Belarus has faced increased international scrutiny since May 23, when President Alexander Lukashenko concocted a bomb threat to force a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk so that authorities could arrest opposition activist Roman Protasevich. Since then the EU banned Belarusian planes from its airspace, the United States vowed to implement new sanctions “soon,” and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya reiterated her calls for new elections.
But while Tikhanovskaya has argued publicly that continued protests and diplomatic pressure will force Lukashenko to accept a peaceful transfer of power, many people within Belarus don’t have that same confidence. Valerie, a university student from Grodno, Belarus, who asked not to use her last name out of concerns for her safety, told The Dispatch how some people within the country have begun referring to it as Severnaya Belarus or “North Belarus.”
“It’s a direct reference to North Korea, because in Belarus people have no freedom of speech. If you say something openly against the government, there is a chance that tomorrow, someone will knock at your door and take you away. They say you must love your president; since his power was established by God, you should not think differently. What questions could there be?”
Yet questions about Belarus’ present and future abound. For starters, it’s still a mystery as to why Lukashenko took such a brazen step to arrest one dissident. A political exile from Belarus, Protasevich became a thorn in Lukashenko’s side through his involvement in Nexta, a channel on the messaging app Telegram where members of the opposition movement to Lukashenko could share information and organize protests. But Lukashenko’s decision to engage in what Ryanair’s CEO called “state-sponsored piracy” was one of not just annoyance but desperation.
“It was a roll of the dice,” says Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “What Lukashenko did mirrors Putin’s choice to go into Crimea. It was the same sort of emotional decision by one person. Clearly advisors would have pointed to a lot of downsides, so why intercepting one opposition leader was so important that Lukashenko risked his entire relationship with the West for it, no one knows.”
Another fundamental question is: What comes next? Protesters have been taking to the streets since last August, when Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election that was widely condemned as fraudulent. But that has seemingly caused Lukashenko to double down on his repressive techniques.
When factory workers booed Lukashenko at a speech he gave last fall, he declared that “until you kill me” there will be no new elections. And as thousands have continued to march in major Belarusian cities, police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and mass detentions to suppress protests.
One person who has witnessed Lukashenko’s crackdowns firsthand is Franak Viačorka, a senior aide to Tikhanovskaya, who likely defeated Lukashenko at the ballot box last year. In an interview with The Dispatch, Viačorka—who now works out of Lithuania—said few people in Belarus predicted such violent repression from the government.
“People are marked, are labeled with colors …. [They take] political prisoners, and authorities put liquid bleach in the cells so people can’t breathe normally. A few days after the elections, the torture was everywhere, in each prison in Belarus. They were massively torturing thousands of detainees.”
Viačorka says that Protasevich’s recent tear-filled confession on state TV—a confession the dissident’s father said was “beaten out through abuse and torture”—was all about sending a message. Last week, Viačorka tweeted out a clip of Protasevich’s confession being played on repeat on display televisions in a Minsk hardware store, something he describes as Orwellian.
“I think the goal was to destroy the hero, because Protasevich became a hero for all Belarusians. By doing this confession, he’s not a hero anymore. How can you be a hero when you collaborate with the KGB? Also they send the message that even the strongest one, the leaders—your leaders—they betray you on the interview. They start to collaborate. So this is the message to all of us: I will find you wherever you are and I will force you to talk.”
Lukashenko’s tactics have already had a silencing effect. An October 2020 poll from Chatham House found that 70 percent of survey respondents in Belarus believe last year’s election was a scam. But only 43 percent admit to supporting the protests and voting for Tikhanovskaya.
As Valerie explains, “These people want change, but they’re scared. They sit at home in their kitchens, and they can talk about what they dislike, but they never come out to protests. They fear for their families, for their children, and for their work….They understand that if they [come out], they will not have money, they will not make a living.”
In last year’s election, Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, had initially planned to run against Lukashenko, but he was imprisoned so Tikhanovskaya ran in his place. After challenging the election results in August, she fled to Lithuania with their children.
Since then, Lukashenko said the opposition “crossed a red line” in its efforts to enact change, and he now claims that a “a terrorist war” is being waged against the Belarusian republic. A recently opened criminal investigation into Tikhanovskaya attempts to implicate her in planning explosions and arson attacks in Minsk, accusations Tikhanovskaya has called “absurd.” When Lukashenko met with parliament members in late May, his first public appearance since diverting the plane, Lukashenko doubled down on his earlier criticism, denouncing “ill wishers” who “have moved from organizing riots to strangling tactics.”
Lukashenko’s characterizations—part of a broader effort to undermine and discredit his opposition—reflect those of an adjacent autocratic leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In manufacturing false narratives and denying responsibility for state actions, Lukashenko has attempted to copy parts of Putin’s playbook for dealing with his own dissidents. But at the same time, he has become increasingly reliant on the Russian government to prop up his regime.
Until recently, the relationship between Lukashenko and Putin could at best be described as tenuous. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Lukashenko called the move “bad precedent” and expressed support for Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, even as he suggested the region was now “de facto” part of Russia. Last summer, Lukashenko ordered the arrest of 32 Russian mercenaries in Belarus whom he accused of plotting mass unrest, suggesting they were part of the Kremlin’s effort to “suffocate” Belarus.
Since the 2020 election, however, Lukashenko has adopted a very different tone. He now accepts the Russian government’s narrative that the mercenaries were lured to Belarus by Ukrainian spies. He recently accepted an invitation to go for a ride on Putin’s yacht in the Black Sea. And he has repeatedly appealed to Russia for help in dealing with his domestic problems, claiming that “if Belarus collapses today, Russia will be next.”
In response to Lukashenko’s requests, Russia has provided financial support to Belarus, including a $1.5 billion loan last September to mitigate the adverse economic effects of the protests. Russian security forces have participated in joint military exercises with the Belarusian military. And Russian state media has begun openly operating in Belarus, sharpening Lukashenko’s narrative that the Belarusian opposition is merely a western plot to destabilize one of Russia’s closest allies in eastern Europe.
Last September, Lukashenko credited the Russian state-backed television channel RT for helping keep Belarusian state media running during a massive strike in the country. As more than 300 Belarusian staff working at state-run outlets refused to come into work, Russian state media personnel flew into Belarus to keep the stations open. At the time, Lukashenko expressed gratitude to RT for its support. “This is worth a lot,” Lukashenko said. “You understand how important you’ve been for us in this difficult period.”
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT and Sputnik, has articulated similar admiration for Lukashenko’s leadership. Following the arrest of Protasevich, Simonyan tweeted, “I never thought I would envy Belarus in any way. But somehow I’m still jealous. Batka [Lukashenko] played it beautifully.”
Similarly, Russian officials have defended Lukashenko’s decision to divert the plane. On May 26, a Kremlin spokesperson said there was “no reason” to distrust the official narrative from Belarus leaders, and Putin later told Lukashenko the international reaction to the decision was an “outburst of emotions.”
For his part, Putin appears to be relishing Lukashenko’s increased dependence on Russia for his political survival.
“Lukashenko has always played Russia and Europe against each other,” Aron explains. “But there’s nobody to play Putin against anymore. Lukashenko is a pariah and Putin knows it. So Lukashenko’s ability to bluff [and say], ‘I will turn west if you don’t treat me right,’ that’s gone. I think Putin is going to squeeze Lukashenko harder in exchange for what he already gives him, which of course is keeping him afloat with Russian energy.”
Foreign policy experts argue that disrupting Lukashenko’s Russian lifeline is the key to facilitating change in Belarus. Eric Edelman, the co-chair of the Commission on National Defense Strategy, says that Russia may have played a role in providing the intelligence to Lukashenko which resulted in the capture of Protasevich. Now, Edelman says Russia should be held accountable.
“The biggest thing we can do is put a lot of the onus on Vladimir Putin and on Russia. Lukashenko couldn’t get away with what he’s done over the last 20 years without Putin’s support. So I think turning our attention to Russia’s patronage of this regime is an important element of any strategy to oust Lukashenko.”
Idaho Sen. James Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agrees. “It is important to remember that in order to confront Lukashenko we must also confront Putin and the regime that supports him,” Risch told The Dispatch in a statement. “Lukashenko needs to face the consequences of his actions.”
While some analysts have expressed concern that imposing additional economic penalties on Belarus will only push Lukashenko and Putin closer, Risch believes that taking some action is worth the risk.
“We simply cannot let [Lukashenko] enjoy impunity because we are afraid of his reaction. Belarus is already very close to Russia – they have integrated air defenses, close intelligence ties, are in a so-called “Union State” together, and Belarus often hosts Russian military exercises. Mr. Lukashenko may move closer to Russia, but only at the peril of losing power to the Kremlin.”
For his part, Edelman argues that the United States’ goal should be simple. “The objective for the West has to be regime change. Of course, that’s a toxic word for a lot of people because of Iraq. But we’re obviously not advocating an invasion, boots on the ground to overthrow Lukashenko. It’s rather using other instruments of statecraft – you know, information, intelligence, economic, and pressure on Russia, Lukashenko’s only patron, to try and bring an end to the regime.”