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President Alexander Lukashenko delivers his annual address to the Belarusian people and National Assembly at the Palace of the Republic.
Nikolai Petrov —BELTA/TASS via Getty Images

Europe’s longest serving leader Alexander Lukashenko has long worked hard to seem invincible. He has dominated past elections that the U.S. has deemed neither free nor fair and brokered no dissent and suppressed protests. Now, he is facing an unprecedented challenge as he runs for a sixth term as president of Belarus in elections on August 9. A former teacher and political novice, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has emerged as his main rival, pledging to topple Lukashenko’s regime and restore democracy.

Tens of thousands have rallied across Belarus in some of the country’s biggest opposition protests in a decade, amid mounting frustration over the government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, combined with grievances about the economy. Referring to Lukashenko, protestors chanted ‘stop the cockroach’ and held placards reading ‘change!’.

“For the first time in his 26-year rule, Lukashenko knows the majority don’t support him,” says Aleksandr Feduta, a former aide to the incumbent, who was imprisoned after supporting an opposition candidate in 2010, tells TIME.

The U.S., France, Germany and Poland have called on Belarus to ensure free and fair elections, but analysts say that’s unlikely to happen and expect Lukashenko to declare himself a winner through vote-rigging and ballot-suffing, says Katia Glod, an independent expert on Belarus. But his problems won’t end with a victory. He will have to grapple with economic difficulties, rising discontent at home, managing the country’s strained relationship with Russia, as well as condemnation from the West if a crackdown on critics continues.

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

Lukashenko, a 65 year-old ex-collective farm director, has ruled the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people since 1994. Nicknamed ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ by the George W Bush administration in 2005, Lukashenko’s regime has jailed opposition leaders, repressed opinion polls and held “severely flawed” elections, resulting in sanctions from the U.S. and European Union since 2004. Belarus is also the only country in Europe that has the death penalty with most executions carried out by a shot in the head. Prisoners are not told when they will be executed and data on capital punishment is treated as a state secret but according to Amnesty International more than 400 people have been executed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Reliable opinion polls are hard to come by, but one survey conducted by Sociological Institute put Lukashenko’s approval rating at 24%. Analysts say Lukashenko has been weakened this year by his mishandling of COVID-19 crisis, which he dubbed a “psychosis” that could be cured by a vodka and a sauna visit despite recently contracting the illness himself. He refused to impose a lockdown against the virus that has infected more than 68,000 and killed 574 residents, according to Johns Hopkins University. “The official line was that the virus does not exist and the Ministry of Health has more or less been obliged to stay quiet,” says Glod. “He made a lot of mistakes. People were left to deal with the crisis by themselves,” says Feduta.

Discontent has been simmering for years. A decade-long economic stagnation and prospects of further economic integration with Russia — seen by many as threatening Belarus’ sovereignty — has weakened Lukashenko’s image as the guarantor of stability.

Belarus relies on cheap Russian energy and loans to prop up its largely state-controlled economy. But over the past year the Kremlin has raised the pressure on Belarus, increasing energy prices and slashing subsidies. Russian officials said Minsk should accept deeper economic integration if it wants to continue to benefit from lower Russian energy prices. In recent years, Lukashenko has rejected a number of proposals from Moscow for closer integration, including a single currency and common legislative initiatives.

Who is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya?

Tikhanovskaya, 38, only stepped up after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber who led rallies against the regime, was arrested and barred from registering in May.

The Belarusian Electoral Commission has blocked two other political rivals from running against the president. Viktor Babaryko was detained in June on what his supporters say are fake charges and Valery Tsepkalo, the country’s former ambassador to Washington, fled to Russia after alleged reports from security officials suggested he may be arrested and stripped of his parental rights. Amnesty International has called the men “prisoners of conscience” who were prosecuted for their political opinions. Tikhanovskaya sent her children to live abroad temporarily, after receiving threats they would be taken away unless she quits the race, an opposition journalist said.

Teaming up with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, Babaryko’s campaign manager, Tikhanovskaya has rallied record crowds throughout the country to support her campaign “a country to live in” (the same name as her husband’s blog), which pledges to free political prisoners, reverse the authoritarian tide, and to run new, free elections within six months. “Protests rarely happen outside of Minsk. The fact that they’re nationwide shows what a strong desire people have for change,” says Glod.

Police have responded with typically heavy handed tactics, arresting over 1,000 protestors this summer alone according to the Minsk-based human rights group Viasna.

How is Russia involved?

In a dramatic turn, Belarus police on July 29 arrested 33 men they claimed were Russian mercenaries sent to destabilise the situation ahead of the election. They then accused Tikhanovskaya’s husband, and another prominent critic, Mikola Statkevich, of collaborating with the mercenaries. In his fiery address to the nation on August 4, Lukashenko claimed the detained men had confessed to being sent to Belarus to “await instructions”, and vowed to protect Belarus from opponents he portrayed as “puppet masters” controlled by foreign forces.

Russia has denied any involvement with the detained men, who investigators claimed were members of the Wagner group, a military contractor reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that promotes Moscow’s foreign policy goals in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and various other countries. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on August 4 there’s no proof of the men’s guilt and accused Belarus of staging a show ahead of the vote.

Wagner mercenaries often pass through Minsk, allegedly on their way to Sudan, Syria, Libya and other countries says Matthew Frear, a Belarus expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who calls the arrest a “stunt” to portray Lukashenko as a protector of Belarus under threat. “Putin doesn’t like Lukashenko at all. But I’d argue that Putin would rather see a weakened Lukashenko stay in power than the unknown of protests or revolution,” he says. “It was done with the view to intimidate voters and to open a new criminal case against jailed opposition leaders,” says Glod.

What could the results mean for Belarus and the rest of Europe?

Lukashenko’s battles won’t end with his almost certain victory in fraudulent elections. Protestors have no intention of backing down, says Glod, “The momentum is there and people are really ready for change.” Feduta warns, however, that the regime is ready to use force to silence the dissent.

A weakened Lukashenko will find it far more difficult to resist Kremlin influence. “If he has to crack down on dissent he will lose the chance of turning to the West, leaving him with no choice but to work with Moscow,” says Frear.

The surge in support for Tikhanovskaya has made clear that Belarusians are looking more westward than eastward, says Glod. “They want democracy, the rule of law and European values. Belarus is not a backwater country as it has been perceived as up until now. Lukashenko’s regime will collapse one way or another. Until then, the EU will live next door to a country experiencing a very deep political crisis,” she says.

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