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Published on Aug 17, 2020
Lukashenko at crossroads as protests grip Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko’s controversial re-election as the President of Belarus has sparked large-scale protests across Belarus, with protestors demanding a recount of the vote. The protests have been met with violent security crackdown leaving two people dead, dozens injured and nearly 7000 demonstrators being detained. The recent political developments have raised the prospect of “regime change” in Belarus.

Earlier, the Belarus Election Commission announced that Lukashenko won 80% of the vote while his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took 9.9%. The opposition rejected the official election results and allegedly claimed that the polls were rigged in Lukashenko’s favour and demanded a recount. As protests turned violent, Tikhanovskaya left for Lithuania citing it as a difficult decision and called for protests to be peaceful. She urged the international community to facililiate dialogue with the Belarusian authorities for a peaceful transition of power.

Swelling protests

Workers at factories and state-owned enterprises across Belarus called for a strike in support of the protests, demanding fair election results and an end to the crackdown on the peaceful protestors. Strikes also took place at the Atlant and Gefest appliance manufacturers, Milavitsa clothing factory, the meat plant in Grondo, the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) and the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ). The railroad workers of the Belarusian railway also joined the demonstrations. The employees of the BelAZ, a state-owned automobile plant also witnessed the gathering of workers calling for strikes. These state-run industrial units are part of Lukashenko’s core base.

The state-owned enterprises are the backbone of the country’s economy. The strikes at these industrial units could pose a difficult situation for Lukashenko as these companies generate a large share of the industrial output for the country. The Belarusian economy is already crippled with lack of economic reforms and the global economic slowdown due to the pandemic. If the strikes force the factories to shut down, it would further impact the economy and weaken Lukashenko’s position.

Belarusians in parts of Europe also organized rallies in support of the protests. Berlin, Moscow and Warsaw witnessed protests outside the Belarus embassy. On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in Minsk for ‘March for freedom’ called by the opposition.

Also, protests have been growing in Belarus since the beginning of the year owing to government’s indifferent response to the pandemic and the pre-election crackdown on Lukashenko’s opponents in the presidential election.

The Russian equation

Russia has been closely following the turn of events and political developments in Belarus. Lukashenko has turned to Russia for help as nationwide protests continue to grow. Moscow has offered help to ensure security in Belarus, according to Lukashenko. Putin agreed to assist Belarus as per the collective military pact. He reportedly told Putin that the unrest is a threat to both the countries and the instability may spillover to Russia. Last month, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian mercenaries over an alleged plot to destabilize the country ahead of the polls, which Kremlin denied. In a recent development, Belarus released the mercenaries.

The relations between Belarus and Russia have frayed in recent times owing to an oil dispute last year and Russia’s push for deeper integration through a Union State treaty with Belarus. Lukashenko took a tough stance and had been reluctant towards integration, affirming to protect the country’s sovereignty.

The wave of protests is turning out to be a challenge for Lukashenko. Moscow is concerned about the growing protests in Belarus and supporting Lukashenko while taking advantage of his weakened position and pushing for its goal of further integrating Belarus into Russia. Also, Russia would not like to see Belarus go the  way Ukraine in 2014.

Moscow would like Lukashenko to remain in power, but in a weakened state. It would leave Belarus dependent on Russia and would limit Lukashenko’s options to normalize the relations with the West. Though, the Belarusians are unlikely to support any intervention by Russia in the political developments of the country.

Lukashenko’s position

Lukashenko blamed the foreign countries for the large scale protests in Belarus allegedly claiming that the participants came from Netherlands, Poland and Ukraine. He asked the Belarusians to refrain from taking part in the protests. In a rally organized in Minsk on Sunday, Lukashenko asked the people to defend the country and its independence. He stated that the presidential elections were free and fair and ruled out the prospects of re-election.

The European Union is set to impose new sanctions on Belarus in wake of alleged unfair elections and brutal crackdown on the peaceful protesters. The Baltic states have called for a dialogue and mediation between Lukashenko and the opposition. The United States also criticized the vote but has taken no stance on the sanctions.

The protests have spiraled from Minsk to the parts of Lukashenko’s base. He is still in control of the country, military and the security services. As Lukashenko faces the protests, his position has certainly weakened and has limited options left on the table. As protestors wave the traditional white and red Belarusian flag as a symbol of protest, the country faces difficult times ahead.

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