No Longer Cowed, Belarus Has Message for Once-Mighty Dictator: ‘Go Away!’

Published by NYTIMES.COM

Summary generated on August 17, 2020

    MINSK, Belarus - In an age of ascendant strongman leaders, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is suddenly looking surprisingly weak.

    Until he claimed a landslide victory on Aug. 9 in a fraud-tainted election, few leaders appeared stronger and more secure than Mr. Lukashenko, a former state farm director who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, backed by an expansive, brutal and unwaveringly loyal security apparatus.

    Now, in scenes recalling the popular uprising that came out of nowhere to topple Romania's seemingly invincible dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, the Belarus capital of Minsk, long known for its cowed calm and order, has shed decades of fear and raised its voice with a simple, insistent demand: The dictator must go.

    Former bastions of support for Mr. Lukashenko, like state-owned factories and state-controlled television stations, are now wavering, outraged by a frenzy of police violence last week directed against those protesting the blatantly rigged presidential election.

    Flailing around in search of a savior, Mr. Lukashenko has turned for help to a fellow strongman, President Vladimir V. Putin of neighboring Russia.

    While anxious to avoid Belarus going the way of Ukraine and embracing the West, has so far shown little interest in throwing Mr. Lukashenko a lifeline.

    He did promise help if Belarus should be attacked by foreign armies.

    That possibility is considered so unlikely that, despite claims by Mr. Lukashenko of NATO forces gathering on the border, Mr. Putin provided scant real comfort.

    Mr. Lukashenko's enemies are domestic, not NATO tanks and troops.

    This was made abundantly clear on Sunday when hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the capital, the biggest protest in the history of Belarus.

    In what looked like a sign of increasing desperation, Mr. Lukashenko said on Monday, in remarks to a huddle of workers at the tractor factory, that a new election could be possible after the adoption of a new constitution.

    They are waving the red and white banner that Mr. Lukashenko scrapped as the national flag and that has become a symbol of opposition to him.

    Nearly everyone in Belarus speaks Russian, not Belarusian, a related Slavic language that is rarely heard outside villages.

    Mr. Putin, who last month engineered what was widely viewed as a rigged vote to prolong his rule until 2036, is no more open to free and fair elections than Mr. Lukashenko.

    Mr. Putin "Would dump Lukashenko immediately if he was sure that people he thinks are friendly to Russia were ready to take over," said Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center and an expert on Russian foreign affairs.

    A military intervention by Russia to save Mr. Lukashenko, he added, would "Lead to an utter and complete disaster. Everyone understands that."

    "Putin will not let Belarus go," said Ulrich Speck, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

    So long as the Belarus opposition avoids turning the struggle against Mr. Lukashenko into a fight against Russia or the Russian language, something some Ukrainians did in 2014 when they put Mr. Putin's face on rolls of toilet paper and doormats, the Kremlin would probably refrain from drastic measures.

    One possible substitute for Mr. Lukashenko is Viktor Babariko, a popular would-be candidate in the recent presidential election who was arrested before he could run.

    For two decades, Mr. Babariko headed a Belarus bank owned by Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled energy giant.

    Mr. Lukashenko reviled the former banker, labeling him a Russian puppet, a claim for which there is no evidence but one that could make Mr. Babariko appealing to the Kremlin.

    Mr. Lukashenko has sought to present himself as the only leader who can halt turmoil that he said is "no longer just a threat to Belarus" but Russia, too.

    The leader of Belarus "was never really pro-Russian and was always just using Russia" as a supplier of cut-price oil and natural gas, said Mr. Trenin, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

    "Belarus, we are with you," a group of Khabarovsk protesters chanted last week.

    Mr. Lukashenko has worked hard to play on the Kremlin's phobias, claiming variously that the unrest in Belarus has been orchestrated by Poland, a member of NATO; by Ukraine; by the Russian opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny; and by Open Russia, an organization financed by the self-exiled Russian oligarch and longstanding Kremlin critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

    Television has featured a parade of pro-Kremlin analysts denouncing Mr. Lukashenko's opponents as stooges of the West and victims of an "information war" led by Poland.

    Some of the Kremlin's most faithful voices in the state news media have openly challenged Mr. Lukashenko's fitness to govern.

    Last week, a prominent pro-Kremlin politician, Konstantin Zatulin, denounced the Belarus leader as "deranged" and his re-election as "a total falsification.

    Vladimir Solovyev, a talk-show host who often channels the Kremlin's views, on Saturday broadcast video footage that clearly contradicted claims by Mr. Lukashenko's government that a protester killed last week had died from self-inflicted wounds after an "unidentified explosive device" blew up in his hands.

    Workers at the factory visited by Mr. Lukashenko on Monday gave their own verdict on whether what their president says is true.