Nigel Gould-Davies, the former British ambassador to Minsk, has described current events in Belarus as “the last phase of a great re-ordering of European politics that began in 1989”. Three decades ago, as democracy was restored to eastern Europe, Belarus found itself travelling down a different road, led by the former collective farm director, Alexander Lukashenko. On his election as president in 1994, Mr Lukashenko set about establishing an effective dictatorship, sustained by shamelessly rigged elections. Only now, over a quarter of a century later, is his corrupt grip on power loosening, as unprecedented protests sweep the country following yet another fraudulent poll.
According to Belarus’s election commission, the 65-year-old Mr Lukashenko won 80.23% of Sunday’s vote. His main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, scored a mere 9.9%, despite having held the biggest rallies in the country since the days of the Soviet Union. In securing this Soviet-style endorsement, the Lukashenko regime operated according to its usual playbook.
Human rights campaigners have reported that at least 2,000 people were arrested ahead of Sunday’s poll, including nine members of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign staff. But as courageous protesters brave a brutal police crackdown, Mr Lukashenko is discovering that the dark arts that have served him so well in the past may no longer be enough. Grotesque mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and a flatlining economy have stretched the patience of many Belarusians beyond breaking point. A new coalition of blue-collar and middle-class citizens is demanding change. The man sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator” may have engineered a sixth term in office, but the balance of power has shifted away from him in a way few would have thought possible even a month ago.
On Monday, Ms Tikhanovskaya, who went into hiding over the weekend, rejected the official result. She told a press conference that the opposition movement, which has united around her, wished to hold talks with the authorities over how to bring about a peaceful change of power. Up until now, Mr Lukashenko has chosen to respond to such temerity with a fusillade of rubber bullets, flash grenades, beatings and water cannon on the streets of Minsk. Whether he continues to adopt that approach may, in part, depend on the international response in a supremely delicate moment.
With grim inevitability, the president’s “victory” has been swiftly acknowledged by Vladimir Putin, who has no wish to see a pro-democracy protest succeed on his doorstep. Since 2016, the EU has relaxed sanctions on Mr Lukashenko’s regime, partly in the hope of drawing the president out of Mr Putin’s orbit and tempting him down the path of reform. It dropped restrictive measures on individuals known to be involved in the violation of international electoral standards and civil rights. As protesters risk their lives, those measures must surely be re-imposed as a minimum response. Britain should follow suit. The international community should also do all it can to assist the work of independent media and human rights organisations in Belarus. There is a real risk that Mr Lukashenko will use such actions to present the protests as part of a western plot. But for the world’s democracies, active solidarity with Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign for a fair election is now a moral obligation.