For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a Stalin-like grip on power in Belarus: jailing political opponents, eliminating free media and civil society, and terrorizing critics. Yet with a presidential election just around the corner on August 9, it is increasingly clear that the Belarusian people are no longer afraid, and that it is Lukashenko who fears his own people. The end of the last dictatorship in Europe at the hands of a public ready to move toward the democratic West would have enormous strategic consequences for the United States—and Russia.
Could the time for democratic reform in Belarus finally have arrived? A recent protest in Minsk—which drew 60,000 citizens—gives reason to hope that Lukashenko’s time may be up. The definitive answer may come with Sunday’s elections—if Lukashenko allows them to be credibly conducted. If the results are rejected and democratic opposition silenced, it is crucial that the United States and its European partners insist upon the Belarusian people’s right to self-determination.
Several recent developments have converged to make political change in Belarus conceivable. The government has disastrously managed the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing added strains on an economy already in free fall. The one-two punch of a Russian cutoff in oil supplies and the dramatic collapse in global oil prices has caused the economy to sharply contract. According to World Bank forecasts, Belarus’s economy is anticipated to shrink by at least 4 percent in 2020—the largest decline in 25 years.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko has continued jailing political activists and journalists, declaring that he will not allow a “Maidan” to take place in Belarus. The reference to the historic demonstrations in Ukraine that ousted autocrat Victor Yanukovych in 2014 shows Lukashenko sees the threat to his own power posed by the mobilization of the citizens he has repressed for so long.