Comment: Belarus’ renegade strong man tries his luck | comment

Once a regime knocks down an airliner to snatch a lone journalist, its ability to shock the rest of the world should in theory diminish. And yet the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made it. At home, he brutally suppressed civil society and critics, with a potential opponent from the 2020 presidential race sentenced to 14 years in prison. He armed migrants. This week alone, he forced an Olympic athlete to flee after daring to criticize a sporting decision and put an opposition leader on trial behind closed doors when a high-profile diaspora activist was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a Ukrainian park .

Lukashenko remains in power a year after a controversial election that sparked unprecedented street protests. But his increasingly unpredictable and outrageous tactics speak for his dwindling opportunities – and for the impossible position he has placed the country in and dependent on neighboring Russia like never before.

The Soviet light regime is stumbling towards the end. Just don’t expect a quick end.

Lukashenko, a former collective farmer boss, has ruled Belarus for almost three decades and enjoys enviable stability thanks to repression and cheap Russian oil. This became more and more difficult even before last year, as the state-dominated economy stagnated and grew by an average of less than 2% per year over the past ten years. The botched handling of Covid-19 made matters worse: Lukashenko’s classification of the disease as “psychosis” and the promotion of quack cures fueled the opposition.

When he still wanted to win his sixth election, he met the public outrage that followed with merciless crackdown. Since then, all dissenting voices have either been pushed abroad – such as opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in place of her imprisoned husband – or put behind bars. The repression was enough to limit the overflow of high-ranking officials and keep the security services in his camp.

It is also crucial that Moscow’s support has not diminished. The two get stuck in an uncomfortable dependency. Lukashenko needs cash and the Kremlin has yet to find a reliable alternative. Moscow may not even use his stunts as a distraction from its own ruthless efforts to silence critics. As Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described to me, Lukashenko is serving Russia’s interests by maintaining a non-aligned, pro-Russian, authoritarian state on the western border, and it is not clear that another future leader who is not democratically elected will be seen as more legitimate.

The problem for Lukashenko is that he has not achieved peace or stability, but an uncomfortable stalemate. He will have difficulty maintaining the current level of repression in a crumbling economy, but he will not be able to loosen his grip either. Every post-Soviet leader who has experienced perestroika has seen the dangers of tinkering with an autocratic system on the fringes. And meanwhile, the discontent that has driven hundreds of thousands onto the streets lingers – more than half of those polled by Chatham House in April said Lukashenko should leave immediately or before the end of 2021.

Lukashenko may have thought of his antics as a show of aggression that should go down well with some followers, as Maryia Rohava, a political analyst and Belarusian, notes, but they have also forced the hand of Western nations, particularly Europe, who are usually slow. The hijacking of a plane that was flying between two European capitals the day before the meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels made it impossible to argue for moderation and left them unable to do anything but act. The US, UK and the EU sanctioned dozens of Belarusian individuals and organizations.

And Lukashenko is not finished yet. Now he is making an effort to pierce Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya lives in exile, to allow undocumented immigrants to cross the border. More than 3,800 entered Lithuania from Belarus this year, compared with 81 in 2020. And that was before the recent disproportionate and unnecessary display of intolerance, an attempt to get a young athlete – who made no political statement – at the Olympics Silencing games. She fled to Poland, and the West has reason to act again and close loopholes to target more of Belarus’ major exports.

Sanctions are neither fast moving nor the only tool available to the West. Your governments can and should also support refugee Belarusians, help civil society, document grievances and promise economic support for a future democratic government, as Europe has done. It is also important to treat Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate voice of the country and provide a platform. Certainly it is difficult to isolate ordinary citizens from sanctions against state-controlled entities that aim to punish pension-seeking elites. But the uncomfortable reality is that inaction is not an option. We know from experience that regime change – similar to Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy – is gradual and then sudden. Lukashenko could soon even test Moscow’s patience. And every push helps.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Clara Ferreira Marques is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering raw materials, environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was Associate Editor for Reuters Breakingviews and Editor and Correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.

This column does not necessarily represent the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP or their owners.

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© 2021 Bloomberg LP Visit Bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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