Law & Public Policy Blog

Authoritarianism May Be Stubborn, but Belarus Demonstrates that Democracy Is as Infectious as Ever

Alexander Rojavin ’20, Law & Public Policy Scholar

At the risk of jinxing something, the latest events in Belarus demand the very real consideration that Alexander Lukashenko’s twenty-six-year rule will shortly end. Lest this seem like a preemptive political obituary, it is worth noting that Lukashenko may well make a show of force that scatters the nationwide opposition and secures him another indeterminate number of years of power. However, with how things have been unfolding, Lukashenko’s continued political survival seems tenuous at best. Consequently, if Belarus truly is on the cusp of a change in leadership and even a transition to a legitimate democracy, the nation’s incoming leadership must acknowledge and prepare for two looming threats that may well accompany any such transition.

Hours after polls closed in Belarus’s presidential election, it became clear that the standard script had been abandoned: the commissions of multiple polling stations had refused to falsify results and published the real tally of the day’s voting. One polling station in Uzda district, which was supposed to be a reliable Lukashenko stronghold, had 128 votes for Tsikhanouskaya and 124 for Lukashenko. In Minsk Oktyabrsky district, the result was less murky: 1,226 for Tsikhanouskaya, a meager 394 for Lukashenko. As more and more tallies were made public, it was clear that Tsikhanouskaya had beaten “Luka” by a 3:1 or even a 4:1 margin.

With Lukashenko foreseeably refusing to cede power, the mathematical expression of the voters’ desire for democracy has been backed up by a more physical manifestation, as people peacefully took to the streets. Photos and video showed a nighttime Minsk swarming with people who could likely vividly recall similar scenes from Kyiv not six years prior. In Ukraine, these scenes resulted in the ouster of the bandit-president Yanukovich, though only after over a hundred Ukrainians gave their lives.

If a similar narrative awaits Belarus—hopefully with markedly less bloodshed—then the next hours and days are the most important for the country since its. While this can be a springboard to transform into a vibrant European democracy, there are two considerations with which Belarus’s new leaders will need to contend: (1) an internally exploitable power vacuum that comes with being a self-discovered democracy after some twenty-five years of autocratic rule and (2) the possibility of an imminent assault from their neighbor to the east.

The former consideration involves a scenario we have witnessed repeatedly in multiple transitioning post-Soviet states. Ukraine, Russia, Georgia—after the USSR disintegrated, and these countries sought to reform both their political and economic systems, aspiring power brokers moved to capitalize on the mass privatization campaigns and fill the emergent power vacuums. They became the first wave of post-Soviet oligarchs, who, in addition to controlling large swaths of industry, played outsized roles in their nations’ political proceedings.

Just a few days before the election, in an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, Lukashenko asserted that he has single-handedly prevented a Belarusian oligarchy from forming all these years. Indeed, Belarus never underwent the mass privatization that took place in Ukraine and Russia. As such, if Lukashenko is replaced and the new leadership moves to reform the nation’s economy, there will undoubtedly be venturing businesspeople who look to quickly carve out niches—and, given the chance, vast caverns—for themselves in the new, shifting economic landscape. Some of them may well recall how money and power were synonymous in Ukraine for decades and still are synonymous in Russia.

It is worth noting, however, that the odds of this happening lessen since the Ukrainian, Georgian, and Russian oligarchies all formed immediately after the USSR disintegrated, with the businessmen-oligarchs being of decidedly Soviet stock. Belarus’s new business class will hopefully be of a younger, post-Soviet generation, one that is not as bound by the cultural shackles and mindsets of those who grew up in the pre-internet, corrupt USSR.

The second consideration that awaits Belarus’s potential new leadership is more imminent and debatably more dangerous: the possibility of an attack by the Kremlin. There are two precedents for such an attack: Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and its 2008 war with Georgia.

Just days after the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity deposed the Kremlin-controlled Yanukovich and set Ukraine on an unequivocally westward political trajectory, Russia’s “little green men” stormed the streets of Sevastopol, took over strategic points throughout Crimea, and precipitated the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine, aided by local pro-Russian militants. Six years prior, Russia had similarly moved to support militants in northern Georgia, and though it was five years after Georgia’s own Rose Revolution, the casus belli was the same: destabilize the Saakashvili regime and complicate any further integration with Western democracies. Though the Kremlin’s military actions were five years delayed, the purpose was similar both in Georgia and Ukraine.

The tables’ suddenly turning on Lukashenko, who had deftly juggled European and Russian interests for nearly twenty-five years, mark an unprecedented opportunity for Belarus. But there lurk cardinal threats to the possibility of a true Belarusian democracy, and the country’s new generation of leaders must be prepared to undergo a scenario into which their Ukrainian neighbors were forced six years ago, a scenario that they continue to weather today. Either way, the citizens of Belarus should at the very least take comfort in this: through their courage and refusal to accept life under a two-and-a-half-decade-old dictatorship, they have demonstrated that although authoritarianism continues to creep worldwide, the allure of democracy is inevitably more powerful. To this end, the Belarusian people require immediate and vocal support from Western democracies, lest the Kremlin senses the West’s hesitation and disunion and resorts to its usual playbook.