Skip to main content

The Belarus Election and its Aftermath | An Expert Analysis

In this past Sunday's presidential election in Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote in what has been widely regarded as a sham election. Since then, Belarusians have taken to the streets every day across the country to protest the results, state police have used increasingly brutal countermeasures against protesters, and his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled Belarus for Lithuania. The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

1. President Alexander Lukashenko has claimed victory once again amid a vote widely decried as manipulated and with no international observers. Protests have also followed the voting, as expected. What does this level of opposition to Lukashenko’s continued rule mean for the country?  How is Lukashenko likely to respond going forward?

2. Ukraine has asked for Belarus to extradite 28 of the 33 alleged Wagner operatives recently arrested in the country. What are the implications of this situation for relations between Minsk and Moscow? What about the claimed detentions of US nationals in Belarus on August 6?

3. What should US policymakers keep an eye on in the coming weeks? How are US relations with Belarus likely to evolve?

This compilation is one in an occasional series highlighting the expertise of Kennan Institute scholars and staff.

Explore the Analysis From Our Experts

  • Belarus had its fair share of the rigged elections and failed protests, but this time the situation feels different. High level of popular mobilization across the entire country, partly sparked by authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, means that the protests will not just fizzle out over time. President Alexander Lukashenko and his small circle of loyal supporters would have to resort to a widespread and violent crackdown on protesters, more severe than even Belarusian standards. The outcome will depend on whether his security and police forces will remain loyal. The role of outside powers will also matter, particularly Russia’s readiness (or otherwise) to back Lukashenko amid the growing domestic instability. The European Union and some European states like Germany, France, and Poland will seek to apply pressure on Lukashenko through sanctions, but they are unlikely to offer a meaningful support to the opposition in ways that could help opponents of the current regime capture power without confrontation. In short, Belarus will see more violence and instability in the coming days and weeks. There are no sufficient concessions to the protesters from the side of the current regime, such as the replacement of some officials, that would nonetheless sustain Lukashenko in power peacefully.

    Although Russia and Belarus are still formally part of the Union State, their relations have been growing progressively more tense and even confrontational over the past year. Moscow has taken steps to reduce financial subsidies for Belarus (which amount to billions of dollars a year), even as President Lukashenko began to claim that he is being pressured to compromise Belarusian sovereignty in exchange for economic benefits. Minsk’s detention of Russian mercenaries just days before the elections marked another escalation. Moscow claimed that these people were transiting through Belarus on their way to Turkey, while Lukashenko accused them of seeking to disabuseBelarus. The story remains murky, surrounded by many speculations about how and why these mercenaries traveled to Belarus, how they may have been involved with the Ukrainian authorities, and why Lukashenko decided to raise tensions with Moscow ahead of his elections. We may never find out the full truth.

    So far, Moscow has played down the detention of its citizens, even going so far as to accuse Lukashenko of deliberately using the Russian “threat” to bolster his election campaign. It also has called for the release of all its citizens. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities also want to see 28 of the 33 detained mercenaries—all also Ukrainian citizens—to be extradited to Ukraine and prosecuted for fighting on the side of Russian forces in Donbas. If Lukashenko were to extradite them to Ukraine, Moscow will see such actions as a further hostile step, making it difficult for the Kremlin to offer open support to Lukashenko in the midst of the postelection instability.

    However, for Russia the current situation is also complicated. The Kremlin has lost trust in Lukashenko as a reliable partner, but the Russian political class is even more worried about the prospect of a successful pro-Western Revolution in Belarus. Many would see it as a threat to Russia’s vital security and energy interests in Belarus. If Russia strongly backs Lukashenko and the regime fails anyway—as was the case during the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine—then Russia will be cut off from Europe by two countries that will be seeking closer cooperation with the European Union and NATO. It appears that currently Russia has no clear strategy on how to deal with growing instability in Belarus and will remain reactive in its future actions.

    Despite its limited relations, the United States has important influence in Belarus and many pro-Western officials and activists have sought US support for domestic economic and political reforms. In the current situation, the US policymakers would have to address three key objectives. First, they would have to send a clear message to Lukashenko to deter further use of force against the protesters. Second, they would need to engage with Europeans to develop a joint package on incentives for Belarus to move toward a more democratic, pluralist government. Finally, they would have to engage in a dialogue with Russia to ensure that Moscow does not intervene unilaterally to secure its interests in Belarus amid potential further destabilization in the country.

  • The opposition in Belarus has reached unprecedented levels and stems from diverse regions and groups. There are cracks even in the nomenklatura, as demonstrated by the foiled candidacies of Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babaryko. The protesters currently lack a leader, but successfully coordinate through the Telegram messaging app. Notably, the employees of several state-owned plants are organizing strikes.

    These signs are encouraging, but the risk is a transition to more repressive and unstable authoritarian rule. President Alexander Lukashenko has failed to build a ruling party or groom a successor and depleted his supply of economic “handouts.” His remaining tools are greater information control and overt repression. In the past, the internet was open in Belarus, despite the routine attacks against independent media. Now, Lukashenko is borrowing from China’s toolbox, blocking access to websites and online platforms.

    The regime has a history of cracking down on opposition candidates and the most politicized protesters, while economic protests (e.g., over rising gas prices or the “social parasites” tax) were punished less harshly and even won concessions from the regime. Ongoing protests set the stage for more overt repression. Informed by Ukraine’s Maidan, Lukashenko reformed the military and internal security apparatus to guard against hybrid warfare and domestic unrest. His eldest son, Viktar, advises the security council of Belarus and has strong informal ties with the siloviki. Early in 2020, Lukashenko again reshuffled the upper echelons of the security apparatus, to strengthen control. In short, he has all the tools and the incentives necessary to rule by force.

    The regime is likely to instrumentalize foreign nationals to stoke fears of external interference and justify crackdowns. Lukashenko has previously claimed that foreign militants are entering Belarus to wage a “hybrid war” and destabilize the country. In an attempt to discourage protests and warn of potential subversive activities against Belarus, the arrested Wagner Group operatives initially were accused of planning terrorist acts in Belarus.

    The most likely immediate consequence of the arrest is the weakening of security cooperation between Minsk and Moscow and growing distrust between the intelligence services of the two countries. However, Moscow and Minsk usually find ways to settle their disagreements, and at this point may be engaging in cheap talk. Lukashenko has announced, possibly in response to Russian pressure, that the Wagner detainees were simple soldiers who should not be punished too harshly. It is notable that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate Lukashenko on his victory—before the vote count was even finished.

    In April 2020, President Donald Trump appointed the first US ambassador to Belarus in more than a decade. However, the rapprochement will likely come to an end before the new ambassador, Julie Fisher, arrives in Minsk. The United States has condemned the violent crackdown; that said, more could be done to expose electoral irregularities and attacks against the media. In the past, Washington responded to electoral violence in Belarus with travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions on state-owned companies. A more extensive set of sanctions, particularly against the individuals involved in violence against protesters, may be necessary this time. However, given the limited US-Belarus ties in trade, investment and finance, designing effective economic sanctions is challenging. The United States could, for instance, take steps to bar companies in third countries from transacting with Belarus through more expansive restrictions on financial flows and US-origin technology. At the very least, the imposition of new sanctions will send a strong symbolic message. It is important that a freezing of official relations between Minsk and Washington does not further limit academic and civil society exchanges and that economic sanctions do not inflict hardships upon ordinary Belarusians.

  • Nigel Gould-Davies

    Protests after a falsified election are not new in Belarus. What is new this time is their scale and, no less important, their geographical spread. They are now a nationwide phenomenon that the security forces have not been able to suppress quickly. The genie is out of the bottle.

    The peaceful movement has now called for a general strike. Workers at some major factories have begun to stop working. It is much harder to force people to work than to frighten them with force. In response, President Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down and forced the opposition leader, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, to leave the country—after coercing her to read out a statement calling for an end to protests. To hinder opposition coordination, his regime is now cutting off Belarus from internet (and even telephone) connectivity. Such a move is costly for the country.

    Russia’s relationship with Belarus has long been close but dysfunctional. The arrest of the Wagner Group operatives and, in recent days, of Russian journalists, has further strained it. It was Lukashenko, not Tikhanovskaya, who criticized Russia during the election.

    Russia now seems uncertain how to respond. Vladimir Putin sent terse congratulations to Lukashenko, followed by a longer demand for closer economic and military integration with Russia. But some senior members of the Russian Duma, a body otherwise obedient to Putin, have strongly criticized Lukashenko. Konstantin Zatulin condemned the blatant falsification of the election, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky predicted that Lukashenko would be gone within a year. Russia is following this volatile situation closely.

    The key things to watch are:

    • Will opposition demonstrations, and the general strike, spread? If they do, the status quo likely will become increasingly unsustainable for the regime.
    • Will Lukashenko declare martial law? This escalation would turn the military into an instrument of domestic suppression. It is not a mission that most officers signed up for. Will they follow such an order? If they refuse, then Lukashenko’s days are probably numbered.

    US relations with Belarus will not be normal until the latter holds genuinely free and fair elections. The United States and its allies may impose new sanctions on those responsible for repression. The United States is unlikely now to send a new ambassador to Minsk—the first since 2008—as it has planned.

  • In Belarus today, there are 2.5 million pensioners and 1 million state employees (byudzhetniki) whose material and social situation is entirely dependent on the state. About 40 percent of the population lives in the “small Belarus” of villages and small towns (less than 50,000 inhabitants). In total, according to the Central Election Commission, there are about 7 million voters in the country, of which at least 2.8 million are in the “small Belarus.” According to the data of many years of IISEPS polls these voters actively participate in elections and most often vote for the current president. If we add to them several hundred thousand siloviki (various military and law-enforcement establishment) and officials, as well as a significant part of ordinary byudzhetniki, we get at least 3 million voters, usually voting for President Alexander Lukashenko. With a turnout of over 84 percent, more than 5,887,000 voters participated in the recent election. Based on these data, it turns out that Lukashenko should have received about half of the votes—which was recorded by all ISSEPS postelection polls in the previous elections, although it was 20 percent less than the CEC data.

    Unprecedented queues for the right to support alternative candidates during the election campaign, at polling stations on election day, as well as mass protests after the vote, prove that the 80 percent of votes announced by the CEC for Lukashenko and 10 percent for his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya do not correspond to reality. But even if one assumes that the wave of political activization of Lukashenko’s opponents, which swept the capital and large cities of Belarus during the preelection months, also affected “small Belarus,” then in this case one can speak not of a victory of an alternative candidate, but of the fact that none of the candidates received 50 percent + 1 vote—and therefore, a second round should be held. It should also be borne in mind that if the voices of “dissenting Belarus” have been heard louder lately, especially on social media, then the spontaneous voices of “agreeable Belarus” are almost not heard. And few people believe in organized, specially selected speeches of “ordinary people,” officials, or siloviki. Therefore, the picture that we see and hear in the mass and social media today is, to put it mildly, incomplete.

    Unfortunately, after independent opinion polls were outlawed in Belarus, one cannot count on objective voting results. There is also little hope for access to the true protocols of precinct election commissions in the event of a revolutionary change of government. Therefore, we are unlikely to know the real results of the presidential elections on August 9, 2020. However, disregarding the above circumstances means again falling into the trap of wishful thinking, in which the initiatives and hopes of the Belarusian opposition inevitably have been extinguished.

    General politicization, growing civil society solidarity, and mass protests are likely to force the authorities to change the balance of the policy of “stick” (for those who disagree) and “carrot” (for those who agree). And since there are not enough resources to increase them, Lukashenko will again have to seek support from the guarantor of “Belarusian stability”: Russia.

    Regardless of the real reason why members from the Russian private military company Wagner Group arrived in Belarus, Lukashenko used it for a multipurpose game. First, on the eve of the presidential elections, he used their arrest to strengthen his image as the defender of the country’s stability and independence in the eyes of the Belarusian society, including the opposition. Second, he sought to strengthen relations with Ukraine, announcing the possibility of extraditing to Ukrainian authorities the Wagner Group detainees who took part in the war in Donbas. Third, he aimed to improve his image in the West, by announcing the intention of some forces in Russia “to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk.”  Judging by the reactions of prominent figures in Russia, Ukraine and the West, as well as the heated discussion in mass and social media, this game was largely a success.

    However, judging by the fact that the political strategist Vitaly Shklyarov, a citizen of Belarus with an American passport, was arrested and charged with “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or actively participating in them” (up to three years in prison), it seems that Lukashenko sought to use these motives as a tactical cover. The strategic goal is to use the arrest of the Wagnerites for further “dialogue-trade” with Putin. The game is risky for Lukashenko—Dmitriy Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said that “the consequences of this will be sad” —but the possible gain is worth the risk. Commenting on the telephone conversation of the presidents on this matter two days before the elections, the Kremlin said that the leaders hope for a settlement of the situation “in the spirit of mutual understanding characteristic of cooperation between the two countries” and that Russia is interested in maintaining a “stable internal political situation in Belarus and the smooth conduct of the presidential elections.”

    The outcome of presidential elections, as well as the arrest of both the Wagnerites and a political strategist with an American passport, indicate that in the end Lukashenko will still focus on Russia, not the West or the United States specifically. His overarching task is to preserve his power, and he understands perfectly well that the West, unlike Russia, is somehow interested in changing the existing regime. Therefore, the Western policy of "cautious appeasement" of Lukashenko, even from the point of view of geopolitical strategy, is doomed to ineffectivenessand ultimately will not weaken but rather strengthen his dependence on Moscow. On the contrary, the “careful support” of civil society, which received a powerful impetus for development during the current presidential campaign, will complicate the strengthening of such dependence and increase the price of the “final solution of the Belarusian issue” for Russia.

  • The current level—and duration—of protests over President Alexander Lukashenko’s alleged electoral victory is unexpectedly vast. In June and July 2020, there were all signs of an impending “electoral revolution” in Belarus. Opposition leaders and groups cooperated in an effort to topple the incumbent. Both the opposition and the electorate viewed elections as a legitimate tool for the change of government. In Belarus, the protest potential—fueled by exhaustion with 26 years of unchanging leadership and post-COVID syndrome—was palpable. Presidential elections would have been a good way of streamlining this energy into political change.

    However, for an “electoral revolution” to succeed, two root causes are key: an opposition with one strong, consolidating leader who has a clear political agenda, and deficient, corrupt security services. Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya became a leader who gained the electorate’s sympathies, but not as a result of her and her team’s efforts; her electoral program did not have clear goals for future changes; and the opposition did not have a coordinated mechanism ready to continue to struggle after the elections. Following Tsikhanovskaya’s escape from Belarus to Lithuania, protesters were left without strong consolidating leadership. At the same time, Belarusian security forces demonstrated their readiness for and efficiency in suppressing protests in all possible ways. Thus, the Belarusian situation has developed not along the lines of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, but by the trajectories of the Bolotnaya Square or recent Hong Kong protests.

    If these assumptions are correct, Lukashenko will stay in power, but the Belarusian political regime will have to accommodate the changed internal and external situations. It is liable to become much more repressive toward the opposition, academia, and the mass media. It will drop off its recent attempts of softening its relations with the West. It also will be more dependent on support from China. Above all, it will have to craft a new deal with Moscow—whose sympathies were not with Lukashenko in this electoral period.

    The regime definitely would need to start preparations for a transition of power to some new leader who would provide the aging autocrat with a safe retirement. But the personal qualities of Alexander Lukashenko make it unlikely he will follow the example of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaiev and his path away from rule.

    Spy-mania and paranoia about foreign involvement into elections is a well-tested method used by ruling elites to build up citizens’ support and legitimacy for their abuse of power. In Belarus, this method has been used literally in every presidential electoral campaign since 2001, presenting the incumbent as a savior of independence and national interest. President Lukashenko’s words about detained US nationals in this context.

    However, the geography of external enemies has fluctuated somewhat in recent weeks. In addition to the “ill-interested West” and its regional allies (traditionally, Poland and Lithuania), in the 2020 elections Russia also appears to have joined the club of Belarus’s enemies. The Wagner Group case is yet another crisis in Minsk-Moscow relations, one of a long chain of conflicts over the past 12 months. For Ukraine, at least for a time, the tensions between Minsk and Moscow have opened an opportunity it has used it for its own interests. Ukrainian authorities may be able to use the arrests of the Wagner mercenaries as a chance to bring combatants from the Donbas war to the courts of justice.

    The coming weeks will show the extent to which the repressions imposed by the Belarusian authorities will be strong and continuous. Most probably, strong Western sanctions will resume against Lukashenko’s regime. In this context, it is critical to pay attention to the situation with human rights, civil liberties, and the opposition’s functionality in the country. Also, a new wave of political and cultural emigration from Belarus—especially in times of antiepidemic migration limitations—may need special attention and support from US and European Union policymakers.

  • We observe an unprecedented consolidation of the society who demand that President Alexander Lukashenko leave office and who have protested against the rigged elections. The levels of people’s consolidation, protest potential, and people’s solidarity are unprecedented in the past three decades of Belarusian history. After the incredible brutality of the special force units within the past few nights—where more than 3,000 people have been detained, hundreds injured, and at least one confirmed death—the protest potential is rising even stronger. As to Lukashenko, he seems to be determined to suppress the protests at any cost. He and his establishment have little options other than to stay in power, as the alternative in case if they lose is gloomy: they would have to flee the country and most likely face international prosecution for the crimes committed during Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

    There is little clarity around the arrest of the Wagner Group private military contractors. If those people were truly seeking to destabilize the situation in Belarus, then why would they stay all together wearing military-style clothes in a hotel, rather than using more covert tactics? Also, there was no official statement following from Moscow with that regard, and President Vladimir Putin was later one of the first leaders who congratulated Lukashenko on his victory. At the moment, Lukashenko is not mentioning the Russian threat and the Wagner Group in his statements; he is much more concerned with domestic protests and with managing the unprecedentedly strong protests. The appearance of the Wagner Group operatives seemed like a move to distract the people from the popular opposition rallies during the campaign—partially to sow seeds of distrust in the alternative candidates by trying to link them with Moscow, and partially to point toward the West to create an image of the external threat to Belarus’ sovereignty. It also presented the West with a false dilemma: to support either Lukashenko as a well-known strong authoritarian leader, or the Russian aggression. The dominant mood among the Belarusians was to perceive such news about Wagner Group as a move orchestrated by Lukashenko, either on his own or together with Putin. As for the Russian interference, there are no specific proofs of Russian meddling, but it is certain that one of the long-existing interests for Moscow is to keep Belarus in its orbit. This could come in various forms, including pressing toward the Union State integration, offering cheap loans with a hidden political agenda to help Belarus recover from coronavirus-related losses (especially given that now Belarusian authorities’ relations with the West are likely to deteriorate dramatically, making it unlikely to receive postpandemic relief assistance from institutions like the International Monetary Fund), and providing assistance to the Lukashenko regime to suppress the protests in exchange for political loyalty.

    In the past years, the relations between Minsk and Washington developed in the vein of improvement. They had reached an agreement to restore full-fledged diplomatic ties, and questions had been raised about removing the remaining restrictions against Belarusian companies. Lukashenko seemed to succeed with selling to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his colleagues the image of a strong authoritarian leader who might not be perfect in terms of respect of rule of law, but at least provided sovereignty in his country, contained the Russian threat, and reminded Washington that Belarus’s stability is an important part of regional security. Now, with massive repressions against its own population and at least one confirmed death among the protesters, Washington would have to react. We can expect a drawback in the recent fragile success in bilateral ties. The Belarusian diaspora across the United States is doing its best now to bring the issues in Belarus to the spotlight. Its members are likely to appeal to their congressional representatives and senators to pay attention to Belarus. And what Washington could do with regard to Belarus is an open question: Belarusians themselves understand that their country is far from being among the top priorities for the U.S. interests. So it is likely that Belarus will see some support statements on the level of rhetoric—and yet even those are highly appreciated by the Belarusian civil society. When it comes to more practical moves, such as possible sanctions, it is important to learn from previous mistakes how earlier sanctions applied by the West affected Belarusian leadership. Key considerations include to what extent such sanctions targeted the interests of the Belarusian establishment, and what has to be changed compared to the previous times, as the abrupt deterioration of relations with the West only brought Belarus closer to Russia’s embrace and made its economy highly dependent on Russia.

  • This opposition is distinct from any other that Aleksandr Lukashenko has faced. Economic stagnation and the regime’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped deep discontent and a rejection of Lukashenko’s claim to embody stability. Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya’s decision to run in place of her husband Siarhei after he was banned and arrested transformed the election into an anti-Lukashenko protest vote. The oppositions’ campaign strategy gave rise to a cross-class, cross-regional grassroots movement. The solidary strike at the Belarusian Steel Works in support of protests shows the changing nature of opposition.

    Lukashenko forced Tsikhanouskaya into exile in Lithuania. Yet even though she remains a symbol of the movement, her presence is not essential to sustaining the protests. The movement is not comparable to Ukraine’s 2004–2005 Orange Revolution led by Viktor Yushchenko, but is more analogous to the 2014 Euromaidan events that escalated in response to state violence. It is a leaderless movement, with a single demand: new fair elections.

    The size and reach of the protest movement belies Lukashenko’s claims that it is driven by outside influence, whether from Russia, Ukraine, or the United States. In the absence of these tools of disinformation to quell protests, he has resorted to the only tool has left: brutal repression dealt out by disciplined police and military forces. The violence of this repression has increased protest and material support from protest sympathizers. This dynamic in Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity forced Viktor Yanukovych out of office.

    What happens next depends on whether Lukashenko and his team recognize the magnitude of the challenge. His missteps over the past two days suggest that he has not—and they make the movement’s success more likely.

    Beyond the size and scope of the movement, the most important indicator of coming developments is the response of government officials and police and military leaders. Reports of police defections in small towns suggests that it might be difficult to maintain loyalty beyond the OMON (the country’s paramilitary police units) and special forces.

    Lukashenko has used coercion to prevent elite defection, but the course of the campaign revealed cracks in that system. Two establishment opposition candidates, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babaryko, announced their candidacies and were barred from running. Babaryko currently is in jail and Tsepkalo fled to Russia. It is unlikely that these insiders decided to run without support from within government, and maybe even from within the security forces. If the government falls and Lukashenko flees, then the organization of the next election is the next critical marker. Babaryko and Tsepkalo are likely candidates, and they share common platforms of modernization and development. Their allies within government will foreshadow the goals of the new administration, as will the return of exiled businessmen and opposition figures.

    In the medium term, Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia energy resources will continue to constrain international engagement. Even a freely elected leader will need to maintain the deal to resell Russian energy to Europe. This dependence suggests that the new government will not openly defy Russia, but rather will walk a line that enables international economic development assistance, creating openings for US and European Union influence.

  • President Alexander Lukashenko likely will remain in office but in a weakened, altered position. There was little doubt about the outcome of the rigged and unfair electoral process, and it was a sign of Lukashenko’s Soviet-type mentality that he allowed the opposition leader only 7 percent of the vote. He will use force and coercion to split the opposition, which though broad-based may not be able to remain cohesive in the face of a crackdown like that at Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014. A crucial element will be if the Belarusian security and military forces remain loyal; with some exceptions, this seems to be the case. Still, the clock is ticking for Lukashenko, owing to his weakened domestic base, mismanaged reaction to the new coronavirus, and a stagnating economy. Russia has tepidly welcomed his reelection, likely favoring his continuation rather than risk another color revolution. Moscow probably sees a weakened Lukashenko as more beholden to Russia in return for economic and political support. Western countries will condemn the elections and violence but not intervene materially, leaving Lukashenko’s maneuvering room between Russia and the West circumscribed. This situation could drag on for a while at great cost to the Belarusian people.

    Ukraine is very important to Belarus as a trade partner and a fellow supporter of national independence and territorial integrity with regard to Russia. A request from Kiev would pose a difficult choice for Lukashenko, but he is unlikely to accede. In his weakened position, he would not want to risk the strong negative reaction from Moscow. Rather, he will want to put a floor in the relationship and seek renewed economic ties. There will likely be significant horse trading in the near future and an eventual return to Moscow of the 33 private security operatives from Russia’s Wagner Group.

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February and the two sides agreed to resume diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level. The United States also provided some oil to Belarus to help counter Russia’s use of the energy supply weapon against Belarus. This movement was predicated on Lukashenko’s defense of Belarusian independence with regard to Russia and apparent readiness for improved ties with the West. With the election, this momentum is now likely to fade. Western countries will respond with condemnation and possibly sanctions but will not want to take steps risking a conflict with Russia. This is a time for them to keep ambassadorial-level representation to maintain dialogue and make informed assessments about developments in Belarus.

  • Belarus is at a crossroads, and no one knows how the situation will play out. At this moment, at least one thing is crystal clear: this is a beginning of the end for President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. The president faces this level of opposition for the first time in his 26-year tenure and young people hate him. The Belarusian repressive apparatus is cracking down on the protesters, but Lukashenko has been already weakened politically.

    At least three factors may force an autocrat to resign or start negotiations leading to the holding of a new clean election. First, the unity of the opposition is essential. Paradoxical as it may seem, the absence of genuine political parties and some form of a “systemic opposition” in Belarus plays into the hands of the protesters. The regime has no carrots to persuade selected opposition leaders into giving support to the incumbent. This makes the Lukashenko regime particularly inflexible and vulnerable. Second, the ability of the protesters to sustain a long-term campaign, including civil disobedience and strikes throughout the country, would accelerate Lukashenko’s demise, but it is too early to say if this is possible in Belarus. Third, splits within the elite, especially in security services or armed forces, have been critical in situations when mass protests led to overthrowing of entrenched strongmen in other parts of the world. However, there is no evidence that it is happening in Belarus at this moment.

    The circumstances of both arrest of Russian mercenaries and alleged detention of US nationals are murky. The detained Russian nationals have been identified, but all we know about Americans is that, in Lukashenko’s words, “some people were detained with American passports, married to Americans, working in the State Department.”The arrest of American citizens has not been independently confirmed and the August 10 statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not mention anything to this effect.

    Lukashenko has portrayed himself not as a politician, but a statesman whose mission is defending Belarusian sovereignty. To sustain this narrative, he needs real or imaginary foes that conspire with the opposition to undermine the young nation’s independence. Lukashenko has accused 33 Russians of plotting terrorism and attempting to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk. Making public statements to this effect was a risky move for Lukashenko, but he evidently thought that domestic political benefits would outweigh the cost of the Kremlin’s ire. He may have had miscalculated, and the detained Russian citizens most probably will be returned to Russia. Extradition of these alleged Wagner Group operatives to Ukraine is highly unlikely. This is the “red line” Lukashenko probably cannot cross: he knows that Vladimir Putin’s response would be decisive and ruthless.

    Belarus is wedged between Russia and American NATO allies and has the potential to become a hotspot in Europe in the weeks to come. An outbreak of large-scale violence in Belarus with the participation of Russian forces is unlikely at this moment, but any early warning signs are something to keep an eye on. The Kremlin, driven by the same (real or imaginary) security concerns that determined its reaction to the events in Ukraine in February 2014, may intervene amid political crisis and violence. Belarus is on the list of Russian vital interests for both national identity and security reasons. The Kremlin assumes that only Lukashenko’s declared commitment to maintain his country’s independence from Moscow has captured some Western support. That said, Moscow might intervene if an assessment indicates that the West intends to sow discord between Russia and Belarus, has plans to incite Minsk to get closer to the European Union and NATO, and actively supports the opposition to Lukashenko.

    In the event that Lukashenko crushes the protesters and stays in power, the United States will face a difficult dilemma: continuing the policy of engagement that started last year or declaring the Belarusian president “Europe’s last dictator” once again and openly supporting the opposition. Both Russia and the West are hedging their bets at this moment: the situation in Belarus is too fluid and unpredictable. Letting the Belarusian people determine their country’s future would be the best strategy for both Moscow and the Western capitals.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more