For the so-called “last dictator in Europe,” August may mark the last month of his reign. On Sunday, Belarus–overseen for over a quarter-century by a brutal imbecile named Alexander Lukashenko–hosted its latest version of what could loosely be called an “election.” These ersatz plebiscites have long been perfunctory functions that typically end in Lukashenko gaining yet another term in office, the better to continue smothering the independent press, peaceful protesters, and opposition figures alike. Since ascending to the presidency in 1994, Lukashenko, an unreconstructed Soviet man if there ever was one, has largely succeeded in cementing his power in Minsk and in overseeing a suffocating dictatorship over a swatch of Eastern Europe that hosted the final days of the Soviet Union.
This time around, however, there was a hitch. Where Lukashenko could previously point to economic stability–buttressed in large part by Russian hydrocarbon-funded subsidies–the global oil crunch has kneecapped Lukashenko’s reliable Moscow benefactors, putting paid to the notion that the Belarusian strongman could alone guarantee Belarus’s economic fortunes. Meanwhile, Lukashenko, cocooned in his increasingly farcical world of enablers and yes-men, mishandled the coronavirus outbreak in a way that would make even Donald Trump blanch. Not only did Lukashenko claim that the coronavirus was itself as a hoax and a “psychosis,” but he further mused that a vodka-and-sauna regimen would be enough to combat the disease. (Little surprise that Lukashenko is one of the few world leaders to have caught the disease thus far.)
Those twin realities, the economic downturn and the cascading coronavirus crisis, were enough of an impetus for a long dormant and oft-beleaguered opposition movement to begin to stir. When a number of opposition figures burst onto the political scene–ranging from former regime insiders to YouTube bloggers to businessmen disgusted by Lukashenko’s mismanagement–Lukashenko turned to a familiar playbook, blaming their rise on “foreign forces” and proceeding to jail them on fabricated charges. But Lukashenko misjudged the country he spent decades battering. New voices–especially that of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky–entered the fray and picked up the baton of opposition. Lukashenko’s old tricks suddenly faltered and failed.
Buoyed by a post-Soviet generation exhausted with Lukashenko’s viciousness, Sunday’s vote was the most significant election in Belarus’s short history. To win it, Lukashenko deployed all his favorite forms of vote-rigging: outright ballot-stuffing, bought-off “election monitors,” and security forces bloodying protesters. Every trick of the post-Soviet dictator trade was employed. It still wasn’t enough. With Lukashenko declaring a ridiculous 80 percent return on the vote (the vote share that Tikhanovskaya likely earned for herself, if not more), he was the spark that lit the fire that followed.
On Sunday night, that conflagration consumed the country. Incredible footage showed Minsk transformed from a sleepy post-Soviet metropole to one with more foot traffic, and more protesters, than it had ever known. Brave Belarusians walked directly up to the armored personnel carriers and armed police goons blocking the boulevards. Peaceful protesters massed to demand authentic ballot returns. Unarmed voters gathered in blocs, marching to demand transparency, authenticity, and a government that reflected their will.
Belarus remains in a holding pattern. The prevailing social contract, in which Lukashenko retains power in return for economic and socio-political stability, is clearly fractured, perhaps beyond repair. What comes next is anyone’s guess. Lukashenko might cede ground, as we saw in Armenia in 2018, allowing a new generation to rise. He could attempt to cling to power in a manner similar to Ukraine in 2014, in which an aging and rattled despot loses grip while the country devolves into violence and successful overthrow, with a nearby Russia pawing and probing for ways to invade. Or he could go a separate, more horrific route and begin gunning down protesters à la Uzbekistan circa 2005–a solution at which Lukashenko has already terrifyingly hinted.
Whatever comes next in Belarus, Lukashenko’s illiberal gyrations highlight the parameters of modern dictatorship and the depths to which despotic figures will sink in order to retain power. Lukashenko’s ludicrous claim that he won more than three-quarters of Belarusians’ votes illuminates how, and why, modern dictators routinely inflate returns to ridiculous sums. Not only does it allow them to signal strength to wobbling elites, as well as potential external actors (like Russia) eyeing potential territorial gains, but it further illustrates that the regime can blatantly implement fraud and pay no consequences. However, it’s also a means of signaling–as with all of the widespread voter suppression, voter intimidation, and vote manipulation–to the opposition that they remain beaten, battered, and beleaguered.
More broadly, Lukashenko’s efforts highlight just how much his brand of dictatorial misrule has infected regimes both near and far. After all, it’s no longer quite fair to describe Lukashenko as the “last dictator of Europe.” Vladimir Putin in Russia and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan help round out Europe’s dictatorial claque, with Hungary’s Victor Orban eyeing potential entry into their ranks. For every successful European anti-authoritarian revolution–in Ukraine, in Georgia–a regime elsewhere picked up the slack, carrying the dark torch of dictatorship well into the twenty-first century.
Nor, of course, is this by any means limited to Europe. The United States continues hurtling toward a contentious November election–and continues to be steered by a president without precedent. Donald Trump, as we’ve all seen over the past few years, shares all of the leanings of Lukashenko’s autocratic cohort, even if he hasn’t yet been able to use all of the tools Lukashenko has at his disposal.
Just look at all of the historic firsts Trump has racked up in his brief presidency. Trump is the first American president to call to delay the presidential election, despite the fact that he’s constitutionally incapable of making such a move. He’s the first American president to ever threaten not to recognize election results and to claim that the presidential election will be “rigged.” He’s the first American president to solicit offers of foreign aid in an election and to accept it when it comes. He’s the first American president to strong-arm a foreign government for “dirt” on a political rival–landing him as the first American president to be impeached on national security grounds–and the first to accuse his presidential predecessor of “treason.”
He is the closest American approximation to that species of authoritarian ruler and despotic demagogue the post-Soviet space knows so well. This may well be why the U.S. took so long to issue a statement on Belarus’s sham election or on the security service violence we’ve already seen. Trump is someone Lukashenko would implicitly recognize as being cut from the same cloth.
One would be hard-pressed to disagree with such observations. When Lukashenko first rose to power in 1994, the budding autocrat was perceived as little more than a dolt, an empty suit, a pig farmer, who few in Minsk’s political ranks took seriously. “Others waited in the wings, confident they could manipulate Lukashenko in their own interests, or steer their own craft in his wake,” Andrew Wilson wrote in Belarus, his seminal book on the country. “Politics was divided between those who were traumatized by the rise of the pig farmer and those who failed to take him seriously.” Those pushing Lukashenko to power were all “cynical people,” Aliaksandr Feduta, one of Lukashenko’s early media advisers, remembered, simply looking to “destroy the old machine of executive power and take power in their own hands.”
In that sense, they got their wish. But Lukashenko quickly discovered he had a taste for power, which he’s attempted to sate for almost all of Belarus’s post-Soviet history. It “was clear that [he] thirsted for power,” Feduta would later write, “like a 16-year-old youth wants intimacy with a woman, so Lukashenko with every fiber of his spirit, every cell of his organism, desired power as such.”
History has pushed Belarus to this fork in the road, with one path leading to a transition of power and the other furthering the decline that was laid in the moment Lukashenko ended up with the presidency. It’s a fearful moment that transcends Belarus’s borders. As Wilson wrote, “If someone other than Lukashenko had won the first presidential election, then Belarus would most likely have become a reasonably well-functioning semi-presidential system.” Maybe not a full-functioning democracy, but a state that pushes ever more toward some brighter day.
That bright day may yet come. But the entrenched misrule of Lukashenko’s reign–like the reign of any authoritarian not taken seriously until it was too late–will not be easily put right. And there are surely perils, protests, and the potential for violence waiting to unfold between now and then, the natural outcome of an election that doesn’t go the way those authoritarians planned.