The President of Belarus, who led a Soviet ‘kolkhoz’, manages to win a sixth term but comes out of the elections weakened by the social protest in the streets.
Aleksandr Lukashenko did not shake the pulse last year when, in front of the cameras of the Belarusian TV and dozens of officials, harshly rebuked the managers of a state farm. To the president, former director of several kolkhozes (collective farms), the facilities were not clean enough. “Are you sick? [The cows] are defecating on top of each other. They’re all covered in shit” he yelled. “I want the names of all those responsible. Heads are going to roll” he roared. So it was. Several officials were expelled and the governor fell. What happened in the spotlight on that farm in the northern region of Mogilev is the iron-fisted dynamics with which Belarus has led for more than a quarter of a century.
Lukashenko, 65, who in the West is known as the “last dictator of Europe”, is facing his greatest challenge these days after the presidential elections in which, for the first time in decades, he has faced real opposition, and before a discontent citizen who does not know how to handle. The authoritarian leader has guaranteed the elections, but the growing complaints of fraud and manipulation by the opposition, which does not recognize the overwhelming official victory of Lukashenko (the electoral commission gives him 80% of the votes) and the protests in the streets of cities across the country, harshly repressed by the state security apparatus, can lead to a period of instability for the small country of 9.4 million inhabitants, geostrategic importance between Moscow and NATO.
Lukashenko, the son of a single peasant woman, built a political career with vehement allegations against corruption. And alarmed by the historical turbulence and the vision of the experiences in the surrounding countries, his strongman speech catapulted him to power. In 1994, in the first presidential elections, he swept with more than 80% of the votes. They were, according to observers, the last truly competitive elections.
Since then, Lukashenko, who at that time already sported his characteristic Stalinist moustache, has remained in the presidential chair and built an authoritarian state, eliminating term limits, and has consolidated control of the country by relying on the levers of the Administration and in a powerful and previously purged security apparatus. The man who in the beginning formed a group within the Communist Party called Communists for Democracy has become strong in repression, intimidation, marginalisation of critical voices and control of the media.
But cracks have appeared in his Belarusian model. At first, they only became visible to those who looked closely. Now, the massive protests in the streets, with the consequent furious repression by the police, are already overwhelming. And Lukashenko, who was the only member of the Parliament of Belarus who voted against the 1991 treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union and who has tried to preserve, at least in part, elements of the USSR in the country, such as an intense state economy. or a controlled political system, you are losing your nerve. Anchored in the rhetoric that Belarus is an “island of tranquillity and security” in a turbulent world, he can no longer keep that waveless raft at home.
Lukashenko is married but has not been seen with his wife in decades. Galina Rodionovna, who studied pedagogy and worked as a teacher for a few years, lives in seclusion in the countryside. Together they have two children, whom the leader has placed in the state apparatus. Lukashenko also has another offspring with whom was the presidential doctor, who has also disappeared from public light. The youngest of his sons, who is almost 16 years old today, is called Nikolai (Kolia) and the Belarusian leader has once joked that the young blond would be his successor. But today, little Kolia “opposes the authorities in general,” Lukashenko said these days in an interview with a well-known Ukrainian journalist.
The teenager has accompanied his father many times on his trips abroad. Also on his vacation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with whom the Belarusian has an intense bond. Their annual photos are traditional in their villas in the spa town of Sochi, skiing or playing ice hockey, a hobby they both share. However, after these public demonstrations, analysts and close people on both sides point out that there is a complicated power relationship, which in recent times, with Moscow pulling the rope and putting Minsk in financial trouble, has become even tenser.
Few doubted that Lukashenko would revalidate his position. The OSCE, which this year has not sent observers and has ensured that the Belarusian authorities did not extend the invitation in time, has constantly denounced fraud and often criticises the lack of real opposition candidates. But this year, that recipe applied almost by the system has not been fulfilled.
Today it seems clear, however, that the participation of Svetlana Tijanóvskaya, a 38-year-old former English teacher, in the elections was a miscalculation. Lukashenko, who has never been characterised precisely by feminist discourse, may have underestimated the strength of this woman, who concurs after the authorities arrested and vetoed her husband, a well-known blogger. Nor did she anticipate that the campaign bosses of the other two strong vetoed candidates would join her. And, above all, she did not seem to pay attention to the discontent of the public. Therefore, the key question in these elections does not seem to be so much the results but what the protests that have already followed the elections will be like.
In recent months, the Belarusian leader has shown himself even more like an atavistic leader. He has ridiculed the coronavirus pandemic as “mass psychosis” and has even suggested that tilling the land with a tractor, vodka, the sauna and playing ice hockey would protect people. Last week he claimed that he had been infected, but “asymptomatic,” and that he had “survived on his feet” the virus. Although observers have highlighted that these days he has been pale and sweaty. Now, he is using all his resources to “survive standing” also this Sunday’s elections.