Sebastian Baciu is a second year IR student at King’s. He has joined IR Today as editor for European affairs and also writes for the news section of the student-led newspaper, Roar News. He is mainly interested in European integration, the social, economic and cultural contrast between the East and the West and the language, thought and manipulation of populist parties.
The energy of 1989 seems to have reignited in Belarus, where mass protests have been taking place against the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for more than two decades. Many are calling for a revolution, disgruntled by a regime that seems to be out of touch with the times. It is bewildering how such stark abuses of power have been taking place for years without garnering the attention of the European Union and the public at large. In a few weeks, Belarus, a country obscured by the shadow of his autocratic regime, has resurfaced on the map as the last dictatorship of Europe.
The president refuses the see the protest movement as legitimate and maintains instead that it is backed by foreign powers, allegedly bent on toppling the government in Minks. It is a classic example of the hostility that has often divided the East from the West. Undoubtedly, Belarus is under the sway of Russia, with Putin claiming that the situation will be resolved (1). Undoubtedly, Lukashenko is desperate to find in the Russian presidenta partner that can help him overcome his predicament (2). Buttheir bond is not as strong as it would seem. Putin knows well that Lukashenko is despised and would not want to make Belarusians hostile to Russia.
The simmering resentment against the regime exploded into mass protests after the official polls indicated that Lukashenko’s opponent, Svetlana Tihanovskaia, lost with only 10% of the votes – a result impossible to believe considering the sheer number of people taking to the streets. Despite the government trying to sabotage her potential victory, Tihanovskaia managed to do something much more remarkable: she ignited a flame that shows there are grounds for hope even in a dictatorship. What the regime is now trying to do is merely survive for fear that all the misdeeds of the last decades would surface to light.
Lukashenko will never pay heed to Machiavelli’s words: the most dangerous thing that can happen to a leader is to be despised by the people. But that lesson comes from a time when tear gas and firearms didn’t exist (3).Belarusians’ plea for help seemsto grow increasingly distant, whilethe European Union, caught up in a resurgence ofCOVID-19 cases, are too busy to heal the wounds of a small country on the fringe of its borders. The sanctions it imposed seems to be the most it can do (4).
Lukashenko, meanwhile, is determined to defy opposition and to act ruthlessly in his pursuit of power. But the protests go on. Peaceful protesters are still detained and yet they continue to fight for freedom. It is an act of bravery and resilience that should remind the rest of Europe that living in a democratic society is truly a privilege.
Whether Belarus is on its way towards a pro-western future is questionable, yet there is no doubt that the country finds itself at crossroads. A sweeping change remains distant because even if Lukashenko is replaced by someone else, Russia’s interference will ensure that it will be a reliable partner of the Kremlin (5). Despite people still taking to the streets each weekend, the movement has gradually lost its initial momentum.
Belarus seems to slip again into the shadows. As long as Putin is behind Lukashenko, the popular will is bound to remain unheard. Transformative change is unlikely to come from the outside. It needs to come from within (6). It wasn’t the people on the street that toppled authoritarian regimes in 1980, but Moscow’s unsustainable political framework that crumbled once Gorbachev came to power. The same holds true for Belarus today. Mass uprisings are a sign that something is wrong – but that doesn’t always translate into tangible results.