The Sham of Belarus’s Coming Election

Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. That’s not changing any time soon.

All-star authoritarians are a ruble a dozen in Russia these days. Vladimir Putin leads the pack, of course, but there are plenty of local and regional tough guys running their neighborhoods and governments like mob bosses. Many of them are direct offshoots of Putin’s United Russia party, some are even worse. Ultra-nationalists in the far east of the country are protesting their inability to run their own government and local syndicates, complaining that Moscow insists on central control over the means of corruption.

Russia is not the only former Soviet state that is stuck with megalomaniacal overlords. Next door and related, Belarus—the country also known as White Russia—is a paragon of parasitic politics. Run by the same guy since 1994, Belarus is heading toward “elections” next month where the main opposition candidates have been disqualified or arrested.

A vlogger, a banker and a diplomat were all running against incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko and have dubiously found their way into the political penalty box, or jail. In their stead, their spouses have stepped in to strut their candidacies and keep the erstwhile candidates’ messages alive. Surprisingly, there is an early anti-establishment groundswell coalescing around the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of popular Belarus online journalist vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. She been dismissed by Lukashenko, who said the demanding presidential pressures of governing would cause Svetlana to “collapse, poor thing.”

Spoiler alert: My prediction is that Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective chicken-farm boss, will triumph with a landslide victory with only a smattering of opposition ballots. If my cynical prediction is right, and the electoral fix is in, then Lukashenko will be heading into his sixth consecutive term as president.

Should he win, Lukashenko’s longevity in office will be typical of many ex-Soviet states. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, kept power from 1990 until last year. Tajikistan’s kleptocratic ruler, President Emomali Rahmon, has been in office since 1994, with his latest term running out in 2021, when his son is set up to take over the reins.

Russia and Belarus, too, have had deeply predictable electoral outcomes with incumbents holding their executive titles for multiple terms and a head-spinning number of years. Putin may ultimately break all ruling records. He recently managed to get a Russian national referendum passed that will allow him to remain president until 2036.

Lukashenko has been in office uninterruptedly over the past 26 years. His success rides on his nationalist rhetoric and his oversized persona. He’s a burly farmer and hockey fan with rough, masculine charisma. Corrupt elections and laws making it illegal to insult him keep him in office, too.

Other than nationalist messages and manufactured pride, Lukashenko has had financial good fortune thanks to Russia. Moscow essentially subsidizes his regime with cheap oil, which keeps inefficient heavy industry chugging and has dramatically lowered the country’s poverty rate. Russia’s oil exports buy off Belarus to guarantee Minsk and Lukashenko stay in Moscow’s orbit. Those subsidies and the outdated state manufacturing plants they support come to an end in 2025.

Successfully feeding his citizenry and delivering a fervent nationalist message to sate proud masses who feed off flag-waving is a winning formula. So is building a constellation of Lukashenko-sponsored hockey rinks around the countryside—the proven “bread and circuses” Roman formula for maintaining public support.

Sometimes Lukashenko needs to confront brother Russia to turn-up the nationalist heat, arguing that Russia wants to absorb Belarus the way it occupies Crimea. When necessary, he tweaks Putin and raises the specter of Russian imperial designs, arguing that Belarus remains a fiercely independent country stuck between East and West. Lukashenko rejects European overtures for stronger ties while also showing he’s not Putin’s poodle.

Lukashenko tamps down domestic dissent with broad accusations against rivals. His anti-corruption campaign ensnares nearly every opponent. Further, his contrived world is full of enemies and threats—both foreign and domestic, real and imagined. Lukashenko runs a full-court-press propaganda machine and police state that continue to reflexively scare a nation into submission.

Despite financial stability, a monopoly on violence and control of the ballot box, the upcoming election still could have been a real contest. COVID-19 has fed rising discontent with “Europe’s last dictator.” Like other populist leaders around the world, he dismissed the pandemic. According to Lukashenko, Belarusians’ physical constitution required only that citizens drink vodka, visit saunas and go for tractor rides to fortify their already super-tough immune systems.

Vodka does not have the life-saving medical outcomes of remdesivir, but it does have a powerful fogging effect on rational decision-making. Whether this helps Lukashenko at the ballot box will be revealed on Aug. 9.

Regardless, Belarusians will certainly wake-up the next day with a political hangover.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.