It was a predictable outcome that still surprised many. Widespread protests have gripped Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and other cities in the country following the elections on Sunday. According to the official counts Lukashenko, who has been President of Belarus since 1994, obtained around 80% of the vote, while the opposition candidate received less than 10%. Thousands of protesters took to the streets.
The European Union and individual European countries have expressed concern for the repression of the demonstrations and released statements in support of the protesters, calling for an accurate ballot count and free, fair and transparent elections.
Yes, Belarus is not a democracy and yes, Lukashenko is an autocrat. He has routinely imprisoned potential rivals whenever an election was coming. Many Belarusians have grown increasingly tired of Lukashenko and want to see him go.
Does this mean that revolutionary chaos would be preferable to life in a dictatorship? The problem with revolutions is that one never really knows how they will end. They can provide for exciting times to times to live through, but they rarely solve conflicts and often end up creating new ones.
Westerners, used as they are to imagine that they enjoy unlimited freedom (spoiler: it’s a myth), think that under a autocratic regime everyone is a slave, constantly the object of senseless, ruthless oppression. Life in an autocracy must be an impossible nightmare and the feeling of freedom is the most important thing.
But until very recently, most Belarusians were enjoying a rather normal life, going to school, studying, working, falling in love, buying cars and houses, getting married and divorced, travelling abroad, having fun with friends and playing sports. Belarus was clearly not the most prosperous country in Europe, but it was another normal European country, with a standard of living comparable and arguably slightly superior than those of EU member countries like Bulgaria and Romania. Economically, Belarus has been mostly dependent on Russia, that subsidized it with cheap gas and loans.
For all his failings, Lukashenko is clearly no Stalin or Hitler. He is not a demonic figure who has had thousands of people killed. He has been in power more than most leaders in our era and may be resorted to some pieces of electoral magic to win five mandates in a row. But does this mean that he must be removed at all costs? And who would take his place? On the Belarusian political landscape, one struggles to find a figure who could replace him. The opposition candidate was a former freelance translator and housewife who never had any political ambitions and simply took over from her husband, a famous blogger, who had been arrested after trying to candidate for the post of president.
Like many Belarusians, the West is clearly tired of Lukashenko and they would be very happy to see him go. Mainly driven by the efforts of Poland and Germany, as it was the case in Ukraine 6 years ago, Europe has tried to promote freedom, human rights and democracy. Polish realists, ever worried about the Russian threat, and German idealists, ever worried about the ideal society, would like to see a European Belarus integrated in the European Union. It is an ideal that many Belarusians, especially the young ones, apparently support. Not everything in the world is about geopolitics, but it is impossible in the case of Belarus to ignore the geopolitical dimensions.
Being absorbed in the European Union block would mean almost automatically being included in the NATO alliance, a move that certainly would not be welcomed by Russia. Belarus has been Russia’s closest ally and partner since the breakup of the Soviet Union. If Belarus was to join the Western block, Russia, that is tied to Belarus in a Union State, a form of political, economic and military cooperation, would perceive this as a betrayal.
The perspective of a Belarusian integration into Western structures still appears rather distant but this is what the whole game is about. In a system of alliances that it structurally centered around countering and antagonizing Russia, Belarus would have to renounce all unbiased relations towards its bigger neighbour and partner and adopt the Western course without asking too many questions. Even within Europe though there is division about what to do with Belarus. While Poland would like to see it transformed into a European outpost against Russia, the position of Germany and France could be more pragmatic. They do not necessarily need to further exacerbate the already strained relations of the EU to Russia.
So while European idealists continue to think that there is no life outside of the EU and that only with the Western framework a country can achieve peace, freedom, democracy, prosperity, dignity and justice, the West may be forced to settle for a more modest pragmatic approach this time. Lukashenko is barely tolerated, but there aren’t many who would be ready to accept a disintegration of the Belarusian state, which could be the result of prolonged mass protests if these are to continue for the next weeks. Even in perfect Western democracies the power of the street is not nearly as strong as wannabe revolutionaries imagine. Democracy may be a good thing to have, but it’s not worth every price.
Stepan Antonov is a freelance journalist and the author of “Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West”, published by East & West Books.