Can a ‘housewife’ in Belarus bring down Europe’s last dictator?

Three months ago, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was raising a young family in Belarus as her husband entered a presidential race against its autocratic leader. Now, her husband is in jail, the nation has erupted in protest and it is Tikhanovskaya herself who may be about to topple the man known as Europe’s last dictator: Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, 65, became president of Belarus a quarter of a century ago in what is considered the country’s first – and last – free election. Protests against electoral fraud have flared up in the years since. Lukashenko controls both vote counting and a sprawling security apparatus ready to crack down on anyone who questions official results. But, this time, the crowds disputing Lukashenko’s latest “landslide victory” are record-breaking. And, in turn, the regime’s response has been unprecedented in its brutality, with people dragged off the streets, beaten, tortured and, in some cases, raped during long days in detention. At least three people have been killed.

Tikhanovskaya and her children have fled to neighbouring Lithuania but she is far from defeated – convening an opposition committee to push for a peaceful transition of power. Another poll of the nation has been taken, her supporters say, on the streets of Belarus and the result cannot be disputed: Lukashenko is "father of the nation" no longer.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya has fled the country.Credit:AP

"We don't want to live in fear and falsehoods any more," Tikhanovskaya said from exile on August 21, encouraging workers striking from factories and even from some state television stations to continue peaceful demonstrations.

But, by virtue of geography, culture and politics, Belarus lies squarely between Russia and the West and, as one autocrat teeters, all eyes are on Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Will Russia really allow revolution on its doorstep when it faces protests against its own leadership back home? What has brought the small nation of Belarus to boiling point? And can an “accidental” candidate bring down a dictator?

Women shaped the 2020 Belarus election. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, centre, joined forces with opposition elite Veronika Tsepkalo (left), the wife of a former Belarussian ambassador to Washington and Maria Kolesnikova, who ran another candidate's campaign before he was knocked out.Credit:AP

What do we know about Belarus?

Historian Dr Elena Govor was born in the Belarus capital of Minsk, where Russian is spoken more often than the “language of her grandfathers”, Belarusian. She says her homeland is a small nation and little understood but, in many ways, it's the “very centre of the Slavic world”, the crossroads where East meets West. Hit hard by World War II and then the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s home to ancient forests, brightly coloured villages and an unusually large number of Nobel prizewinners. Yet, apart from the odd description as “the lungs of Europe”, Belarus is most often viewed through the prism of its relationship with its largest neighbour, Russia.

It was in a small hunting lodge on the edge of Belarusian forest that the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the agreement dissolving the Soviet Union in 1991. Although independent, Belarus has remained closely aligned with Russia as part of a Union State deal that keeps their border porous and their military partially entangled. Families often stretch between the two nations, says La Trobe University’s Russia expert, Dr Robert Horvath. But while many Russians see Belarus as a subset of their own republic, Belarusians see themselves as a very distinct people.

“Still, Belarusians are very friendly to Russians,” Govor said, likening the relationship to that of England and Wales. “You wouldn’t call a Scot an Englishman, the way you wouldn’t call a Ukrainian a Russian, but in Wales, they may have their own Welsh language but they share a lot with the UK too.”

“It’s a very male-dominated society … you don’t speak up. Now people are sick of family violence, they are sick of him.”

Lukashenko, the gruff, former boss of a "collective farm", was elected president on a wave of lingering Soviet nostalgia in 1994. He promised to fight corruption and save the newly independent Belarus from the woes befalling other post-Soviet states as they lurched towards privatisation, keeping huge swathes of the economy under state ownership thanks to Russian subsidies. But, while he styled himself as a man of the people, once he took office he quickly set about dismantling much of the constitutional power Belarusians had over his presidency, including term limits.

Lukahshenko’s long rule rests on the "unwritten laws" of his country too, Govor said. “We call him Batka, that means father. It’s a very male-dominated society, you obey your father, your husband, you don’t speak up. Now that's finally starting to change, people are saying they are sick of family violence, they are sick of him."

Lukashenko, left, has turned to Putin, right, for support during recent protests. Here, they join an ice-hockey game in between talks in Sochi, Russia, in February.Credit:Getty Images

Why are people protesting? What do they want?

By the time the ballots opened for the 2020 election, Lukashenko's hold on the country was in more trouble than Govor can remember. His failure to respond to COVID-19 – which has already infected more than 70,000 Belarusians out of a population of just 9.5 million – had not only awakened deep anger but created a need for this normally "apolitical people" to come together, Govor said.

Lukashenko told people to drink vodka and visit saunas to ward off the deadly virus.

While Lukashenko insisted on pressing ahead with large public events, telling Belarusians to drink vodka and visit saunas to ward off the deadly virus, the community took matters into their own hands. They organised crowdfunding campaigns to prop up the healthcare system, share scientific advice and even 3D-print medical supplies, and that civil momentum swept through into the 2020 election – carrying Tikhanovskaya to stardom in a country that had never had a strong opposition.

After years of falling living standards, growing national debt and plummeting oil prices, one Belarusian economist said COVID-19 was like the fourth horsemen of the apocalypse arriving in his homeland.

Then came election night. Electoral fraud may be nothing new to Belarusians but the scale of the deceit this time around has struck a particular chord. Lukashenko claimed to have won by 80 per cent, despite some electoral officers confessing early numbers were false and other polling stations showing 70 per cent wins for the fiercely popular Tikhanovskaya.

“That seems an act of strange bravado on the part of Lukashenko, to inflate the vote to something so provocatively high,” Horvath said.

“It was a tipping point, a perfect storm,” agrees Kyle Wilson, a former Australian diplomat to both Moscow and Beijing. “Frustration in Belarus finally reached a critical mass.”

Workers yelled at Lukashenko to “go away” and “resign”. “Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,” he shot back.

And while the protests have stayed peaceful (as Govor notes, "some people even took off their shoes before standing on park benches, that's how well behaved") they are bigger than they’ve ever been, boasting crowds numbering in the tens, even hundreds of thousands.

The state “at the highest levels” seems to be fracturing, Horvath said. “Lukashenko has been embarrassed now.”

On August 18, a carefully stage-managed visit to his heartland, a military factory on the outskirts of Minsk, backfired. Workers yelled at Lukashenko to “go away” and “resign”. The ruler swept from the stage in fury: “Until you kill me, there will be no other elections”, he shot back.

Lukashenko made another key miscalculation, Horvath said. While virtually all the leader's challengers were jailed or forced out of the election before the polls opened, he left Tikhanovskaya in the race. The 37-year-old former English translator had stood in for her activist husband reluctantly in May and was soon flanked by two other formidable women from opposition ranks, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, who had both been blocked from running themselves. Lukashenko tried a sexist counter-attack, said Govor: “How can I debate with this housewife?”

“He decided Tikhanovskaya wasn’t a threat,” Govor adds. “He was wrong.”

In the bloody violence and internet blackouts that followed several nights of protest over the election results, it was women again who struck the hardest blow to the regime: a chain of them linking arms, dressed in white and holding flowers, pleaded for an end to the brutality.

“His riot police; they were like wolves attacking the people but when Lukashenko saw the women on the third day he called them off,” Govor said. “Then all the people came out into the streets and saw Minsk was their city, they could sing and dance. That is when the people overcame their fear.”

Women wave flowers as they join protest against the Belarus election results on August 13.Credit:AP

Wilson said the courage of women in the protests has been remarkable. "They're in the front ranks, they've put their bodies on the line. And they make it impossible to say this is about anything other than Belarus."

While the state propaganda machines of both Russia and Belarus are looking to spin the protests as a Western plot to control eastern Europe, the demonstrations are conspicuous for their lack of anti-Russian sentiment.

"Even Russia commentators [who aren't Putin critics] don't buy that line from the Kremlin," Wilson said. "There are no Poles and Ukrainians in the back alleys of Minsk conspiring to provoke violence. This is about Lukashenko. He is the only person to blame here."

We are not political dissidents, we just want dignity, we want our word to count. We hope people in the world hear us.

In the streets, people sing and hold up signs written in both languages, Russian and Belarusian. They carry the original Belarus flag – red and white – not the current flag, with its distinctive streak of green that was updated by Lukashenko as "a political move", Wilson said.

For Govor, it's a sign that the national identity of Belarus is coming back to life. "We lost our language [to some extent] but we don't want to be absolutely engulfed by Russia either. That could be seen as a threat to Moscow but that's not what this is about. We are not political dissidents, we just want dignity, we want our word to count. We hope people in the world hear us."

Protesters wave the traditional Belarusian flag on August 18 in Minsk. Credit:Getty Images

Why is Russia involved?

The protests might not be about Russia, but the large nation will still play a critical role in what is to come.

Lukashenko and Putin have never been on the best of terms, Horvath said. While the two nations are still major trading partners and allies, Lukashenko has been wary of giving up too much sovereignty ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. In bizarre scenes just days before the election, he ordered the arrest of more than 30 Russian mercenaries moving through the country near Minsk, accusing them of trying to meddle in the elections – in an effort to appear independent of the Kremlin.

The suspected poisoning of Alexei Navalny is a warning shot – both over Russia’s upcoming regional elections and the Belarus crisis.

Now, since the crisis began, Lukashenko has been on the phone regularly to Putin. Belarus is seen as key to Russian defences, lying between the nation and a clutch of NATO countries, many of which have housed standing forces since 2014 should Russian aggression again spill over. Putin has offered military support to Lukashenko if necessary, but it is a moment the Kremlin believes has yet to arrive.

The scenes unfolding in Belarus must be "profoundly disturbing for Putin to watch in his backyard”, Horvath said.

Russia itself is facing instability at home, including significant protests that have broken out in the eastern town of Khabarovsk following the arrest of a popular local governor who is now being held in Moscow. Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Muza said the recent suspected poisoning of another of Putin's political rivals, Alexei Navalny, is a warning shot from the Kremlin – both over Russia’s upcoming regional elections and the Belarus crisis.

A wanted poster with an image of Lukashenko at a rally in Minsk on August 18.Credit:Getty Images

Experts agree Russia will intervene over the border in some way. Belarus staying within the Kremlin's orbit as a neighbour and ally is too important for Putin to do nothing, Wilson said.

The question is how. Putin has form for playing both the diplomat and the invader when revolution comes to the neighbourhood.

The judgement that the country will somehow fall into the embrace of the West is wrong.

After the Ukrainian uprising of 2014 unseated a pro-Moscow leader, anti-Russian sentiment helped pave the way for a Russian invasion that ended in the annexation of Crimea – and Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict. But while Putin fears these kinds of "colour" revolutions in the east, Horvath said there is also precedent for him taking a peaceful, even constructive role such as during the bloodless coup in Armenia in 2018.

"Armenia was dependent on Russia for protection from Turkey so the opposition went out of its way to say to Moscow, 'Don't worry, our relationship with you won't change',” Wilson said. “It's what the Belarusians are saying to Russia now, too, if Moscow has ears to hear. The judgment that the country will somehow fall into the embrace of the West is wrong."

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre) fled to Lithuania following threats against her children and husband Sergei, the popular Youtuber and political activist who is still being held in a Belarusian jail.Credit:Getty Images

How could this unfold from here?

Despite Lukashenko's warnings he would crush further protests with an iron fist, huge demonstrations are continuing in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya said she is ready to lead the nation as soon as it is safe to return, vowing to free political prisoners and hold fair and independent elections within six months, although she has no plans to run again herself.

"I did not want to be a politician but fate decreed that I'd find myself on the front line," she said.

To many Belarusians, she is already their president, Govor said, someone they trust because she is not seeking to grab power for herself.

Horvath agreed that, while she may have no political experience, Tikhanovskaya has done something very courageous. "This articulate young woman contrasts spectacularly with the doddery, nasty [autocrat] who's been ruling Belarus for too long."

Senior generals will suddenly be thinking, do I want to be on trial for murdering my own people?

But Lukashenko is digging in too, vowing a harsher police crackdown and launching a criminal case against members of the opposition, who he accuses of attempting to illegally seize power. Whether the dictator can outlast the protesters will depend on the loyalty of his security forces, said Horvath.

"Whether or not they desert him may come down to him giving orders to shoot, and the decisions of a small group of people. Senior generals will suddenly be thinking: 'Do I want to be on trial for murdering my own people?' What they don't want to do is split down the middle. When both sides have guns it gets very nasty."

Already a small number of soldiers and police have thrown off their uniforms to join the protesters. But for the dictator it is not simply a matter of handing in a resignation letter. "He's committed crimes, [human rights violations], he's going to want some kind of guarantee of safety for himself and his family, of a safe exile,” Horvath said.

A career diplomat in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk urges other diplomats to join a nationwide strike movement on August 18.Credit:Getty Images

Lukashenko has stepped up Belarusian army drills at the border, claiming foreign NATO troops "are seriously stirring" in nearby Poland and Lithuania – a claim both countries as well as NATO have denied.

"He's been raving like a madman, trying to blame the protests on everyone else, even Holland," Govor said.

But a Russian invasion to shore up Lukashenko's regime is not off the table, Wilson warned.The Kremlin may yet play hardball, going in to stabilise the country before quietly arranging for its ruler to step down at a later date. Wilson notes that if Putin appears to act with Tikhanovskaya and her opposition, brokering a dialogue for a transition of power, his own rivals in Russia will have leverage. "They will say, 'Hold on, what about a genuine choice of the people here in Russia?'"

But a show of force would risk turning friendly Belarusians against Russia, and its closest ally into another neighbouring foe. "Does Putin really want his so-called polite men, what they call Russian troops without insignia, in the streets of Belarus with their Kalashnikovs?"

The European Union is now pursuing sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, after refusing to recognise the election results, which the United States has also condemned. But Russia has warned foreign powers to stay out of Belarus. The office of Lithuania's Prime Minister, Saulius Skvernelis, said the leader has already met with Tikhanovskaya and “assured her that the government, together with its partners in Poland, Latvia and Estonia, are doing and will do everything so that there are free and fair elections in Belarus, and so that her children could, as soon as possible, hug their dad in freedom".

Putin has arguably learned some things from Belarus, especially with his suffocating controls over NGOs.

Horvath said the whole world should be paying close attention to the little European country: "Any time we see people demonstrating peacefully for democracy against a dictator and being beaten and tortured for doing so, it is a moral duty of Western democracies to speak up.”

While Lukashenko’s iron grip on Belarus has earned him the auspicious title of Europe’s last dictator, he has been a harbinger too, allowing strongman leaders in nearby countries such as Hungary and Poland to more easily creep towards authoritarianism. “Lukashenko has certainly been a pioneer in de-democratisation and concentrating his own power,” Horvath said. “Putin has arguably learned some things from Belarus, especially with his suffocating controls over NGOs.”

Whatever happens, Gorvor said there is no going back for her homeland. The country’s philharmonic orchestra has already composed a new anthem for a new Belarus, performing it on the steps of Minsk as crowds swelled. "They weren't afraid,” she said.

"When it's your daughter, your wife, your son who has gone to that crowd of 200,000 people and felt themselves to be free, you can't just make them go back to loving their Batka, their father, again."

Belarusians in Minsk at a rally in support Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.Credit:AP

If you'd like some expert background on an issue or a news event, drop us a line at [email protected] or [email protected] Read more explainers here.

Source: Read Full Article