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News> Despite the protests, Europe’s last dictator is still in office. He wants to secure power with a constitutional reform that should not convince either the West or Russia. How things will continue in Belarus depends above all on Putin. 2020 was a particularly exciting year for Belarus. The post-Soviet country first made headlines around the world in the spring when the autocratic ruling President Alexander Lukashenko largely ignored the corona pandemic and shone with strange recommendations such as drinking vodka against the virus. Then two important competitors of Lukashenko, the banker Viktor Babariko and the video blogger Sergei Tichanowskij, were arrested, which sparked initial protests. In the end, the 66-year-old prevailed on August 9, according to official reports, with 80 percent against Tichanovsky’s wife Svetlana. In the days before the election, Svetlana Tichanovskaya was able to gather tens of thousands in the regions – although political demonstrations in Belarus are dangerous. The extremely questionable election result then sparked the largest protests in the country’s history. Up to 200,000 people came to the regular Sunday demonstrations in the capital Minsk alone. In Minsk, creative formats such as women’s and pensioners‘ marches also established themselves. At least as important, however, was the surprising extent of the demonstrations in the regions.
Towards the end of the year the protests got a little smaller. Part of the reason is bad weather, but the harshness of the security authorities, unprecedented even for Belarus, also plays a role. And yet there are still up to 100 campaigns on the weekends. But what does that mean specifically for Belarus and for Lukashenko’s future?
Lukashenko wants to change office
In the last few months it has become increasingly obvious that Lukashenko, together with his security and propaganda apparatus, lives in a different world than the perceived majority of Belarusians, who no longer take the state media machine seriously. The president, who has ruled since 1994, can only retain his power thanks to the strength of the security authorities. In this situation, Lukashenko is even more dependent than usual on the support of the Kremlin. On the one hand Russia is Belarus‘ most important donor and on the other hand Moscow accounts for almost half of Belarusian foreign trade. At a meeting in Sochi in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin already promised a loan of 1.5 billion US dollars.
Lavrov demands surprisingly clear words from Lukashenko
The help is not only smaller than expected, it does not come unconditionally. Russia does not want to publicly drop Lukashenko, but also insists on the need for extensive constitutional reform. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Lukashenko also reminded of this at the beginning of the recent joint meeting. However, the Belarusian President has so far had strange ideas about what such a reform should look like. The idea is to make the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, which is held every five years, analogous to the congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The constitution could stipulate that the people’s assembly should determine the principles of domestic and foreign policy. Between the sessions of the assembly, its presidium would become the most important power organ in the country – similar to the party’s central committee in Soviet times. „If we take away the powers of the president, we have to hand them over to someone,“ said Lukashenko, explaining his resolution. „They are not good for parliament and the government. On the other hand, we have the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which can step in.“ This should present its own proposals at the beginning of the year and approve the reform. As a possible chairman of the People’s Assembly, Lukashenko would resign from the role of president and thus formally meet the protesters‘ demands, but in reality this would hardly change the balance of power. Russia is unlikely to be satisfied with such a reform. Lukashenko is a difficult partner for Putin anyway. The more openly he supports him, the more Moscow loses the sympathy of the Belarusians, which is very undesirable for the Kremlin.
But Europe also has an influence on the situation in Belarus. The previous three rounds of EU sanctions have only been superficial, but in some cases affect important companies. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also ended its support in the state sector of the Belarusian economy. It paid the record sum of 433 million US dollars to Minsk last year. The Norwegian chemical company Yara, one of the largest buyers of the important Belarusian company Belaruskali, is also putting pressure on it. Belaruskali is one of the most important Bela rusian exporters. All this does not make the situation of the already ailing economy any easier. However, the keys to solving the Belarus crisis lie in Russia. The rapid change in the price of energy sources could theoretically quickly lead Belarus into national bankruptcy, especially since Belarus benefits greatly from the resale of Russian oil. The Russian loans are also vital for Minsk and Lukashenko. Should Vladimir Putin publicly say that Lukashenko should listen to the people and leave, it would be a fatal blow for the entire Belarusian system. This is more likely to happen in 2021 than ever before.