, thereby solidifying the dependence of Belarus on Russia. In such a situation, Lukashenko could be removed through an internal coup as opposed to losing his power in a free and fair election, an option far preferable for Putin.

Some Western analysts have expressed concern that Russia might send its military into Belarus should the protests escalate, yet it should be emphasized that Lukashenko’s security forces aren’t exactly restraining themselves with nearly 7,000 people arrested and hundreds of eyewitness reports of the torture and humiliation of detainees during the last fortnight.

Putin has good reason not to do that, however. Sending in troops to shore up Lukashenko would turn the ire of the demonstrators on Russia—a factor that has thus far been absent from the banners and slogans in Minsk, the capital, and in other cities. It would also fray relations with the West even more, with little tangible benefit to the Russians.

Regrettably, then, the dawning of a democratic future for Belarus seems a long way off. At worst, Lukashenko will survive this crisis as he has in the past, plunging the country even further into fear and repression. At best, Lukashenko’s removal will come at the price of Russia having the decisive say in who leads the country.

According to a 2016 estimate, there are between 10,000 to 25,000 Jews in Belarus. Many of them have been in the frontlines of the democracy protests, but the community itself stays out of politics for official purposes—perhaps in part because Lukashenko has permitted himself the occasional anti-Semitic snarl over the years. Still, as the Washington,D.C.-based organization NCSEJ (which advocates for Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union) pointed out in an email last week, there is no evidence that the Jewish community has been specifically targeted during the current round of protests. Against the background of the general bloodshed in the country, that is some comfort, but not much.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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