Getting elected president in Belarus is usually pretty easy — so long as your name is Alexander Lukashenko, that is. The 65-year-old president has managed to romp home to victory no fewer than five times over the past 26 years, while also winning two referendums that made the constitution a little more to his taste. For Lukashenko the question is typically not “will I win?” but “how much will I win by?” Last time around he was content to sail home with a modest 84% of the vote; 100% would be a bit too Saddam Hussein, after all.
As a result, Belarusian elections are not something that many people pay much attention to. The Bush administration may have named Lukashenko the “last dictator in Europe” and “an outpost of tyranny” as long ago as 2005, but the country has never been high on anyone’s list of states due for regime change, whether driven from within or imposed from without.
Until now, that is. As Lukashenko approaches his sixth election on 9th August, he is suddenly facing something he is unaccustomed to: opposition. Multiple rivals have risen up to challenge him, while the usually sedate capital, Minsk, has seen major street protests. All kinds of reasons have been cited for the unrest, ranging from economic stagnation to his eccentric response to Covid (don’t worry, drink vodka) — although the fact that he’s been in charge since Clydebank’s own Wet Wet Wet were topping the charts with “Love is All Around” is probably enough to make anybody a bit weary. One unofficial Internet poll has his support at 6%. Another places it at 3%.
As a Lukashenko-watcher since 1997 I was, like the president himself, caught off-guard by these sudden developments. But does this mean that we should expect Ukraine-style upheaval? How to interpret this sudden flurry of reporting from journalists located in the countries next door? Will the bells of freedom ring, as they did for Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2004 and 2005 (and then again for Ukraine in 2014)?
Perhaps; yet it must be noted that Belarus has stubbornly gone its own way for a long time now. Although its predecessor state, the Byelorussian SSR, was part of the triumvirate of republics that dissolved the USSR in December 1991 without bothering to consult any of the others, it has, since those heady days, pursued a more conservative course than Russia and Ukraine, its partners in dissolution. Whereas the Russians put up with 10 years of lawlessness and corruption before electing a strongman to bring “order and stability”, and Ukraine has put up with 30 years of lawlessness and corruption and is yet to succumb to the temptation of electing a strongman, Belarus went for a strongman the very first time it held a presidential election.
But unlike the near-teetotal judo enthusiast Putin, Lukashenko was a very conventional type of strongman, already retro in 1994. With his combover and thick moustache he was the perfect image of a Soviet regional boss, as if he had been cloned in a test tube kept on a shelf at a dacha between a jar of pickles and a bottle of home made vodka that made grandpa go blind.
Born in 1954, Lukashenko came of age during Brezhnev’s era of stagnation. He studied at a teaching institute and agricultural academy, did a stint in the Red Army, and then worked as a manager on collective farms while plodding his way through a political career that led to him entering the Byelorussian parliament in 1990 — an inauspicious year to be elected a communist deputy, to be sure.
Lukashenko, in fact, was not at all keen on this whole independence thing. He opposed the break-up of the USSR and retained close contacts with the Russian communist party; in 1994 he addressed the Russian parliament and called for the creation of a new union of Slavic states. Lukashenko was less of a friend-to-oligarchs type and more of a state power type, seeking to preserve the USSR he had grown up in like one of those mammoths you occasionally find intact in a block of ice in Siberia.
There was to be no sudden privatisation; no flirting with NATO; no rebranding of the KGB; Russian, spoken by the majority of the country’s people, although a minority speak the closely-related Belorusian at home, would remain an official language, and the president gave all his speeches in it; Lukaschenko continued to pursue close ties with Russia, and in 1999 he and Yeltsin signed a “Treaty on the Creation of a Union State”, as if the course of history could be reversed at least a little bit.
The treaty was rather vague and hasn’t led to much. I was living in Russia at the time and Lukashenko’s passion seemed unrequited; not once did I hear a Russian yearn for the restoration of Belarus as they often did the Crimea. That said, his commitment to preserving Brezhnevian stagnation won the respect of some. Democracy had become a dirty word — demokratiya mocked as dermokratiya, or”shitocracy” — to the millions who had been swindled by so-called reformers and carpetbagging westerners. I remember talking to a Russian friend who had just returned from a trip to Minsk, the capital. “I hear it’s very soviet,” I said, assuming that he would go on a tirade against the dictator. “Yes,” he said. “It’s very good.”
And so Lukashenko was quite successful for a while, avoiding risk while delivering a stable, endurable poverty to his people, a task beyond many post-Soviet leaders. He told the BBC in 2012: “I would not say what happened in Russia in the 1990s was democracy, it was anarchy… we managed to nip these anarchic tendencies in the bud, we saved the country…” Lukashenko’s paternalistic approach earned him the nickname of “batka” — father.
His Soviet style was a strength in other ways: Europe’s last dictator he might have been, but he came from the tradition of dull Eastern European despots whose names and faces you can’t quite remember unless, for some reason, you take an interest in these things. Unlike Kim Jong-il he wasn’t a megalomaniac intent on starving his people into submission while drinking cognac and collecting nuclear warheads. The success of his policy of sustained dullness can be measured by a quick look at the archives of Vice which has 5,594 articles on North Korea and 149 videos compared to 29 articles and no videos on Belarus. If you’re boring, nobody cares; you’ll be left to your own devices.
Still, too much power for too long can do things even to the most tedious of dictators. I first suspected things were going to Lukashenko’s head in 2011 when he started taking his then 7-year-old son along with him to meetings with heads of state. Wee Kolya Lukashenko got to meet Pope Benedict and the Obamas and many other world leaders. Clearly disappointed by the adult sons his wife had borne him, Lukashenko was grooming his mini Slav sun king, whose mother was unknown, for power. When asked whether that was the case, Lukashenko responded with deadpan dictator humor: the boy was just very affectionate towards his father, he told the BBC, and couldn’t even go to sleep without him.
But this was not actually a sign of anything much: Lukashenko remained cautious and conservative. When Putin annexed the Crimea, he gave his first ever speech in Belarusian and attempted to distance himself from his powerful patron, but before long he was holding joint drills with Russia again. Earlier this year in a fight over energy prices with Russia he bought some Norwegian oil and invited Mike Pompeo to Minsk, but he was still a long way from the bitter exchanges that characterise Russia’s relations with Ukraine.
When the pandemic hit Belarus he was dismissive, suggested treating the disease by drinking vodka and went ahead with a Victory Day parade — but he was not the only leader to be dismissive of coronavirus; Boris Johnson was still boasting that he would keep shaking hands until not too long before he came down with a bad case of Covid-19 himself. (As it turned out, Lukashenko also contracted the virus, he now admits.)
In fact, it wasn’t rebellion against a grandiose act of eccentricity or tyranny that kicked off the open opposition this most retro of dictators now faces. Rather, the dam seems to have burst when a popular YouTuber, Sergei Tikhanovsky, cracked a gag about Lukashenko’s moustache, comparing it to a cockroach, and then took to driving around in a van with a giant slipper — the most popular form of pest control in the country — on it. All of a sudden, protestors took to the streets of Minsk with slippers in hand and foreign analysts were talking up a potential “slipper revolution.”
Tikhanovsky was tossed in prison, and he was swiftly joined behind bars by another opposition figure, Viktor Babariko, a 56-year-old former banker (not a trade typically associated with great probity in the former USSR, it must be said, and especially not when the bank is a branch of Russia’s Gazprombank). He was arrested before he could lodge his application to run for president, accused of financial crimes. Babariko’s arrest provoked outrage; protestors formed a two-mile human chain across Minsk. Another opposition leader, Valery Tsapkalo, also an erstwhile pillar of the regime like Babariko (he was previously ambassador to the US), fled to Russia with his two sons.
However, having neutralized these three men, their wives then united on a joint ticket to challenge Lukashenko. There are reports of opposition rallies outside the capital, in the cities of Grodno, Gomel and Brest. All of a sudden Belarus is not quite so dull and it seems that Lukashenko’s strategy of indefinitely extending the stagnation he grew up with may not be quite so tenable after all, especially as a new generation comes of age that has no memory of the Soviet Union, or even the chaotic 1990s, that were so chaotic elsewhere.
Lukashenko still has many levers at his disposal: throwing people in prison is usually an effective means of intimidation, as is going after their jobs (as Woke mobs know), and so is threatening their families. He blames nefarious foreign agents and has vowed that Belarus will not succumb to a Ukrainian-style revolution. And short of a mass uprising in which he suddenly loses control of the police or the army, I suspect he will be around for a while yet. But getting elected will never again be quite so easy, the romp home will be less convincing than before, and his KGB will be very, very busy for a long time to come. Lukashenko: still retro after all these years, only now with extra brutality.