Protesters swarming the streets. Security services unleashing a brutal crackdown. An aging, Kalashnikov-armed autocrat—still widely known as “Europe’s last dictator”—rallying his troops in a bizarre photo op.
Inconceivable as it may seem now, there’s another universe in which the political crisis in Belarus, its most serious since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, might never have escalated to this point.
True, President Alexander Lukashenko practically ignored the coronavirus pandemic, leaving his population vulnerable to one of Europe’s worst outbreaks. That misstep followed years of stagnation for the heavily state-oriented economy. With roadblocks to better living steadily stacking up for most Belarusians, discontent had already erupted leading into the August 9 election.
But what if Lukashenko hadn’t rigged the election to hand himself an unbelievable 80 percent of the vote, leaving a paltry 10 percent to his popular challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya? One of the most common complaints among protesters was about the brazenness of so clumsily falsifying a vote that actually seemed far more competitive.
The violent crackdown on protesters, when detainees were beaten and tortured, was the final straw.
That raises an important question: With savvier regimes embracing more innovative ways to seize the narrative, silence dissent and sideline their opponents, can old school strongmen like Lukashenko still get away with tactics as crude as rigging votes and beating protesters?
Perhaps not. “In this era of ‘smart’ authoritarianism, things need to seem like they’re more contested,” says Erica Frantz, a political scientist who studies dictatorships at Michigan State University.
Much of the commentary following the initial wave of post-election repression in Belarus cast the former collective farm boss as hopelessly out of touch with his people. As protests spilled into their second week, he seemed to live up to that image.
First, he deployed small armies of supporters to stage dull, uninspired pro-regime rallies issuing Soviet-style appeals to rescue the nation from disaster. Painting the protesters as drunk or drug-addled fiends, without a shred of (even manufactured) evidence, wasn’t a particularly brilliant idea, either. And today, easily identifiable security agents still hover near protesters to record their faces on video—just as they did during protests a decade ago.
Even if Lukashenko is able to muddle through this crisis, with protesters burning out and factory workers frightened into remaining on the job, his days seem numbered. If and when it comes, experts suggest his downfall could be chalked up to the clumsy nature of his rule and repression.
Employing brute force is often a sign that a regime—especially one without access to craftier tricks—has lost the narrative.
That’s in contrast to less rigid regimes that employ more subtle tactics allowing them keep their thumbs on the scale without resorting to heavy-handedness. Take the government in Singapore, which has been known to drive its opponents toward bankruptcy with costly libel lawsuits, according to Frantz.
That’s not to say the Lukashenko regime has embraced full-bore, North Korea-style dictatorship. Indeed, he allowed Tikhanovskaya onto the ballot, expecting she would pose little threat. The internet, meanwhile, remains largely accessible for independent information (excluding blackouts implemented during and after the election).
But Belarusian officials also haven’t embraced the more sophisticated, sleek propaganda of state media in Moscow, the country’s Soviet-era ruler and current chief patron. Nor do they appear to have adopted the kind of advanced technological means with which China tracks its critics, such as surveillance powered by artificial intelligence.
Perhaps that’s no surprise for a country whose state security service is still called the KGB.
Employing brute force is often a sign that a regime—especially one without access to craftier tricks—has lost the narrative, according to Joseph Wright, a political scientist at Penn State University who co-authored recent research on digital dictatorships with Frantz.
“When technology gives the regime the informational advantage,” he said, “then they’re less likely to use that mass repression.”
For now, the crisis in Belarus is stuck in a holding pattern, with neither side appearing ready to back down or able to muster enough strength to turn the tide. But one thing seems clear: Autocrats around the world are probably watching Lukashenko closely and taking notes on what not to do.
Photo: Protests in Minsk, August 16, 2020 (Homoatrox, Wikimedia Commons)