Belarus: Democratic awakening in stalemate

Belarus: Democratic awakening in stalemate

While Belarusian strongman Lukashenko has held onto power since the highly contested August 2020 presidential election, public discontent with the regime has persisted in the face of police brutality and human rights abuses. As the West increases sanctions on Belarusian officials and the Kremlin’s support transforms into pressure, it is critical to assess whether Europe’s last authoritarian stronghold will survive in 2021.

Crisis in Minsk continues

Five months after Alexander Lukashenko, the first and only President of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, secured a sixth presidential term in a controversial election, his once all-powerful position appears to be troubled. On the one hand, while political discontent has been met with alleged torture and ill-treatment by authorities, months of political unrest have negatively affected Belarus’ already struggling economy, together with EU sanctions. On the other hand, the strained relationship between Moscow and Minsk, which is further threatened by Lukashenko’s questionable position as a Russian loyalist, might motivate Moscow’s attempts to find a more compliant replacement. As domestic and neighbourly pressure accumulates, President Lukashenko faces challenges from all sides, with his authority wearing thin.

Belarus’ domestic struggle

Massive protests in Belarus have continued almost every weekend since the results of the August 2020 presidential elections, despite law enforcement’s efforts to stifle them, indicating not only lasting public discontent with Lukashenko, but also the opposition’s resolve to overthrow the regime. Authorities have detained thousands, including peaceful protesters, political activists and politicians, the treatment of whom has led to allegations by the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of “massive and systematic” human rights abuses. A recent spike in arrests in November and the authorities’ decision to deny one of the most popular news websites in Belarus a media license over alleged spreading of misinformation shows the regime’s struggle to contain political dissent. In addition, despite authorities’ attempts to bribe strikers from state-owned factories, they have continuously answered to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s calls for all-out protests.

Political unrest is highly likely to add another burden to the struggling Belarusian economy, which is already in recession. The government’s brutal crackdown on protests has been a costly endeavour, with an estimated $500 million from Belarus’ small economy, worth around $60 billion, spent to control the unrest. In addition, it has not only been state-owned factories that have rebelled against the regime. The IT sector, essential for Belarus’ development, has threatened to relocate amidst the results of the disputed presidential election. This, together with the EU’s sanctions on Belarusian officials and increasing isolation from both European and global markets, is likely to result in less foreign investment, reduced domestic demand and low business confidence in Belarus’ authorities.

Neighbourly pressure from the Kremlin

Lukashenko’s presidency now seems to be troubled not only by domestic opposition and internal economic hardship, but also by his fraught relationship with Russia, whose political and financial support in the aftermath of the election secured his position. Moscow, which owns almost 40% of Belarus’ national debt and has continuously tried to pull Belarus toward deeper integration, might be unwilling to invest in an unreliable ally such as Lukashenko. In 2014 he refused to support the Russian invasion of Crimea, a cornerstone of Moscow’s foreign policy. Furthermore, Lukashenko has attempted to establish new energy partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Norway in the face of disagreements with the Kremlin over oil prices, amongst other issues. Belarusian law enforcement also notably arrested Russian mercenaries in 2020 over an alleged attempt to influence Belarusian affairs, a sign of reluctance towards future political integration.

While Belarus serves as a security buffer for Russia against NATO forces, these problems have continuously eroded the relationship between Moscow and Minsk, along with Lukashenko’s inability to de-escalate domestic turmoil. After a meeting with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in November 2020, Lukashenko mentioned reform for the first time at a political rally after months of refusing to step down. Although he discussed new presidential elections, constitutional change and future reform of Belarus’ political system, this has largely been seen as an attempt to appease both the Kremlin and the masses, not as a legitimate promise for modernisation.


The political crisis in Belarus is likely to be resolved by a controlled power transition. With civil unrest maintaining its momentum since the contested August 2020 presidential election, and the effects of lasting anti-government protests putting a large strain on Belarus’ struggling economy, President Lukashenko’s authority is under threat. In addition, the Kremlin’s patience with Lukashenko’s continuous refusal to conform to Russia’s vision for cooperation appears to be limited. Furthermore, as has been previously argued, the domestic opposition is yet to adopt a pro-European or pro-Russian sentiment, meaning the Kremlin could gain a potentially more loyal political elite. As pressure continues to build from the West with increasing sanctions, the East with possibly weakened future support, and the Belarusian public itself, Alexander Lukashenko’s authority will be continuously challenged in 2021.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Boryana Saragerova

Boryana Saragerova received a MA in Terrorism, Security & Society from King’s College London. She has previously attained a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Boryana specialises in international affairs, and political instability and international security, namely terrorism and extremism, insurgencies, regional and global conflicts and has expertise in Public and Private International Law. She has worked on a diverse set of topics from the prevention of religion-motivated violence in Bangladesh, during the 64th International Student Conference in Tokyo, Japan to bilateral and multilateral relations in South-Eastern Europe during her internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.