Eimear O’Casey, Senior Analyst

Belarus has found itself in an unprecedented political crisis since President Alexander Lukashenko on 9 August declared a victory in a highly contested election. Lukashenko is so far standing firm against daily peaceful protests calling for his resignation and fresh elections. We assess the trajectory of the crisis, its impact on the political and business environments, and the repercussions for the wider region.

  • Russia will likely work closely with Lukashenko to offer a cosmetic constitutional reform package, and to oversee an eventual transfer of power in Belarus to ensure a successor of its choosing can be secured.
  • However, the success of such a strategy is far from assured. Such tactics are likely to face strong resistance from Belarusian society, which may lead to a protracted period of instability over the next year.
  • The crisis has exacerbated existing political and operational challenges in the business environment, and seen the emergence of significant security threats, including to personal security.
  • The emergence of a grassroots protest movement in one of the former Soviet region’s most politically restrictive states is likely to inspire similar movements elsewhere in the region in the next year.
  • However, for such protests to reach a critical mass, at least one major catalyst or external shock such as a sustained inadequate health or economic policy response to COVID-19 is likely to be necessary.

The COVID-19 catalyst

Belarus’ civil society and political opposition have been systematically marginalised over the past two decades, and the emergence of daily anti-government protests attracting as many as hundreds of thousands of people since August is a development without precedent. While a longer-term trend of declining support for President Alexander Lukashenko’s Soviet style of governance among a new generation of Belarusians is at play, the catalyst was Lukashenko’s poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Lukashenko dismissed the virus as “psychosis” and implemented no suppression measures to tackle it. Grassroots, community response to the virus solidified anti-government sentiment and arguably generated a sense of empowerment among Belarusians.

The mixing of the pandemic and the presidential election brought the situation to a crescendo. COVID-19 struck just as Lukashenko was preparing to run for a sixth term in an election in which he allowed only one opposition candidate to stand: Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed, would-be candidate. Counter to the president’s expectations, Tsikhanouskaya joined forces with other leading opposition campaigns and succeeded in unifying popular frustration on a pledge to release political prisoners and re-run the election.

After Lukashenko declared victory in the face of widespread accounts of voting day irregularities, daily peaceful protests were unleashed and unprecedented strikes at state-owned entities began. The authorities have responded with violence, mass arrests and threats against prominent critics. One month on, Lukashenko is not heeding calls for his resignation.

Russia’s role to be crucial …

As the key economic and political partner to Belarus, Russia will be critical in determining how developments play out from here. Russia’s priority is for Belarus to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence, and out of the EU and NATO. Since the elections Russia has become increasingly clear in its intention to back Lukashenko. With no support from the West or from his own population, Lukashenko needs Russia’s backing to remain in post for any length of time. While Lukashenko is an unreliable ally – not least because of his evident increasing inability to maintain stability – Russia appears to have decided that allowing his removal by a grassroots, pro-democracy uprising that could inspire similar activism elsewhere in the region presents a risk not worth taking.

Russian support for Lukashenko is probably not going to take the form of overt military assistance. The difficulties, costs and diplomatic fallout of such intervention will make it unappealing to Russia. Instead, Russia is likely to calculate that it can achieve its goals through misinformation and diplomatic and covert political intervention. Lukashenko has already confirmed that Russia in August provided assistance in the form of sending in television news anchors, while unconfirmed media reports indicate that Russia has also sent political and security advisers. Unsubstantiated government narratives about anti-Russian sentiment in the protest movement are being intensified, likely at Russia’s initiation and in a bid to open divisions among protesters.

Meanwhile, Russia has offered to refinance Belarusian debt and is positioning itself as the government’s trusted partner, in the face of likely fresh sanctions by the EU against senior Belarusian figures associated with the crackdown. Russia is likely hoping that Lukashenko’s reliance on it to retain power forces him to accept deeper economic integration between the two countries – which Russia has been pushing since late 2018 – and provide opportunities for Russia to more directly benefit from Belarus’ assets.

The next stage is likely to see Russia manage proposals to reform the constitution and election processes over the next 12 months, as cosmetic concessions to protesters to give the impression of a commitment to democratic reform. This might include, for example, an expanded role for parliament. The ultimate aim for Russia is likely to be the holding of elections in which Russia can oversee the replacement of Lukashenko with a more reliable figure at a time of Russia’s choosing.

… but not uncontested

The post-election protest environment has solidified, and likely amplified, a distinctive, post-Soviet Belarusian identity that has emerged in the past decade. Although surveys indicate that this identity is neither pro- nor anti-Russian in the main, it is not clear that a Belarusian population that is in the midst of a civil awakening will accept the highly orchestrated plan likely to be on offer by the Belarusian state, and de facto by Russia. Even before the current crisis, support among Belarusians for further integration with Russia was declining, and there is a clear consensus against increased Russian influence over political structures. A poll conducted by a Belarusian agency in February 2020 found only 40% of respondents supported formalisation of the Union State (established formally in the 1990s but never fully realised) between the two countries, down from 60% a year earlier. An online poll of Belarusians under 34 carried out by a German think tank in June 2020 found that 70% opposed the unification of Belarus and Russia. A similar proportion of the wider population according to the February poll supported the two countries remaining independent but with an open border and no visa controls.

The current political crisis has emerged in part because of the democratic deficit in the country. Given that the population will be alert to indications that any proposed reforms sustain that deficit, popular pushback against Russia-choreographed political reform that does not deliver a competitive election is therefore likely. It raises a credible prospect of a sustained, highly unstable environment, repeated state repression and even the emergence of parallel government structures. While the spontaneous nature of the protests makes them agile and adaptive, the lack of a clear leader for the anti-government movement – after Tsikhanouskaya and other prominent figures have been arrested, forced out of the country or fled – makes its evolution all the more unpredictable.

Increasingly complicated risk environment for investors

The threat environment for businesses is become increasingly complex. While operations are being negatively affected by internet shutdowns and rising reputational risks for companies working with state-owned entities, the most obvious threat is the emergence of an unstable security environment in a country that previously presented largely negligible security threats. The authorities have used indiscriminate violence against protesters and bystanders, including foreigners, indicating a lack of regard for limiting the impact of their crackdown on those not participating, including foreign businesses and their personnel. Meanwhile, sectors of the economy hitherto left largely to their own devices have come under pressure from the state machinery. The IT sector, once Lukashenko’s pride and joy, has faced searches of businesses and arrests of prominent officials. Many IT companies are targeted because they and their employees have been vocal in their condemnation of Lukashenko and the election. However, some are targeted simply because the services they provide facilitate communication and organisation among protesters. A major exodus of successful companies and highly skilled workers is gathering pace, threatening one of the few sources of economic growth in recent years.

A post-Soviet spring?

Among observers of the region, Belarus was near the bottom of the list of post-Soviet states seen as likely to give rise to grassroots, pro-democracy movement on this scale. With Putin experiencing falling approval ratings and already battling a sustained protest movement in the far eastern region of Khabarovsk in recent months, concern that Belarus could act as inspiration for similar anti-government activities in Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet region is likely to be at the forefront of the Russian leadership’s minds.

While protests on the scale seen in Belarus are unlikely to materialise in Russia in the coming months given the authorities’ continuing hold over all aspects of the state apparatus, the governing party’s standing will be significantly tested in the 11-13 September local elections and particularly in parliamentary elections, most likely to be held in March 2021. Additionally, Russia’s own economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic and low oil prices, will likely raise the prospect of localised protests, tapping into existing grievances ranging from environmental concerns to pervasive corruption. 

The Belarusian protests may resonate elsewhere in the post-Soviet region. Since 2019, we have observed a modest but notable rise in anti-government activism in some of the region’s most restrictive countries, in particular Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. For these movements to transform into something that challenges the political status quo, at least one trigger such as severe mishandling of COVID-19 by the government is likely to be necessary. A number of countries have arguably already seen such a trigger manifest. In Tajikistan, the government took months to acknowledge the disease’s presence in the country, despite widespread reports of people falling ill with the symptoms and hospitals at capacity. A tightly controlled presidential election in the country scheduled for 11 October looks unlikely to see the emergence of an anti-government protest movement. However, with the COVID-19 crisis expected to see living standards heavily hit across the former Soviet space in the coming year, there are likely to be flashpoints when a range of popular grievances come together to generate protests on a scale that the local authorities will be forced to respond to. As the Arab spring showed, sometimes the smallest trigger can lead to momentous change.

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