A smooth transition of power is essential for the stability and prosperity of Belarus
With a strongman trying to cling on to power despite mounting challenges and a defiant opposition determined to continue protests despite a police crackdown, the political crisis in Belarus appears to have entered into a dangerous stalemate. Faced with the toughest political crisis of his career, President Alexander Lukashenko, often called “the last dictator of Europe”, shows no sign of compromise for a peaceful settlement of the crisis and a smooth transition of power. Earlier this month, he was secretly sworn in, while his security police continued to crack down on the opposition. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition leader and Mr. Lukashenko’s challenger in the August 9 election, is in a self-imposed exile in neighbouring Lithuania. Maria Kolesnikova, another key opposition figure, is in detention. Thousands of other protesters have been detained. But despite the regime’s coercive tactics, the protests on the street continued to swell. The crisis began after the country’s election commission declared Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, the winner of the presidential election with 80% vote, but the opposition claims the vote was rigged. Amid growing protests, the EU and the U.S. have thrown their weight behind the opposition, while a beleaguered Mr. Lukashenko has turned to his most important ally, Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Mr. Putin has backed Mr. Lukashenko and sent “consultants” to Minsk to help the regime tide over the crisis. Before the elections, Mr. Lukashenko had expressed the desire to take Belarus away from Moscow’s orbit and strengthen economic and political ties with the West. That possibility has now been shut. With Russia’s help, he might be able to hold on to power, for now, but it is unlikely to solve any of the country’s problems. Already battling economic woes and the pandemic, the political crisis has practically paralysed the country. If Mr. Lukashenko’s plan is to continue to retain power at any cost, it could invite international sanctions that would wreak havoc on its economy. If the protests refuse to die down, Mr. Lukashenko would find it difficult to earn legitimacy and stabilise his government. He should ask himself if his continuance in office is worth destabilising the country that he has ruled for 26 years. Also, a politically unstable country with a hostile opposition with direct support from the West would not serve Russia’s interests either. By propping up Mr. Lukashenko, Mr. Putin might be protecting Russia’s short-term interests, but the ensuing instability would threaten those interests in the long term. A peaceful settlement of the political crisis, a smooth transition of power and the formation of a credible, legitimate and stable government is essential. Both Russia and the West should work with the Belarusian government and the opposition to achieve this goal.