Twenty-six years ago, Alexander Lukashenko was first elected as Belarus’ president. And, to this day, he remains that country’s leader, earning him the moniker of the “last dictator in Europe.” Long before , he was a little-known member of the Belarus legislature who cast himself as a populist standing up for Belarusians alienated by elites, market economics, and democracy. That message resonated with voters on the campaign trail in the 1994 presidential election, scoring him a win that would cement his control over the country ever since. Nowadays, his populist message has lost its resonance. His claims of victory in the most recent presidential election, held August 9, were met with a series of continuing protests and rallies.
According to the government’s official results, Lukashenko received 80 percent of the vote while the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, received just 10 percent. Many Belarusians suspected foul play, spurring tens of thousands to protest in the streets of Minsk with the aim of pushing for new elections. Their case against the election’s validity is bolstered by exit polls conducted at Belarusian diplomatic posts that show Tikhanovskaya earning 82 percent of the vote and Lukashenko earning around 6 percent. Even the government-backed Institute of Sociology within Belarus’ National Academy of Sciences put Lukashenko’s approval rating at 24 percent among Minsk residents according to a survey released in April.
Youth polls over the summer foreshadowed an anti-Lukashenko outcome. The Center for East European and International Studies released a June 22-July 4 survey of Belarusians aged 18 to 34 in the six largest cities which found that out of the 79 percent of young Belarusians that were planning to vote in the elections, just 10 percent planned to vote for Lukashenko. Instead, 45 percent responded that they would vote for Viktar Babaryka, who was prohibited from registering as a candidate on July 14, leading to further protests. After Babaryka’s exclusion, the other main opposition candidate, Valery Tsapkala, was also barred from running due to accusations of invalid signatures on his petition to run for president. At that point, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the frontrunner to contest Lukashenko. Despite the exit polls claiming that Tikhanovskaya won a landslide victory, she has fled to Lithuania, citing fears for her children’s safety as unrest continues in Belarus.
Beyond widespread accusations of election fraud, there are deeper signs of discontent and division in Belarus. A representative survey of Belarusians fielded by professors Gerard Toal, John O’Loughlin, and Kristin Bakke in February 2020 found that at least six in ten Belarusians named rising prices and inflation, as well as low wages and unemployment, as top concerns. The poll also revealed generational divisions on what respondents want for the future of Belarus. Asked where they think Belarus should be politically on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 represents Western nations and 10 represents Russia, half of Belarusians aged 18 to 40 (50%) want to move toward the United States while 62 percent of Belarusians aged 60 or older would like to move toward Russia. While not all Belarusians want the same future for their country—and reports of divisions between opposition groups have emerged in recent days—these results show that they are joined by a common desire to oust Lukashenko.
What’s next for Belarus is uncertain. Constitutional changes that could lead to a new round of presidential elections may be forthcoming. However, Lukashenko is reluctant to discuss these changes with the opposition as he stated that he will only discuss them with “labor collectives and student teams.” Belarusians also must contend with outside interests. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus serves as a crucial buffer zone between Russia and Europe, and Putin recently noted that his country has assembled a special force of security officers to tamp down high levels of unrest in Belarus after Lukashenko appealed to Putin in mid-August.
According to analysis by the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin, Lukashenko’s mishandling of the protests, as well as an incident earlier in the month where 33 Wagner mercenaries were arrested, has led the Kremlin to lose any remaining faith it had in Lukashenko. While his usefulness to Moscow may have expired, Belarus remains an important geopolitical barrier for Russia and more likely than not, the Kremlin will take some action to secure Belarus’ continued usefulness.