Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been president of Belarus since 1994, used to commonly be referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” in international press coverage. These days he has some competition for that title, but Belarus remains something of a 20th century anachronism: a country that still has Soviet-style collective farms and where the security service is still known as the KGB. In the coming weeks however, there’s a small but real chance that Lukashenko could earn a new distinction: the first dictator brought down as a result of the coronavirus. If such a revolution did occur, it would be all the more remarkable for the unlikely trio of women leading it.
Around the world, autocratic leaders have generally responded to the pandemic in one of two ways: either by granting themselves emergency powers to solidify their rule, or by denying the problem entirely. Lukashenko has been an extreme example of the second category, not only refraining from the kind of lockdown measures ordered in other countries and refusing to cancel public events, but suggesting mockingly that citizens could protect themselves from the virus by drinking vodka, driving tractors, and visiting the banya. He has dismissed fear of the disease as “psychosis” and confidently predicted in April that “No one will die of coronavirus in our country.” At the time, 29 Belarusians had already died, according to the country’s health ministry. Today, 577 have, with more than 68,000 confirmed cases. (The opposition claims the real numbers are much higher.) Lukashenko himself claims to have had asymptomatic coronavirus and recovered.
Despite the official indifference, many Belarusians have participated in a “grass-roots quarantine,” avoiding public gatherings and businesses, even as they have remained open. The number of passengers of the Minsk metro declined by a quarter in March and restaurant revenue is down severely.
Belarus was already going through an economic rough patch: In January, Russia halted oil supplies to Belarus, after talks over closer economic and political cooperation between the two neighbors broke down. Lukashenko and Putin have had an on-again, off-again relationship for years, but now there’s widespread speculation that Putin, who views the breakup of the Soviet Union as a historical tragedy, wants to cement his legacy by bringing Belarus back under Moscow’s control, as he did with Crimea in 2014. The oil halt was a heavy economic blow to Belarus, which relies on Russia for 80 percent of its energy needs, forcing it to suspend its own economically vital energy exports to assure domestic supplies. And even without lockdown measures, Belarus’s economy is expected to contract by more than 2 percent this year as result of the coronavirus.
The crisis comes at a bad time for Lukashenko who hopes to be reelected to his sixth term in office on Sunday. (Voting has already started.) He has handled the lead-up to the election the same way he was previous contests: with brutality and chicanery. The regime has gone all-in on conspiracy theories: State media has blamed Russian mercenaries for attempting to disrupt the election. Fringier outlets have accused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of passing test tubes full of coronavirus, courtesy of George Soros, to Belarusian opposition activists during a recent visit.
More seriously, dozens of opposition protesters have been arrested, and three of the most popular opposition figures were jailed and barred from running. One of those, a popular political YouTuber named Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed in May on charges of plotting “mass disturbances.”
A few candidates have been allowed to run—it needs to at least look like a real election—including Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The authorities may not have taken the 37-year-old former English teacher and political novice as a real challenger; Lukashenko, who has said that that burden of the presidency would cause a women to “collapse, poor thing” might not take any female candidate all that seriously.
But eliminating the president’s better-known rivals has backfired. In the absence of the established factional leaders, the often-fractured Belarusian opposition has united behind Tikhanovskaya. Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another barred candidate, and Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of a third, have both endorsed her, and the three women have campaigned as a troika, combining their disparate political bases. While the opposition to Lukashenko has often been dismissed as the urban elite, Tikhanovsky’s audience was mainly rural and his wife is running as a populist political outsider: She has vowed to step down after six months when new, fair presidential elections can be held. Tens of thousands have been attending the trio’s rallies, some of the largest demonstrations since the country’s independence.
No one should get too excited yet. The most likely scenario is still that Lukashenko will hold on to power. There are abundant ways for the authorities to tamper with the vote, and they have plenty of time to do it, since early voting started five days before election day—and state-run media outlets will dutifully report the preferred outcome. There will certainly be opposition protests if tampering is suspected, but the authorities will likely respond with violent crackdowns as they have after past elections.
Still, it’s a risky moment for the longtime strongman. A brutal crackdown could result in the reimposition of EU sanctions, which were first imposed after the disputed elections of 2006 and 2010 but lifted after the mostly peaceful vote in 2016. The president can ill-afford that at a time of economic crisis when relations with Russia are also at an ebb. A weakened and chastened Lukashenko will have far less leverage in his dealings with Putin.
It may also be that after 24 years, Lukashenko has finally lost public support, and that the opposition has finally settled on a formula that can beat him. He may very well survive the next few weeks, but it would probably have been a surer bet if he had just been willing to put on a mask.