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Belarus: Plot Thickens in Presidential Landslide

the two presidents shaking hands
Lukashenka, left, welcomes his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin prior to the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit in Minsk in 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz By Friday, 14 August 2020 08:43 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Bad news is that there have been riots every night in Belarus following the presidential election of August 10. And more bad news is also that we have a winner: President Oleksandr Lukashenka has triumphed again and, after 26 years in the office, he is now officially in his sixth term. He will soldier on indefinitely. I predicted that "Bat'ko," or "Daddy," as he is fondly known among his people, would score between 85% and 99.5% of the vote. He garnished 80.8% of the vote and the voter participation was 79%. I stand corrected.

The presidential run was full of drama and tragicomedy. First, Lukashenka arrested a would be oligarch to prevent him from competing. Then, he disqualified an influential blogger, whose wife, Svetlana Tikanovskaia put her name on the ballot instead. She won nearly 11% of the vote. This is pretty impressive given the amount of official harassment.

For example, a day before the election, the secret police kidnapped Tikanovskaia's campaign chief of staff. The day after the contest the runner up fled to Lithuania, where she received political asylum.

Let's just say Minsk's KGB takes its business seriously. Yup, it is still the KGB: that's what Bat'ko's secret police is still called: same thugs as before. And the thugs have now deadpanned that they prevented an assassination attempt on Tikanovskaia. How? Only the KGB knows. And God.

As the state-controlled media unveiled the official results of the presidential elections, the streets of Minsk, Bobruisk, Vitebsk, Mohilev, Pinsk, Baranoviche, Hrodna, and several other cities erupted in anger. The situation on the ground is unclear because we do not have solid independent confirmation of the developments on the ground. The regime cut off the internet in many urban areas, and elsewhere the service is spotty.

Scrutinizing social media, it seems that mostly young people have objected, some of them violently. Many have been beaten by the riot police; some are in jail. At least one person is dead. The president-elect vows that he will prevent a Ukraine-style Maidan revolution.

Targeting the opposition in a ham-fisted manner went hand in glove with Lukashenka's other suave maneuvers. First, right before the election, the dictator disappeared. That was supposed to make the people of Belarus nervous ("where's the Tsar?"), which worked. Then he reappeared just before the vote to — ta-dam! — confess that he had survived a coronavirus infection. It was reportedly symptomless.

Given that hitherto the president took turns mocking and dismissing the seriousness of the pandemic, this was a novel tack. In May, Daddy publicly claimed that 97% of the people experience COVID-19 without any symptoms. Hence, the virus is not really dangerous. He touted vodka and garlic to stave off infection. He also pledged not to live on his knees in fear of the disease. He was prepared to die standing. Now, the president brags about beating the nasty bug but he has intimated that he was infected intentionally. There was a sinister plot to kill him, and Daddy will get at the bottom of it soon.

You can't make up a better superman/conspiracy theory story right before the election. Or I guess you can. For simultaneously with cracking down on the opposition and beating COVID-19, Lukashenko brandished his nationalist Belarusian credentials. He arrested a team of 30-odd Russian operators of the infamous mercenary Vagner group. The team showed up at a resort outside of Minsk and aroused suspicion because, I quote, "they neither chased women nor drank vodka, but worked out at a resort gym." So the KGB grabbed them.

The Vagner mercenaries swear they were just transiting through Minsk on the way to Turkey to travel on an assignment to Latin America, Venezuela presumably. But they claim to have "missed their plane."

Daddy is not taking any chances, however. As an old KGB border guard officer, he remembers his training very well. Only a few years ago the post-Soviet military intelligence (GRU) "green men" showed up in Ukraine right before the war of secession in the east and the seizure of Crimea.

Why would the GRU not try the same trick in Belarus? Putin himself called Lukashenka to intercede on behalf of the Vagnerites. The Belarusian dictator stonewalled him. This made for a great show a day before the election.

And then Daddy won. No surprise there.

Make no mistake. Lukashenka is popular with a sort of electoral love that Vladimir Putin enjoys in Russia. The elections are not fake entirely. Because he controls the money, the media, the parliament, the army, and the police, "Daddy" wins elections and basks in widespread support. Once you knock the props from under him, the support should crumble.

But if the ruler of Minsk were to be toppled, we could expect serious trouble and destabilization, including a Muscovite intervention.

A black scenario envisions at minimum a secessionist moment in eastern Belarus and at maximum an incorporation of Belarus into Russia. In the latter case the Russian Federation's border would shift significantly to the west. It would envelop Ukraine from the north, and face Poland, a NATO member, which, in league with the U.S. State Department, opposes Lukashenka and hopes for a democratic change in Belarus.

Daddy has the wherewithal to put the riots down. He also is determined not to yield the scene to Putin. Who else in Belarus can stand up to the Kremlin successfully? There are no candidates in sight. And that is the tragedy of Minsk in its Shakespearian dimension.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.

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The presidential run was full of drama and tragicomedy.
lukashenko, belarus
Friday, 14 August 2020 08:43 AM
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