For a brief period last August, as hundreds of thousands of Belarusians flooded on to the streets in protest at Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to have won a fraud-riddled election, it looked like his long, repressive reign as president might be coming to an end.
But as he took the stage at a carefully choreographed national assembly in Minsk last week, the veteran autocrat was determined to show those watching at home and abroad that, after a brutal six-month struggle, he had put the most serious challenge to his 26-year rule behind him.
“An attempt was made . . . to carry out a mutiny based on the blitzkrieg principle. The blitzkrieg failed,” Lukashenko told an auditorium packed with 2,700 loyalist, and largely mask-less, delegates. “We held on to our country. For now.”
When Lukashenko convoked the assembly last year, he raised the prospect that it would address constitutional reforms to redistribute some of his powers, something he had vaguely pledged in an effort to calm the protests sweeping the eastern European nation.
But with the street demonstrations against him now largely extinguished, Lukashenko gave no details of any reforms — as opposition politicians had predicted. Although he said a referendum on the unspecified changes would be held within a year, he also said Belarus should remain a presidential republic.
“I don’t think they have a clear idea of what needs to change institutionally or politically or how to create a more inclusive sort of dialogue,” said Maryia Rohava, an Oslo university researcher. “They are just trying to buy some time and hint at changes without making any.”
Instead, observers said the most important element of the event for Lukashenko was the optics. After months in which images of him being booed by workers and of his security services brutalising peaceful protesters flashed around the world, the convention gave him chance to soak up the applause of a group of carefully chosen acolytes.
“It’s basically a reconfirmation exercise for Lukashenko, that he is back in power . . . The delegates are clapping, they are voting unanimously . . . It’s all part of the Potemkin village he is creating,” said a western diplomat who deals with Belarus.
“He would probably lose [free elections] against anyone, but I have the feeling it will be very difficult to mobilise as many people [to protest] in March or April as were mobilised in August last year.”
The main reason Lukashenko has been able to reassert control of the streets is a brutal crackdown, during which police used stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons and savage beatings to deter protesters. In total, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the start of the protests.
The authorities have also relentlessly targeted opposition figures. On Tuesday, security services raided the homes and offices of numerous activists and journalists. According to the human rights group, Viasna, which was itself raided, more than 40 activists were targeted. It said that most were released without charge, but “a few” remained in detention.
The raids followed legal moves against activists and journalists before and during last week’s assembly. On Friday, Maria Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak, two of the leading figures from last year’s protests who are both already in jail, were told they were facing new charges that could see them remain in prison for up to 12 years.
Last week, Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, two young journalists arrested while filming protests, went on trial on charges of violating public order that could see them jailed for three years. They have denied the charges.
Another crucial factor in Lukashenko’s survival was the backing of Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko had repeatedly warned the Russian president that a revolution in Belarus could pave the way for something similar in Russia, and at the height of the unrest in Belarus, Putin promised to send Lukashenko support if protests turned violent.
However, opposition figures say that although in the short term these factors helped Lukashenko regain control, in the longer term, they could work against him.
The protests may have shrivelled, but the violence of the past six months has turned many Belarusians against the president, as well as leaving him isolated internationally. This leaves him more vulnerable to pressure from Russia, which has long sought to increase its leverage over Lukashenko and his regime.
“Even if from the outside it looks like the situation has stabilised, economically, politically, diplomatically, Belarus is in a very deep crisis,” said Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s main opposition leader.
However, perhaps the most serious pressure on Lukashenko could yet come from Belarus’s stuttering economy. Dominated by huge state-owned heavy industry groups, it was struggling even before the pandemic, with stagnating wages a particular source of popular frustration.
Since the pandemic hit, the situation has worsened, with the economy tipping into recession and the rouble losing a fifth of its value against the dollar last year. Russian media reports suggested last week that Belarus was seeking a $3bn loan from Moscow to help ease the strain on its finances.
“The post-electoral protests are coming to the end right now, and we are entering a new phase in the crisis . . . Now Lukashenko’s main enemy is not the street-protests, but the economy. Businesses are leaving, the income of the state budget is declining,” said Viacorka.
“So he has to make a choice. Either to make reforms and make concessions and have dialogue with the opposition. Or put Belarusian independence in the hands of Russia.”