The man who has ruled Belarus for 26 years growled today that protesters demanding new elections would have to kill him first, while his would-be successor announced she was prepared to step in.
Why it matters: Aleksandr Lukashenko has never before appeared so weak — but he still has a fearsome security apparatus behind him, and a global power watching from the east.
Driving the news: Streets across the country were flooded with protesters over the weekend, while workers at Belarus’ state-owned enterprises and state TV network — two pillars of Lukashenko’s support — have now joined strikes.
- “Come, sit down, we’ll work on the constitution,” Lukashenko told factory workers today. “Yes, I'm no saint. You know I can be tough, but you know that if there was no toughness, there wouldn’t be a country.”
- When they drowned him out, shouting for new elections, he turned icy: “We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”
- Meanwhile opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the vote, released a YouTube video saying she now was prepared to take charge, release all detained protesters, and hold “real, honest, and transparent elections.”
What to watch: Lukashenko has utterly failed to reassert control in the eight days since he claimed a preposterous 80% of the presidential vote. What happens next may thus depend on another strongman: Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
- Lukashenko has appealed for Putin’s help, though their relationship had recently grown frosty as he resisted Putin’s push for a Russia-Belarus political union and arrested Russian mercenaries in a bizarre pre-election incident.
Between the lines: “The Kremlin is not wedded to Lukashenko: it has had enough of him,” writes Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitri Trenin.
- “It cannot, however, allow Belarus to follow the path of Ukraine and become another anti-Russian, NATO-leaning bulwark on its borders.”
- With Lukashenko’s legitimacy now “gone forever,” Trenin contends, Russia’s best option is to convince him to step aside and “manage a transfer of power” that secures its interests.
What to watch: “At present, this is a wholly anti-Lukashenko movement, with no anti-Russian dimension, nor even an explicitly pro-Western one,” notes Russia analyst Mark Galeotti.
- Direct Russian action, particularly on behalf of Lukashenko, could change that.
- What Putin needs most are loyalty and stability from a country that sits on Russia's border and in its sphere of influence. His priority may thus be to secure his influence in a post-Lukashenko Belarus.
What to watch: “My pessimistic point of view is that Russia will get involved," Lena Smirnova, a Belarusian who relocated to Baltimore in 2012, told Axios. "That Lukashenko will go, but it won’t be beneficial for Belarus. This is the worst-case scenario.”