“He’s finished! No one can come back from this.” After a week of protests following the Aug. 9 presidential election, Belarusians are starting to believe that Aleksandr Lukashenko may finally be out of luck. The messages to me have been coming thick and fast all week—via encrypted messaging apps such as Signal, just in case. Lukashenko had claimed victory against his challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a schoolteacher and the wife of a former presidential candidate, in a vote many Belarusians—and the democratic world—deem fraudulent.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Minsk, demanding Lukashenko resign. For his part, an increasingly desperate Lukashenko held his own sparsely attended rally. What unfolded was just surreal. “Do you want freedom?” he roared. “No!” answered a crowd of several hundred. “Do you want change?” “No!” “Do you want reforms?” “No!”
Dictatorships are often absurd, but they usually also impose fear. When only the absurdity remains it’s a sign of the end. Dictators are emboldened by hatred, but they wilt under mockery. On Monday morning, Lukashenko could only scowl and sulk as he was roundly booed by workers he was addressing at a Minsk tractor factory. Until recently, his grasp on what was so often called the “last dictatorship in Europe” seemed complete. He seemed impregnable. What happened?
Two years ago, I went to Minsk to meet with dissidents battling the state. In the city center near the main thoroughfare, Praspiekt Niezalieznasci (Independence Avenue), ever vigilant to the threat of the country’s KGB—a title the intelligence agency retained after the end of the Soviet Union—we met in cafes and discussed the possibility of change. The dissidents were sanguine but wary. “Lukashenko has everything locked down, it will be tough,” I was told. But they were also clear where the hope lay: “In this country you can do a lot if you keep out of politics. We see everything; our youth watches the West and wants the freedoms you have.”
History moves fast. On Aug. 9, Belarusians went to the polls for the fifth time since Lukashenko took power in 1994. Previous elections had seen Lukashenko wrap things up without much difficulty. But Tikhanovskaya promised something genuinely different and, critically, after 26 years Belarusians had simply had enough, In the weeks leading up to the vote, Tikhanovskaya seemed unstoppable. But soon after voting closed, an exit poll declared that Lukashenko had won with over 80 percent of the vote. Tikhanovskaya had, apparently, received just over 10 percent.
It was the transparency of the fraud that really did the president in. If he claimed a 55 percent to 45 percent win, it’s possible things might have been different. But Lukashenko has only one constituency: his security services. And they respect only one thing: strength. He couldn’t allow the facade to crack, even slightly.
“It was a sham, and everyone knew it,” said Inna, a 35-year-old CEO, using her first name only for protection, when I spoke to her over WhatsApp on Saturday. She had originally been appointed as an independent election observer. By rights, she should have been allowed into the local school where votes for her district were being cast to supervise the count, but the authorities wouldn’t let her in.
“It was frustrating,” she told me, “but we could stand outside and count the people who went in to vote. We saw who was coming in—and many told us that they were voting for Tikhanovskaya.” And there were those who said nothing but wore the white bracelet of the opposition. “Adding them all together we calculated that at least 45 percent of those coming in voted for Tikhanovskaya—and many more probably did who said or displayed nothing. But the result was 70 percent for Lukashenko. This was clearly false—I saw it with my own eyes.”
She continued: “It was so obvious that he lost. This happened everywhere. There are thousands of witnesses like me.”
And so the people went onto the streets. Belarusians united together against the government in ways they never had before. And the government fought back. And the violence began.
Nikita is 24 years old. Over the messaging app Viber, he described himself as a normal person working six days per week to make ends meet. Like almost everyone I spoke to this past week, he said he wasn’t politically active until the election. But Tikhanovskaya caught his imagination: She was young and charismatic, and she articulated a yearning for change like no other candidate before. Nikita saw a chance for change. He, like millions of fellow Belarusians, went out to vote. They hoped. They held their breath.
When the result came, it defied belief—it was outrageous, Nikita thought. On the evening of Aug. 9, along with thousands of others, he went onto the streets to protest. For two nights he braved the flash grenades and rubber bullets. “They were trying to overwhelm the protests,” he told me. “It was naked aggression against civil society. They wanted to crush us.”
On the third night, Aug. 11. he was walking toward Kuntsevskaya station in central Minsk when a group of OMON officers, members of the loathed and brutal special police, bundled him into one of their huge trucks. They proceeded to beat him, he said, until they arrived at the detention center on Okrestina Street. Once inside, he and around 60 other detainees were forced to kneel while they were beaten with batons for 30 minutes.
Nikita endured subsequent imprisonment and a kangaroo court, and was sentenced to 12 nights in prison. As it turned out, he was released just over a day later from another prison in the city of Brest, where he had been brought. As he left the building, he saw the crowds gathered outside of volunteers—fellow Belarusians who had taken to gathering outside the detention centers with food, drink, and blankets for those being released. They clapped and called the detainees heroes. Nikita said he went from hell into heaven. “This showed the solidarity of Belarusian society,” he told me. “It’s when I knew we were going to win. There are no limits to what we can achieve!”
One week on, Belarusians I speak to are feeling almost uniformly positive. Almost all are sure they will be victorious. Once people like Nikita started emerging from detention with torture scars to show the world, the public hardened: Over 6,700 people had been arrested. Some remained missing. Lukashenko had to go.
But caution is needed. Almost six years ago, I covered the aftermath of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and witnessed, firsthand, Russia roll its forces into a country that had deposed a pro-Moscow leader. The Kremlin watches its backyard closely. The Russian state has many republics with their own separatist aspirations. First Kyiv, then Minsk? Chechens and Dagestanis might start getting ideas.
But Belarus is not Ukraine. There, Moscow had built up a nexus of proxy parties, officials, oligarchs, and media. When Russian President Vladimir Putin took Crimea and rolled into eastern Ukraine, he had a pro-Russian network upon which he could rely. He could also the exploit the ethnic divisions that cut through Ukraine and that simply do not exist in Belarus. Franak Viacorka, a longtime Belarusian dissident, said any Russian invasion would be problematic. “There would be a lot of resistance,” he told me. “There is no support for a purely Russian future. Lukashenko understood this and slowed down the process of Russian integration. We don’t want it.”
But the situation remains fraught. Lukashenko’s forces threatened Tikhanovskaya into fleeing to Lithuania, where she continues to manage—at least verbally—the revolution. If Lukashenko is indeed close to falling, then a power vacuum is about to appear. Viacorka believes that unless it is seized it will be taken by Russia—which can of course influence politics without a military invasion—or violent radical forces within the elite, most likely law enforcement.
Tikhanovskaya’s movement has the momentum, but she is not a politician. She has pledged only to act as an interim leader to oversee new, fair elections, and she remains abroad. Lukashenko may be fading, but Tikhanovskaya is not yet strong enough to take control. This has created a dangerous political stasis that will only be resolved when either the movement can organize new elections or Russia steps in. “This situation can last for weeks or months,” Viacorka said. “But the more time that passes, the easier it will be for Russia to take control, and that is a situation nobody wants.”