by Tonio Galea
When the coronavirus started ravishing various nations and was declared a global pandemic, there was hope that we might be heading towards a new era of cooperation. On the other side of the fence, others were predicting an era of hard nationalism and hostility as various leaders try to gain the upper hand in such a crisis.
Over the ensuing months, tensions between the US and China spilled over into a trade war; Greece and Turkey seem on the verge of another military confrontation; racial tensions in the US keep on escalating; Lebanon is now considered a failed state; and any hope of a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis has disappeared.
On the other hand, an important step was made when the UAE and Israel made peace. A welcome development amidst all the doom and gloom.
With all this in the background, serious cracks have appeared in Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on power in Belarus. Often dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator”, Lukashenko’s has held power for these last 26 years.
The Belarusian president is a typical authoritarian leader who appears stuck in a bygone era inspired by the country’s Soviet past and stubbornly refusing to change, even as the rest of the world modernises. In Belarus, insulting the president is still punishable by up to five years in prison, and criticising Belarus abroad is punishable by up to two years. For more than two decades, Lukashenko has depended on the country’s secret service that kept the notorious Soviet era name of KGB to remain in power.
Before being elected president, Lukashenko was director of a state farm and had made a swift shift to political career as an anti-corruption politician. The 1994 election was perceived as free and fair: probably the most credible vote ever held in Belarus.
In the following years, he maintained political power through strong state control of the economy, a hand over the media, and a heavy dose of Soviet styled repression. But the solid backing by Russia was a determining factor to quarter of century of the Lukashenko regime. Recently, however, the relationship between the two countries has started to decline and, although Russia still shows public support for Lukashenko in view of the massive protests, there is no guarantee this will last in the future.
Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted progress towards the Union State uniting Belarus and Russia, but despite mixed messages from Minsk, Lukashenko time and again failed to deliver on the vision.
The protests in Belarus have significant consequences for Russia itself. The unyielding opposition to Lukashenko’s authoritarian leadership, has now opened a Pandora’s box right at Moscow’s doorstep. These protests stemmed from an election that was unconvincingly either free or fair, awakening an anger in the Belarusian population that cannot be easily swept under the carpet.
History teaches that, one day or another, change was bound to arrive to Belarus and there will be consequences for all parties involved. The fuse has now been lit.