Is this the beginning of the end for ‘Europe’s last dictator’?

Is this the beginning of the end for ‘Europe’s last dictator’?

Alexander Lukashenko is under pressure like never before. The past week has brought astonishing scenes in Belarus: an opposition rally hailed as the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union; the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries allegedly sent to destabilise the country; and an admission from Lukashenko that after months of minimising the coronavirus epidemic, he had tested positive for the virus.

It is likely that the president, who has held power for 25 years, will claim victory in the 9 August elections and remain the country’s leader. But he is on the defensive, facing an energised opposition amid bitter spats with Russia over economic integration, and with the west over human rights. It is the most precarious moment of his career.

“For the first time, Lukashenko is fighting a war on three fronts,” said Alexander Feduta, a political analyst who served as an aide to Lukashenko in the 1990s. “He doesn’t know where to turn.” Even with a win in next Sunday’s vote, those battles will follow Lukashenko into his sixth term.

Backed into a corner, the Belarusian leader has responded this week by visiting military bases and anti-riot troops, telling them that they “must not allow” street protests. State television has broadcast footage of water cannon and troops holding mock clashes with demonstrators.

The message to the opposition was clear: think twice about challenging the election result. But the normal scare tactics have done little to dampen turnout at opposition rallies, which have attracted crowds in the thousands, even in smaller towns that usually deliver strong turnout for the incumbent president.

“It’s all to scare Belarusians so that they don’t protest. But it’s not working,” said Feduta. “The more that he tries to scare them, the more it has a reverse effect… Right now, he is trying to convince everyone that he will open fire. If there’s no shooting, it’s him being weak. But if a shot is fired, it’s his political death.”

Protests to challenge the results next week look inevitable. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the united opposition candidate, has told journalists that she won’t call for demonstrations but will join them if they break out. She agreed to run as a stand-in for her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber jailed by the authorities. Her campaign platform is simple: release political prisoners and arrange a new round of free and fair elections.

Viktor Babariko, a jailed opposition candidate who is now barred from standing, said in an interview before his arrest that while he hoped people would eschew violence, the public was angry. “We saw how a deceived people dealt with Ceaușescu,” he said, referencing the swift demise of the Romanian dictator in the final few days of 1989.

Opposition rallies are growing to unprecedented numbers. A rally in Minsk on 19 July attracted around 10,000 people. A rally in the same city 11 days later had an estimated attendance of 63,000 people, according to monitors from the human rights organisation Viasna, making it the largest demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“You think that I’m not afraid? I’m afraid every day,” Tikhanovskaya told the crowd. “But I get up, summon my will, get over my fear and move forward.”

Polling is tightly controlled in Belarus and the only survey to be released, commissioned by a state television station, showed Lukashenko winning with 72.3% of the vote. Another poll, circulated by an opposition-leaning media channel, suggested that the elections would go to a second round.

In the absence of trustworthy polling, much of the evidence relies on crowd numbers and anecdotal evidence. Opposition leaders say that Lukashenko has lost a lot of support for his blasé remarks on the coronavirus pandemic and for simple exhaustion with his leadership.

“There’s become a kind of personal dislike for him,” said Maria Kolesnikova, the head of Babariko’s aborted campaign, which has united behind Tikhanovskaya. “He was seen for a long time as the strong leader. And now he’s 65, and there’s a sense that it’s time for him to retire.”

While Lukashenko could once often turn to Russia, a traditional ally, for backing, relations between the two countries have soured.

The dispute centres on a Russian-led plan to further integrate the two countries’ economies. Lukashenko has accused his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, of putting economic pressure on him and later backing his opponents in the elections.

In a sharp escalation of tensions this week, Belarus accused 33 Russian mercenaries who were detained near Minsk of preparing a terrorist attack to destabilise the country ahead of the election.

Moscow has demanded the return of the men and toughened border checks between the two countries.

Analysts said that Lukashenko is likely to release the men after the election, but for now will want to hold them to emphasise to the public the danger of an intervention from Moscow.

“Lukashenko must show that if there are protests against his elections, then they’re being inspired by Russia,” said Feduta.