On August 8, 2020, Belarusians flocked to the polls to vote in their most contested presidential election since 1994. Going into the election, the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenka received a torrent of criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout. Lukashenka polled at a paltry 3%, leading to widespread mocking online.
And yet, close to midnight local time on the evening of the election, the Central Electoral Commission of Belarus (CEC) announced that Lukashenka won a sixth term, earning 80% of the vote. Belarusians were not surprised at the outcome and responded with massive protests throughout the country, claiming electoral fraud, corruption, and economic stagnation. Lukashenka met protests with a brutal crackdown.
In many ways, Lukashenka’s re-election follows the patterns and strategies for eroding democracies discussed by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their study of democratic backsliding . Levitsky argues that populist, autocratic leaders rarely stage violent coups; instead, these leaders break democratic norms to maximize their power through ostensibly legal means. Potential autocrats fill the civil service and courts with loyalists, allowing the appointees to engage in electoral fraud and disenfranchisement, which eventually provides the autocrats with large enough majorities in the legislature to pass laws undermining civil society, the media, and opposition. The autocrats then have a guaranteed electoral mandate with little or no public opposition without firing a shot.
In Lukashenka’s re-election, the courts and civil service arrested and intimidated opposition candidates, causing democratic backsliding. Lukashenka arranged for prosecutors to file dubious charges against opposition leader Viktar Babaryko, and Lukashenka loyalists in the CEC refused to register Valery Tsepkalo for the ballot, baselessly accusing him of forging signatures.
However, unlike Levitsky and Ziblatt’s elected autocrat, Lukashenka relies heavily on violence to stay in power. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the only opposition figure to remain on the ballot, had to flee the country the day after the election, reportedly after threats to her incarcerated husband and children’s lives. Despite already broken democratic norms, Lukashenka refuses to deviate from his successful classic script of repression: – a cycle of coopting opposition leaders and institutions through legal avenues and bribes followed by violent repression. Yet, despite Lukashenka’s past success with this coopt-repression strategy, I argue the strategy cannot work long term in the face of mass, decentralized protests.
Lukashenka utilized the coopt-repression strategy in 2010, when faced with a serious challenge to his rule. Minor protest movements throughout the 2000s appeared ready to channel opposition energy into a major 2010 presidential campaign, and the CEC permitted opposition candidates to register for the ballot. When the CEC announced Lukashenka’s massive victory, protesters flooded the streets and were met with a violent crackdown by riot police and security forces. Lukashenka’s government detained hundreds, and security forces arrested the top 7 opposition leaders.
The opposition in 2010 relied heavily on western support and aid, which resulted in a top-down building of opposition parties and organizations that advocated for closer ties with the west and neoliberal economic policies. Movements were “encouraged to compete again and again” using the same tired tactics by western donors—well-funded parties led tepid, pro-west campaigns followed by party-organized peaceful protests. Thus, with opposition leaders under arrest and scores more detained, the protests quickly petered out.
With the protesters intimidated into silence, Lukashenka acted to coopt the opposition’s support. In 2015, he passed a neoliberal “social parasitism tax” and began shifting Belarusian production away from the Soviet model of state corporations toward privately owned technology firms. He also warmed to the West, culminating in acceptance of a largely symbolic shipment of oil from the US to Minsk. His capture of the opposition was so successful that two of his main rivals in the 2020 presidential election, Tsepkalo and Babaryko, actually worked with Lukashenka on privatization initiatives prior to their presidential campaigns.
As in 2010, the 2020 presidential elections brought protesters to the streets, this time drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters to 33 cities throughout the country. Lukashenka, responding within the coopt-repression strategy, ordered a widespread terror campaign. Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organization, reported that thousands were brutally detained on the first night of protests, and Human Rights Watch verified horrific accounts of riot police and prison guards abusing, torturing, and sexually assaulting detained protesters. When non-lethal assaults failed to quell protests, Lukashenka ordered riot police to begin using live ammunition on protesters.
Lukashenka then began coopting the opposition. Lukashenka’s government arrested key leaders of the Coordination Council, a group of opposition politicians tasked with transitioning Belarus toward democracy. He then met with Babaryko and other opposition leaders in prison, promising vague constitutional reforms. Despite these concessions and calls from some opposition figures to let politicians sort out a compromise, mass protests continue.
Unlike in 2010, the protests are not organized by outside donors or large party apparatuses. Tikhanovskaya ran without party affiliation and hardly had a campaign staff, headquarters, or operation. Her rallies were planned last minute with information spread online and via word of mouth, but still drew tens of thousands. Unlike Babaryko or Tsepkalo, who ran on the same neoliberal platform as the opposition did in 2010, Tikhanovskaya made one promise: pardoning all political prisoners and then ordering and overseeing a fair, equal election. Tikhanovskaya remains neutral on geopolitical issues, recently saying that she is not pro-Russia or pro-EU, but pro-Belarus.
The protests themselves reflect this ad-hoc nature. The Telegram channel Nexta provides the bare-bones structure necessary for disparate protests to communicate. Messages posted to the Nexta channel show how protests are not well-organized marches, but spontaneous events cropping up throughout the country. When riot police arrive to quell one protest, they quickly have dozens more flare up. Most crucially, all the spontaneous protests have occurred with major opposition leaders in prison or exile, and with limited ability to organize events on the ground.
Lukashenka has relied on a coopt-repression cycle for his entire career. Yet, figures such as Tikhanovskaya cannot be coopted; to coopt her agenda means Lukashenka has to resign. Intimidation of the political elites has also failed to quell mass anger. Unlike earlier in his rule, Lukashenka’s opposition is not a top-down, neoliberal, western funded group but a spontaneous movement for democracy, organized on cell phones.
Not every autocrat relies on the same strategy to stay in power. Some rely more on soft power and influence, while some resort exclusively to violence. Belarusians have figured out their autocrat’s strategy and worked tirelessly for four months to break the vicious cycle. Whether they achieve their ultimate goal, Belarus has proven that even established elected autocrats can be shaken, once protesters identify an autocrat’s strategies of oppression and learn how to fight back.