Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Protests in Belarus: Geopolitical Considerations and the Future of Lukashenko
Protests in Belarus: Geopolitical Considerations and the Future of Lukashenko

Protests in Belarus: Geopolitical Considerations and the Future of Lukashenko

Not too long ago, few observers believed that Belarus could be on the brink of political revolution. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, established in 1994 and strengthened throughout the years, seemed stable, as decades of oppression pushed the opposition aside, while civil society looked stagnant.

Yet now, Lukashenko faces mass protests and upheaval. Protests of historic scale continue for the third week straight since Lukashenko claimed victory in the Aug. 9 presidential election, which were mired in accusations of vote rigging and lacked international recognition. On Aug. 23, around 200,000 people took to the streets of the capital Minsk. They were supported by some 50,000 Lithuanians, who formed a human chain of 30 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to the border with Belarus. A sign of solidarity echoed in neighboring Baltic countries, the act also recalled the Baltic Way of 1989 — a peaceful political demonstration against Soviet rule in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that eventually played a significant role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most importantly, Lukashenko looks vulnerable and out of his depth. However, he clings to power and maintains relative control of the situation in Belarus — at least as long as internal forces, including the OMON special police, maintain loyalty. That loyalty has already led to evidence of OMON brutality against peaceful protesters, including at least four deaths and hundreds injured.

The Protests Are Not Primarily Geopolitical

The protests in Belarus are massive in terms of scale, yet they are not necessarily geopolitical. In comparison, the Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-2014 formed around a conflict between two trajectories for the country’s future — a Western path of closer integration with the EU, or continued alignment with the East (geopolitically ambivalent, while in practice maintaining high levels of Kremlin’s influence). Geopolitics were clearly visible on the streets of Ukrainian cities, which were full of people carrying the EU flag.

That is not the case in Belarus, as the protests do not seem to have a similar geopolitical dimension. The symbolic leader of the movement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, says that the protests are “neither a pro-Russian nor anti-Russian revolution. It is neither an anti-European Union nor a pro-European Union revolution. It is a democratic revolution” and maintains that her main goal is a free and fair presidential election. Other opposition figures, such as Valery Tsepkalo, also argue that the relationship with Russia remains of utmost importance and there is no need for Belarus to seek EU or NATO membership.

The people of Belarus are mostly expressing anger and fatigue with the Lukashenko regime, as well as ambition to create a more inclusive democratic political system. In particular, Belarusians are dissatisfied with lack of economic growth. For example, the average monthly salary in Belarus in 2020 is around $500, and, while it has fluctuated over the years, remains similar to the average salary in 2015.

Despite that, Lukashenko is attempting to portray the opposition as agents of the West. He claimed, without any concrete evidence, that the leaders of the protests would like Belarus to leave the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, reinstate a border control with Russia, and restrict the public usage of Russian language. Before the election, Lukashenko was openly critical of Russia; however, he is now attempting to present himself as the only choice for Belarusians who see the benefit of maintaining close relations with the Kremlin.

The strategy is based on the fact that the majority of Belarusians do not seem to be anti-Russian. While opinion polls in Belarus are scarce, research conducted prior to the protests, show that almost 62% of Belarusians want their country to have an independent foreign policy and build relations with Russia based on international treaties. Only 20% say Belarus should have an orientation towards Europe and only 18% support membership in the EU.

These figures are not surprising. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia economically. According to the statistics gathered by RBC:

  • In 2019 alone, Belarus received almost $3 billion in direct investment from Russia — almost 40% of total foreign direct investment;
  • Russia accounts for 48% of Belarusian external debt (around $8 billion);
  • 48% of Belarussian trade is with Russia, a much higher percentage than with its second largest trading partner, the EU (18%);
  • Russia heavily subsidizes Belarus through energy resources. In 2000-2015, concessional energy supplies were worth around $100 billion. According to one estimate, Russian energy subsidies over the years were between 4% and 20% of Belarus’s GDP (in 2018, it was 10%). In recent years, however, the negotiations between Russia and Belarus on energy subsidies became more difficult, as the Kremlin is keen to cut its costs. Moreover, Russia sees energy resources as a way of pressuring a rather reluctant Minsk towards closer integration;
  • Around 650,000 Belarusians live and work in Russia, and their remittances to Belarus amounted to around $272 million in 2019;
  • Russia has provided Belarus with a loan of $10 billion to construct the nuclear power plant in Astravyets; the loan will have to be repaid in the near future. While the negotiations on the interest rate between Russia and Belarus continue, it is estimated that Belarus will have to pay around $1 billion annually in the years 2021–2036, which further increases Minsk’s economic dependence on Russia.

As researches at Chatham House point out, Belarusian identity is still highly influenced by the Russian interpretation of history and cultural clichés disseminated by the Russian media. Furthermore, Russian language takes precedence over Belarusian (both are official state languages) in schools, universities and the general public space. Since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014, some changes have taken place — for instance, Lukashenko spoke in Belarusian for the first time in two decades and was keen to avoid open support for Russia’s foreign aggression — but the inertia of Russian cultural dominance remains. An open and democratic political system would enable much more self-reflection and rethinking of these issues in Belarus; yet it would take a significant amount of time.

Lukashenko Clings to Power

While not necessarily geopolitical, the post-election protests are still likely to significantly alter Belarusian politics. The degree and swiftness of change significantly depends on the future of Lukashenko. The unrecognized and illegitimate incumbent/president-elect has no alternative but to fight for power. Any concession, such as direct negotiation with the opposition-formed Coordination Council or new presidential elections, would send a signal of weakness and, most likely, condemn Lukashenko to political insignificance.

That is why Lukashenko not only blames and curses the protesters, but also talks about supposed foreign influence. For instance, he has spoken extensively about a military threat supposedly posed by neighboring NATO countries (a claim deemed baseless by the Alliance); moreover, he was seen holding what appeared to be a Kalashnikov-type automatic rifle during a protest Aug. 23, claiming he was there to defend the country against an unknown enemy. However, he maintains support from power structures, such as OMON, which enable Lukashenko to claim that he still (at least partially) controls the situation on the ground.

Political science literature, including a recent book by Erica Frantz, notes that from 1946 to 2014, 239 authoritarian regimes fell from power. A coup was the most likely reason for authoritarian regimes to collapse (around a third of all cases), closely followed by elections and popular uprisings. The frequency of successful popular uprisings has grown since the end of the Cold War, but still makes up only a fifth of all cases. That means that Lukashenko’s future depends on both the pressure from civil society and the opposition, as well as the response from the elite. The evidence suggests that nonviolent protests are particularly destabilizing for authoritarian regimes — the peacefulness of Belarusians on the streets points in the direction of change.

Personalist dictatorships, like Lukashenko’s in Belarus, last around 11 years on average. Lukashenko exceeds that benchmark, and his future is highly contentious — especially now, when Russian political support for him seems to be ambivalent. While the Kremlin congratulated Lukashenko after the election and insists there could be no external pressure on Belarus, some Russian observers think Russia is not principally against a political dialogue with the Coordination Council on the future of Belarus, with either Lukashenko participating or even being completely sidelined. As the protest movement is hardly anti-Russian at its core, the central interest of Russia is to maintain influence on whoever takes the lead of Belarus.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.