If Lukashenka can lose his legitimacy so quickly, how stable is the position of another post-Soviet dictator, Vladimir Putin?
The secret inauguration of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on September 23 became an unexpected masterpiece of political theater. Everything about this event seemed to highlight a lack of legitimacy, from the pitiful nature of the surprise ceremony to the concomitant cordoning off of central Minsk by the military.
Lukashenko’s fear of protests has turned what should have been a moment of national celebration into a state secret. There was no announcement or live broadcast of this spectacle in the media. Foreign dignitaries and diplomatic guests were not invited, and ordinary citizens were not even allowed to approach the place of the ceremony.
A group of select supporters of the regime who attended the inauguration seem to have been invited to the Palace of Independence at the last moment, many of whom seem to have vague notions of what they were about to witness. Although Lukashenka insists that he won the presidential elections by a significant margin, receiving more than 80% of the vote, he came to get the award in secret, like a thief.
Predictably, such inaugural charades did not help raise the diving level of confidence in Lukashenka.
The news of the secret ceremony gave impetus to a new wave of public discontent in Belarus. Tens of thousands took to the streets of cities across the country to voice their indignation, which was followed by another evening of brutal action by security officials and mass arrests. The inauguration was actively ridiculed on social media. For example, in one particularly popular meme, Lukashenka took the oath in a balaclava.
International reaction was more restrained, but no less condemning. “This so-called inauguration directly contradicts the will of a significant part of the people,” commented EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius for many years was even more straightforward. He tweeted, “What a farce. Fake elections. Fake inauguration. This does not make the former president of Belarus any less former. Rather the opposite. Its illegitimacy is a fact, with all the ensuing consequences. “
The list of countries that, together with the EU, refused to recognize Lukashenko’s inauguration, includes the US, Canada and Ukraine. Only Turkmenistan congratulated him.
The international refusal to recognize Lukashenka’s inauguration was the latest signal that the Belarusian dictator is increasingly sinking into pariah status. Having long gained fame as “the last dictator of Europe,” Lukashenka has never had a positive reputation on the world stage. But for 26 years in power, he successfully managed to maintain a geopolitical balance between Moscow and the Western world. Now it seems unattainable.
Lukashenko’s diplomatic isolation will further weaken his position in Belarus and raise the stakes in the current crisis. His deteriorating position has also alarmed the Kremlin, which sees events in neighboring Belarus as a possible scenario for future destabilization in Russia. If Lukashenka can lose his legitimacy so quickly, how stable is the position of another post-Soviet dictator, Vladimir Putin?
Until the recent outbreak of nationwide protests in Belarus, few people in Moscow would have thought that Lukashenka was in danger. On the contrary, his fiefdom was considered a model of authoritarian stability. Therefore, many were surprised when the Lukashenka regime began to show the first signs of collapse just days after the start of the August 9 protests.
This prompted Russia to intervene, which began in mid-August with the arrival of teams of Kremlin propagandists in Minsk. Since then, Putin has provided the regime with security experts and financial support, while reaffirming his willingness to send Russian security officials to Belarus if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Moscow’s support is enough to keep Lukashenko in power, at least for now. But this does little to calm the Kremlin. If Putin finds himself in a similar position, who will come to his aid?
Moscow’s uneasiness over the deepening crisis in neighboring Belarus reflects Putin’s deep-seated fears of a popular uprising against his own regime. This obsession dates back to the days of the democracy movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which swept the Soviet empire in Central Europe, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The trauma of these events played a key role in shaping Putin’s subsequent political career, fueling his vehement protest against the two post-Soviet revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014. Now many in the Kremlin believe that a successful pro-democracy revolution in Belarus is a step closer the implementation of the Moscow nightmare scenario ” Maidan”.
Of course, Putin does not lose sight of the fact that the charges against Lukashenka apply to Russia as well. The fraudulent victory of the Belarusian dictator with 80% of the vote in early August is very reminiscent of the monstrous stealing of votes inherent in the Putin era. Likewise, the harsh crackdown on protests in Belarus, which has sparked such anger against Lukashenka, is standard procedure in Putin’s Russia.
Of course, Russia is not Belarus. Despite the striking similarities between the two regimes, Putin is far more authoritative national leader than Lukashenko ever was. He really enjoys the confidence of the people and has managed to position himself at the center of the national narrative that emerged after Russia managed to regain its world status after the humiliation of the first post-Soviet years. Putin also possesses infinitely large financial resources and heads a much more powerful security system specially tailored to quell protests.
But the strength of Putin’s positions on the ground should not be exaggerated. Economic stagnation, falling incomes, and unpopular pension reforms have breached his sky-high levels of support. A recent maneuvers carried out by a dubious constitutional amendments to stay in power until 2036, exposed the authoritarian essence hidden behind carefully constructed ” Potemkin” democracy in modern Russia. An entire generation of Russians who have found only Putinism are now faced with the prospect of another 16 years or more, with no hope of change.
Periodic protest movements, such as the flurry of rallies in 2019 over the local elections in Moscow, are indicative of wider discontent boiling under the surface of Russian society. The latest challenge to the regime came from the wayward Russian Far East, where protests erupted in July 2020 following the arrest of the local governor, and they continue to this day.
So far, none of these protest movements have managed to gain enough support to pose a real threat to the regime, but the Kremlin is unwilling to risk it. Back in 2014, the fear of spreading the ideas of democracy was one of the key factors that pushed Russia towards military intervention in Ukraine. The growing interference of the Kremlin in Belarus is driven by these fears.
Many observers believe that the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny by Novik in late August is a precautionary measure related to what is happening in Belarus and aimed at eliminating a potential protest leader in the face of possible anti-Kremlin riots. In a further attempt to defend against the growing threat of popular protests, on September 25, Putin asked the US to exchange ” guarantees of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, including electoral processes, including the use of information and communication technologies and high-tech methods.”
It is too early to talk about an impending crisis in Russia, but Lukashenka’s current predicament has clearly sent a chill atypical for this season down the Kremlin corridors. After more than a quarter century in power, the dominant position of the Belarusian dictator weakened in a matter of weeks. Isolated at home and abroad, he found himself heavily dependent on Russian support while struggling to hold on to power.
This dependence may bring short-term benefits to Moscow, but it does not fit well with the future of Putin and his autocratic regime in the long term. The Russian ruler has dedicated his career to overturning the 1991 verdict, but Lukashenko’s rapid loss of legitimacy in neighboring Belarus is a reminder that the collapse of the Soviet Union is still ongoing and may still culminate in Russia itself.