What does Belarus's opposition leader want?

7 March 2021

12:03 AM

7 March 2021

12:03 AM

There is an assumption that those fighting tyranny must instead want Western-style democracy, that the arc of history bends towards liberal representative government, allied inevitably to Washington and Brussels. Many former Soviet Union countries saw their politburos overthrown by young middle-class people espousing the desire for this kind of politics — from the Rose Revolution in Georgia to the Orange Revolution and Euromaiden protests in Ukraine (whether or not they eventually received that form of government is a different matter). But there is no logical imperative that connects dissatisfaction towards an autocrat with the kind of government and geopolitical order that will replace him, whether in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.

Belarus, which may now be starting that transition away from authoritarianism, is the last true inheritor of the Soviet world. Where Russia dabbled briefly with a shallow form of political and economic liberalisation before sinking into Putin’s kleptocracy, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stayed true to the cause. Much of the Soviet Republic’s iconography remains — and so too does its authoritarian brutality meted out by its own KGB.

That brutality has been more apparent in recent months as Belarusians began protesting Lukashenko’s inept handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Demonstrators have, unsurprisingly, received the support of Western leaders who have cheered on this challenge to Europe’s last dictator. In particular, the opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya has received much praise after she contested the presidential election last year (naturally Lukashenko won a sixth term on what officials claim was 80 per cent of the vote). So if the strained Lukashenko regime collapses and she takes the reins, will her country become a liberal friend to Washington and the West? Not necessarily, she tells me: ‘My position has not been pro-Western, just like the protest in Belarus has not had geopolitical undertones,’ she states. ‘It has been about a democratic choice.’

A choice in their leader is something that has been denied Belarusians since the collapse of the USSR: Lukashenko managed to firmly entrench himself in office back in 1994. As Tikhanovskaya explains, a choice of leader is the central motivating factor behind her movement. ‘It is definitely Belarusians who will decide who is the next elected leader of Belarus,’ she says. ‘This is the main demand of the protest: that Belarusians want to elect their leaders, who would be competent, responsible and accountable to the society.’

The rallies began in May last year and have continued ever since — KGB violence and accusations of mistreatment in custody have been rife. Most notable of these was the imprisonment of political activist Sergei Tikhanovsky. Sviatlana, his wife, opted to take his place in the subsequent elections which many international observers believe that she won.

The KGB gave her the choice of imprisonment or exile. Tikhanovskaya chose the latter, subsequently fleeing to Lithuania with her children; her husband remains in prison.

As far as Tikhanovskaya is concerned, however, the protests have achieved their aim of exposing both the will of the Belarusian people and the flaws of the regime. ‘Lukashenko the strongman, as he likes to portray himself, cannot re-establish control over the country, as Belarusians continue to peacefully protest in spite of the violence and lawlessness. Lukashenko has lost legitimacy for good. He tries to persuade everyone that he controls the country, but the reality is more complicated for him.’

When asked how she hopes to assume her place as the democratically-elected leader of her country, she responds ‘I am already in that role now. As for any transition of power, domestic and international pressure — including protests and the civil disobedience movement in Belarus, as well as foreign sanctions — will force the regime to sit at the negotiating table. More pressure, internally and internationally, will further take away resources from him.’

With her calls for democratic processes to be observed and her (highly personal) grievance against the Lukashenko regime, it is entirely understandable that the Western press has come to the conclusion that she will follow the course of Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states by resetting Belarus firmly on the path of the West. Not only is she fluent in English, but spent many childhood holidays in Ireland. A former Soviet citizen turn politician idolising the Western foreign policy establishment after youthful exposure is also not unheard of, as with the New York and Strasbourg-educated ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia.

But she is insistent that she is not pushing for a more Western agenda. ‘Neither I nor my team have been advocating for or practising a pro-Western foreign policy,’ she explains. ‘We have been signalling to the Kremlin about our readiness for dialogue with them. Russia has important legitimate interests in Belarus.’

Yet while she is clearly not convinced by a Western path for foreign policy, it could be argued that hesitance from Brussels and a reluctance to offend Russia has played its own part. ‘The steps taken by them have not been resolute and consistent,’ Tikhanovskaya explains. ‘And therefore they missed a chance to be impactful in changing the behavior of Lukashenko in usurping power and oppressing Belarusians. We are calling on all friends of Belarus to be consistent in implementing the policies they are adopting.’

Disappointment in the West is certainly not limited to Tikhanovskaya and Belarus. In 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine walked out of Council of Europe meeting after it reinstated Russia’s membership, while recent democratic backsliding in Georgia could partly be attributed to failures from Brussels to expedite EU and Nato membership plans.

Yet as has been recommended by the EU, Tikhanovskaya is not averse to holding new elections. ‘My administration would oversee a transition to democratic governance, which would first and foremost entail the organisation and conducting of free and fair elections.’ Regarding what the fate would be of those currently working for the government, she adds: ‘There will not be a sweeping replacement in the public service or law enforcement, but those members of the Lukashenko regime who have committed heavy crimes will face a fair and just trial.’

While perhaps dashing hopes that Belarus will follow the examples of some of its fellow former Soviet states, herein might lie a lesson for Brussels and Washington. The idea that a revolution against a pro-Russian leader might not be inherently intended to reorient a country towards the West goes against the instincts of Whiggish thinkers in Washington, but there is certainly an opportunity to persuade the likes of Tikhanovskaya that Europe and America have more to offer than Moscow. In order to prevent former Soviet states from falling back under Russian influence, if not control, firm, united action from the West is what is needed — but what has been demonstrably lacking.

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