Belarus has grown increasingly authoritarian since anti-government protests in 2020 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Newly passed election laws, the creation of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, and the reintroduction of Soviet-style training in schools and colleges all strengthen President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s grip on power.
Belarus’ exiled opposition figures, especially Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, face a challenge from more militant voices within the movement. Going forward, the opposition should remobilize Belarusians through creative anti-war and anti-regime campaigns that will not jeopardize their safety and articulate a clear vision for the country’s future with a plausible pathway towards achieving it.
Since Belarus’ authoritarian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka suppressed the protests that followed his certain rigging of elections in August 2020, Belarus has largely been written off as an extension of neighboring Russia. Its internal politics have slipped off the international radar. Yet, Belarus’ political dynamics and public opinion are different from Russia’s. Understanding where Belarusians are politically provides a glimpse into the underlying stability of the regime, while mapping the balance of power within the opposition gives an indication as to whether any exiled forces might be well-placed to jockey for position in a post-Lukashenka transition. The likely stationing of Russian tactical nuclear weapons underpins the strategic relevance of Belarus.
Belarusians are stuck between twin tyrannies: repression at home and Russian aggression in Ukraine, which some 70 percent of Belarusians condemn. Since 2020, it has become an increasingly dangerous game to voice any opposition to the regime. Arrests have continued at a rate of dozens per week and courts have been handing down sentences of ten years and over. Communication with prominent political prisoners (there are around 1,500) has been cut. The whereabouts of Viktar Babryka, Lukashenka’s imprisoned opponent in 2020, remain unknown.
As the regime has tightened the noose politically, it has quickened the militarization of Belarusian society in an effort to impose stricter discipline. Exercises, including of the new territorial defense force, have continued and the enlistment of soldiers and reservists has intensified. Lukashenka has tasked authorities to draw “voluntary” military forces from firefighters, hunters, forest-guards, and other public servants. He has also reintroduced Soviet-style military training in schools and colleges, while the defence and interior ministries have set-up thirty “military-patriotic clubs” in which some 2,000 children are fed pro-Russian and pro-regime propaganda.
Keeping Belarusians cowed is crucial to the regime’s survival as it enters a new electoral cycle. Parliamentary and local elections are scheduled for February, followed by presidential elections in 2025. Earlier this year, a raft of restrictive laws was passed designed to crowd out remnants of critical political parties, non-governmental organizations, and media. If they are unable to meet high hurdles, such as having a membership of 5,000, opposition parties are likely to disappear altogether. With procedures for nominating independents byzantine, the upcoming elections may end up uncontested. The removal of the 50 percent voter turnout threshold under the new election law would legitimize any outcome, even if elections were heavily boycotted.
In March, the state-supported Belaya Rus public association held a foundational congress transforming itself into a political party. It has dubbed itself the “party of power.” In a striking echo of the Russian party system, the only other parties expected to meet the requirements of the new law are the pro-government Liberal Democratic Party and the Communists. The risk that the Kremlin may pressure Lukashenka to allow an openly pro-Russian party, however, cannot be discounted.
Belaya Rus, bolstered by pro-regime spoiler parties, could give Lukashenka greater oversight over the public while rewarding his supporters. For example, setting-up party cells at public institutions and state-owned enterprises—and potentially in private ones too—would make it easier to monitor and suppress dissent, while co-opting less critical voices through perks and privileges. It could facilitate the task of mobilizing Belarusians to support the regime at elections.
The creation of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA), an amorphous body of 1,200 regime loyalists (ten times the size of the Belarusian lower chamber of parliament), has introduced a new layer within the Belarusian system. The assembly has been given extensive powers, such as the ability to remove the head of state, endorse domestic and foreign policies, amend the constitution and “decide on the legitimacy of elections.” The implication is that even if the opposition were to miraculously defeat Lukashenka, the ABPA would act as a firewall.
By creating the ABPA, Lukashenka appears to be future-proofing his long-term grip on power. His preferred option is likely to continue as president while simultaneously heading the ABPA. Were any threat to his presidency arise, such as through failing health or pressure from Moscow, Lukashenka could still cling on through the ABPA alone.
The exiled opposition, which continues to enjoy some popularity at home, could upset these plans. However, Belarus’ democrats are in a tight spot. Facing repression at home and fading interest abroad, frustration has given rise to fragmentation as radical voices dissatisfied with exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya challenge her more moderate approach.
The Kalinousky Regiment, a unit of Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine against Russia, has become a center-of-gravity around which militant and nationalist critics of Tsikhanouskaya have coalesced. The Kalinousky Regiment has difficult relations with Tsikhanouskaya and the United Transitional Cabinet and voiced more overt political ambitions since late 2022.
While Tsikhanouskaya’s continued struggle remains both the international face and a powerful symbol for Belarus’ democrats, her United Transitional Cabinet risks being outflanked by these militant critics. This emergent Kyiv-based wing to the opposition, which is small but increasingly vocal, has become the principal challenge to Tsikhanouskaya’s claim to leadership. “We think that Tsikhanouskaya’s Office has no effect on Belarus,” said one figure within the Kalinousky Regiment. “They do not affect Lukashenka’s thinking. We have to build something that will have that effect. We are on our way.”
With the fighting in Ukraine having dragged on, the Kalinousky Regiment, which earned its battle stripes around Kyiv and Bakhmut, has carved a distinct battlefield legitimacy for itself—and some within its leadership clearly have larger ambitions.
This militant wing seems to slowly be transforming itself into a clearer political coalition, brought together by a shared ideological distrust for those around Tsikhanouskaya and a desire to take a more forceful approach to eventually overthrowing Lukashenka. Empowered by the cool attitude shown by Kyiv towards Tsikhanouskaya (President Volodymyr Zelensky has avoided meeting Tsikhanouskaya), they see themselves as a growing force.
In December, the Kalinousky Regiment merged with the Cyber Partisans, an anonymous anti-regime hacking collective. In February, its deputy commander announced in Warsaw that they were in consultations with brash veteran nationalist Zianon Pazniak and other nationalist figures to set up a new structure dubbed the “Security Council.”
Tsikhanouskaya seems aware that competition is likely to harm the wider movement. “There can be constructive competition, but it can also be destructive,” she said in an interview late last year, adding that conspiratorial claims from some quarters about her help nobody. She nevertheless faces a dilemma: the war in Ukraine has ceded the momentum to the battlefield, but moving to match those fighting there could risk alienating a wide swathe of Belarusians at home that would be loath to support a violent approach to Belarus itself. “They say they want me to be braver,” Tsikhanouskaya said, adding that, “I understand, but look, I have to listen not to separate groups, but to all Belarusians.” For the moment it seems as if she has been unable to square the circle with more imaginative strategic thinking.
Tsikhanouskaya has nevertheless responded to the change in climate by hardening her rhetoric. Valery Sakhashchyk, who is the cabinet’s de facto “defense minister,” was recently in Ukraine and met with the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny. This meeting was followed by the announcement that a new military unit in Ukraine for Belarusian volunteers was being formed, seemingly designed for those dissatisfied with the leadership and direction of the Kalinousky Regiment.
The problem is that the development of a competing power center and growing recriminations about different strategic approaches are likely to raise a fog of war that could include further caution among international partners and remaining followers within Belarus seeing the wider democratic movement as weak and disunited.
If it wants to overthrow Lukashenka, the opposition must get its act together. It needs to reunite and regain agency inside Belarus. It will need to shift its strategic focus from lobbying internationally to vying for power within Belarus. This is easier said than done, but if it wants to avoid irrelevance then it must try and think up creative ways to reach out to remaining supporters, waverers, and silent opponents of the regime within the state apparatus.
This demands hard political work that builds a network of trust and solidarity between various groups. First, it will need to remobilize Belarusians through creative anti-war and anti-regime campaigns that will not jeopardize their safety. Scale would be important, as the police would find it harder to break up protests held in multiple locations across the country rather than those focused on the capital Minsk. Getting people out at a particular time of the day, whatever their whereabouts, to hold for a minute a slogan with the first line of the Belarusian official anthem “We are Belarusians, a peaceful nation” could be one example, or a coordinated banging of pots-and-pans from windows—which would provide a degree of anonymity if many participate—as has happened in other repressive states.
Secondly, it should try and overcome obstacles created by new legislation by setting up a political party around which opponents to Lukashenka could unite. While the authorities would probably fail to register it, the process could help organize the public and generate campaigns for independent nominations.
Finally, the opposition must formulate a clear vision for Belarus’ future, based on sovereignty, democracy, prosperity, and Europe, paired with a plausible pathway toward achieving it. This will be crucial to signal to Lukashenka’s opponents within the system that the opposition is serious and has a workable way out of the current crisis that can also ensure their own post-Lukashenka safety. This would also open the door to negotiating a transition when such an opportunity arises. Such a platform could re-capture energy inside Belarus and work towards a transition away from Lukashenka’s rule.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.