In 1994, a 39-year old Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former kolkhoz (collective farm) director, became the first democratically elected president of the former Belarus Soviet republic by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform and riding a tide of popular discontent over early 1990s hyperinflation. Election monitors and western observers dubbed his victory as the first absolutely free, unfettered, democratic elections in the nation’s history.
They were also the last.
Almost as soon as he assumed office, Lukashenko began dismembering the democratic institutions and constitutional guarantees that had allowed him to capture the presidency. His “reelection” to a second term in 2001 was marred by charges of widespread manipulation and falsification of the vote count—plus accusations of intimidation tactics employed by the security services.
This scenario has been repeated in each successive election. Lukashenko has consistently utilized state mechanisms under his control in order to remain in power for 26 years.
During this time, any potential contender or critic who emerged in Belarus was either jailed on fabricated charges, bullied into submission, forced to flee the country or—in several cases—died under mysterious circumstances. In 2012, one of Lukashenko’s opponents was not only jailed, but was also threatened with a 10-day stint in a special punishment cell for the crime of “refusing to sign a confession.”
All of which earned Lukashenko the title of “Europe’s last dictator.”
Few expected that Lukashenko would have trouble being reelected for a sixth term this coming Sunday, on August 9.
And yet, the combination of a population suffering under years of a flagging economy and growing corruption has caused an undercurrent of discontent to spill congeal into an organised and united opposition—which has been further propelled by Lukashenko’s almost comical response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than assembling initiatives of government assistance for various business sectors or subsidizing medical services, Lukashenko stated that his citizens should “just drink vodka” and that “tractor vylechit vsekh.” Which translates as: “Driving a tractor can cure everyone.”
By the beginning of the summer, opposition candidates saw an opening and started positioning themselves to challenge his presidential bid.
The Belarus strongman turned to his tried-and-true method of “round up the usual suspects.” Those detained numbered more than 100 persons and include both potential opposition candidates and prominent pro-democracy activists.
But what happened next was unexpected. Three female and largely political novices – the wives of two of the three most serious contenders and a female senior aide to the third candidate—joined forces and gave birth to the candidacy of a former English teacher, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She is the 37-year old wife of the imprisoned popular blogger and intended presidential candidate, Sergei Tikhanovskiy, and had been a complete unknown until May.
Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of one of Valeriy Tsepkalo, a former Belarus Ambassador to the U.S. who is now in Moscow to avoid being jailed by Lukashenko, and Maria Kolesnikova, a deputy on the staff of the other jailed candidate, former banker Viktor Babaryka, have both endorsed her campaign. The three have made numerous appearances together as a trio of voices calling for an end to Lukashenko’s rule.
And her rallies have drawn tens of thousands of supporters, much to the chagrin of the Lukashenko government.
The actual poll numbers on the race are hard to pin down, because polling in Belarus is heavily restricted and only a small number of polling companies are legally permitted to operate in country. But the polls that have been taken show that Lukashenko’s trust factor among the people in Minsk was rated as low as 24 percent in April. Other polling suggests he will garner no more than 35 percent of the vote, which, if true, would give Tikhanovskaya a chance to beat him.
Tikhanovskaya has no ambitions to become the permanent Belarusian head of state. The goal of her campaign is to remove Lukashenko, release Belarus’s ever-expanding population of political prisoners, re-instate the Belarussian constitution as it existed before 1996—and then hold free, legitimate elections within six months that would allow all of the currently jailed opposition candidates to participate.
For a country that has spent 26 years in the grip of a strongman, this is a broadly attractive platform.
One of the factors that has increased the movement against Lukashenko has been an organized group of opposition figures who have gravitated to Kiev, since Ukraine has become literally the only former Soviet republic to have competitive elections and some level of freedom of expression. The number of political refugees from Russia, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics has caused more than one western observer to describe this city as “Casablanca without the heroes.”
Last month, a hero finally arrived in the form of Vadim Prokopiev, a former-military businessman famous for both brilliant creativity and dedication to perfection. He has become one of the most successful restaurateurs in this region—a modern-day incarnation of Rick from Casablanca. (Full disclosure: I have known Prokopiev for almost 20 years and am an unabashed admirer of his business skills and principled manner.)
Prokopiev launched a campaign against Lukashenko in Minsk through a video address he made as the head of the Belarus restaurant owners association criticising the government’s lack of any effective response to the COVID-19 crisis. But his speech was slyly aimed aimed at (and resonated with) the military officer corps and security services. And it touched on numerous other long-term grievances against Lukashenko.
“Most of the senior officer corps know me from both my military background and my career now as a businessman,” he said when we spoke recently here in Kiev. “After I made this video, they would come up to me on the street, shake my hand and thank me for what I had said—and literally all of them saying that they are completely fed up with this regime.”
Upon his arrival here, Prokopiev proceeded to make a series of black-and-white film noir-inspired video addresses to the people of Belarus. These include challenging Lukashenko to a boxing match, imploring the elites in Belarus to change the regime, and even addressing Lukashenko’s 16-year old son and urging him to choose his own path and not accept the life his father’s dictatorship is creating for him.
The videos have since seen millions of views despite relentless attempts by Belarus state-sponsored cyber attackers to disable them.
On Sunday, we will see just how far Lukashenko is willing to go to keep the country in his grip.
Correction: April 8, 2020, 11:59 a.m.: The piece originally said that the wife of Viktor Babaryka had endorsed the Tikhanovskaya campaign. The endorsement came from Maria Kolesnikova, a deputy on the staff of Babaryka, not Babaryka’s wife. The piece has been changed accordingly.