Gabrielle is a 3rd year International Relations student from Houston, Texas. Her interests include geopolitical risk, the energy transition, and the link between environmental policy and human rights. She is passionate about writing approachable content on current global affairs.
A 73-year-old great-grandmother, an English teacher turned opposition leader, and Europe’s longest standing ruler are some of the faces of the ongoing unrest in Belarus. The alleged rigging of the August presidential election has unearthed a powder keg history of corruption and violence that has haunted the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Belarus is stuck in a time warp; Cold War-esque tensions between the West and Russia have and continue to freeze the region and inhibit reform. There are many factors that may have contributed to this paralysis, but those most cited are President Lukashenko’s centralized and authoritarian leadership, Belarus’ social stability, and Russian economic support .By examining these historical and geopolitical factors, we can uncover the motivations behind the monumental protests in Belarus today as well as what is at stake on the path forward.
Lukashenko’s geopolitical dance between the opposing interests of Russia and the West has played an important role in maintaining firm control over the state. As Belarus expert Anaïs Marin describes, ‘dictaplomacy’ “was always Lukashenko’s main regime-survival tool.”He never allows his regime to fall definitively into one camp, effectively playing off of the rivalry in a manner that grants him freedom to pursue his authoritarian ways, without suffering many of the consequences. Accordingly, he has maintained complete state control over sectors such as manufacturing and has held onto loyalty from the media and the secret police – still known today as the KGB .
Another aspect of Belarus’ resistance to change has been its unique social stability relative to other countries in the region. Lukashenko has been known to argue that a stable autocracy at peace is better than a democracy at war .This mindset has historically set the nation apart from turbulent neighbours such as Lithuania and Poland. Journalist and political commentator Artyom Shraibman argues that unlike the situation in Ukraine, “the cards are stacked against a forced transfer of power” in Belarus .The loyalty of the government to Lukashenko has divided opposition efforts for decades, and the security force has squashed ensuing protests .Perhaps the protests today, however, will result in a tremor strong enough to knock Lukashenko off of his powerful pedestal. After all, the opposition has never been stronger than it is behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who garnered strong public support leading up to the election and was expected to win by a considerable margin.
The final factor that has kept Belarus on ice is the country’s economic situation. Behind the facade of a ‘neutral buffer state’ is a country, and a regime, that is heavily dependent on the economic whims of the two opposing blocs of the EU and Russia. Arve Hansen from the Norwegian Institute for Public Affairs credits this rivalry between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union with the “mounting regional instability” we see exemplified in Belarus today .A dependence on Russia is particularly noteworthy within the energy sector. In the past, Belarus has relied heavily on the reselling of highly subsidized Russian oil and gas .This has come at a price, though, specifically Belarus’ unwavering support to Russia as a buffer state to NATO.
While relations between the EU and Lukashenko have also been improving over the last few years, the explosive aftermath of the most recent election is mounting pressure on European countries to be more courageous in their criticisms of Lukashenko’s regime .The EU has responded by officially refusing to recognize Lukashenko as the president of Belarus, citing a lack of democratic legitimacy in the recent election .
The Path Forward
The path forward from this decision is unclear. Ben Challis, who focuses on conflict and security in wider Europe, urges that international financial institutions and other monetary lines must be sustained, otherwise Lukashenko will be forced to make “risk-laden security concessions” to Russia .“Shutting these does little to support protestors,” he continues .This situation is therefore very delicate, leaving little room for international support without massive backlash, especially from Russia. Eyes remain on Belarus and its passionate and persistent protestors, and one can only hope that the country will finally be able break free from the bonds that have restricted it for decades.
 Hansen, Arve. Report. Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI), 2020: 1 https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25735
 Marin, Anaïs. Report. European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), 2020: 3 https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25026
 BBC News, “What’s happening in Belarus?” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53799065
 Hansen, Arve. Report. Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI), 2020: 3
 Shraibman, Artyom. The House That Lukashenko Built: The Foundation, Evolution, and Future of the Belarusian Regime. Report. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018. 26. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16978.1
 Hansen, Arve. Report. Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI), 2020: 1
 Ibid. 3
 Challis, Ben. Belarus beyond 2020: Implications for Russia and the West. Report. European Leadership Network, 2020: 18 https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25716
 BBC News, “Belarus: Lukashenko’s new mandate lacks democratic legitimacy, EU says.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54277228
 Challis, Ben. Belarus beyond 2020: Implications for Russia and the West. Report. European Leadership Network, 2020: 18