What Can We Learn From Belarus?

Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Chávez and Maduro and “Europe’s last dictator”, is facing an unprecedented challenge to his power after rigging an election. What if Putin’s protégé falls under civilian pressure?

Venezuela and Belarus are not mirror images, but there sure are similatires.

Photo: Pulitzer Center

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-government protests have flared up across the world. This is no coincidence. The nature of the COVID-19 health crisis—which relies heavily on government responsiveness to fight the spread—has centered a spotlight directly on the governments of the world. This has accentuated issues of incompetence, corruption, and injustice, prompting citizens to take to the streets.

To Venezuelans, the case of Belarus should be of particular interest. The European nation’s history from 1994 to 2020 is strikingly similar to Venezuela’s under chavismo. Belarus’ version of Nicolás Maduro is Alexander Lukashenko—who has ruled the country for 26 years. His repressive, authoritarian regime has earned Belarus the nickname “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Earlier this month, however, something extraordinary happened in the former Soviet Republic, when a rigged presidential election triggered massive, ongoing pro-democracy protests. What can we learn from them and how do they relate to Venezuela?

Venezuelans should be closely examining the events unraveling around Maduro’s closest ally in Eastern Europe, after Russia, because Maduro has already set the stage for his own rigged parliamentary election in December. If Lukashenko falls because of popular pressure, the dominant position in the Venezuelan opposition—that it’s useless to run in a rigged election while Maduro remains in power—may face further criticisms. 

From Populist to Dictator

As in Venezuela, the establishment of a dictatorship in Belarus was gradual. It began with the nation’s first (and only) free election.

When the Soviet Union shattered into its constituent states, Belarus became an independent country and held presidential elections in 1994. Lukashenko, who came from poverty, was raised by a single mother, and served as a military officer, campaigned on a populist platform, harshly criticizing the corruption and economic failures of the traditional political establishment. He promised a massive overhaul of Belarusian politics and the economy, winning with a staggering 80% of the vote. 

This is essentially the current position in Venezuela, where the opposition has decided not to participate in this year’s rigged parliamentary elections.

Readers familiar with the 1998 Venezuelan election might recognize the similarities to Hugo Chávez, and the parallels extend further.

In the years following, Lukashenko used a series of referendums to capture the Belarusian State, rig elections, target opponents, and establish his dictatorship. Less than a year after his victory, he organized a referendum which, among other changes, allowed the president to dissolve parliament. It also included changes to the country’s flag and coat of arms (similar to Chávez’s own modifications of the Venezuelan national symbols). Two more referendums were held, in 1996 and 2004, that further amended the Constitution and abolished presidential term limits. 

Predictably, Lukashenko “won” every referendum and subsequent election. The electoral processes were deeply flawed, heavily disputed, and did not meet international standards. When Belarusians protested, they were consistently met with brutal repression and opposition figures “disappeared”.

Lukashenko even convened a new parliamentary assembly—estilo Asamblea Nacional Constituyente—that was entirely composed of those loyal to him. Exactly as with the ANC, the illegal nature of the new parliament meant many Western countries refused to recognize its legitimacy. Still, the new parliament retained its authority nationally and solidified Lukashenko’s regime. In effect, it served an identical purpose to that of Maduro’s Constituyente—eliminating all electoral competition and accountability from the legislature.

One major difference between the regimes in Venezuela and Belarus is their COVID-19 response. Lukashenko refused to shut down his country and heavily downplayed the pandemic. He recommended Belarusians drink vodka and visit saunas to combat the virus. The long-term leader’s dismissive attitude on the health crisis impacted his limited support. 

While Lukashenko chose to dismiss the seriousness of the pandemic, Maduro used it to cede more influence to the armed actors that support his regime. Although Venezuela’s pandemic response is crippled by chavismo’s hallmark incompetence, the government has strategically used the quarantine and travel restrictions to appease its security forces and reduce the potential for anti-government demonstrations.

Additionally, while both countries found themselves in economic troubles when the pandemic struck, Venezuela’s crisis remains substantially worse. Belarus’ inflation is nowhere near Venezuela’s and the economy is relatively stable, although a prolonged recession has affected Belarus since 2012, contributing to the disaffection with the regime. 

The Particulars of the 2020 Election

On August 9th, 2020, Belarus held another uncompetitive election. Lukashenko, now running for his sixth term, jailed viable opposition candidates, including Sergei Tikhanovsky, a famous YouTuber known for criticizing the regime. He was arrested two days after announcing his candidacy. His stay-at-home wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ran in her husband’s place. 

Belarus’ political opposition was disorganized and largely improvised, mainly due to intimidation, and Lukashenko’s death squads are suspected of targeting and disappearing opposition figures. The extent of this intimidation often deterred candidates, since many believed that running in a compromised electoral system wasn’t worth the risk. This is essentially the current position in Venezuela, where the opposition has decided not to participate in this year’s rigged parliamentary elections.

It’s unclear why electoral authorities allowed Tikhanovskaya to run at all. The government probably didn’t expect her to attract much support, since she had no political experience. Lukashenko’s sexist views likely played a role, saying that “society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.”

Interestingly, during the campaign, Tikhanovskaya emphasized that she had no desire to be president and that, if the regime recognized her victory, she would hold free and fair elections. She attracted massive support, drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands across the country. Tikhanovskaya became a symbol for a democratic Belarus and was projected to win, if the election had been competitive. 

Unsurprisingly, the result was rigged in the dictator’s favor. The electoral commission announced Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote while Tikhanovskaya only received 10%. The fraud appears confirmed by data released from polling stations that broke with the government, identifying Tikhanovskaya as the clear winner. The international community—notably the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada—refused to recognize the results. The United States expressed “deep concern” and called on the government to respect Belarusians’ right to assemble. Maduro, of course, congratulated his Belarusian counterpart. 

Russian influence is another connection between Belarus and Venezuela.

Lukashenko’s absurd margin of victory outraged Belarusians, protests erupted across the country and Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee, fearing for her children’s safety. The regime responded with beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. Nearly 7,000 people have been arrested during the protests. 

Tikhanovskaya’s ability to embody the average person’s discontent, as a political outsider and mother, played a significant role in her success as a candidate. Her clear platform advocating for the release of political prisoners, reversing Lukashenko’s referendums, and holding free elections was simplistic but appealing. The Venezuelan opposition has enjoyed similar support in the past, particularly when Juan Guaidó initially challenged Maduro’s legitimacy and made three simple demands: the end of usurpation, a transitional government, and free elections. 

Recently, however, the opposition has struggled to maintain sustained popular support in Venezuela. Elections (even rigged ones) can serve as a catalyst for protests, as the Belarus case shows. Belarusians didn’t expect the election to be fair, yet the public outrage against blatant fraud has ignited massive, sudden pressure for Lukashenko’s removal. There is no guarantee, however, that fraudulent elections will ignite mass mobilizations, or that these will inevitably result in regime change. Venezuela’s mass protests in 2017, for example, failed to oust Maduro.

Still, the tide appears to be turning against Lukashenko—something that seemed impossible mere weeks ago. Striking workers jeered him on a recent factory visit, the state-owned TV network has seen mass resignations, and some officials, including police, have resigned in solidarity with protesters. Now, Russia has offered military support to the regime if the instability continues. 

A Close-Range Russian Influence

Russian influence is another connection between Belarus and Venezuela. Vladimir Putin has made a concerted effort to support Maduro’s regime, offering economic aid and troops. Russia’s support for Maduro, though, is partly to frustrate the United States in its own hemisphere. 

In contrast, Belarus is of greater strategic importance, wedged between Russia and the expanding borders of the European Union (three of Belarus’ neighbors, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia joined the EU in 2004). Belarus’ other neighbor, Ukraine, pulled away from Russia’s sphere of influence after its 2014 revolution. A non-compliant regime in Belarus would be a significant threat to Russian national interests and security. 

Despite occasional rifts between Lukashenko and Putin, the countries are strong political and economic partners. In fact, the two nations formed the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which facilitates greater political and economic integration. The Belarusian economy has survived under Lukashenko due to subsidized oil and gas imports from Russia. For these reasons, Russia is much more likely to intervene in Belarus and has made explicit its willingness to do so

Venezuela is much more politically isolated from its regional neighbors, with the exception of Cuba. Additionally, the extent of Russian economic and military support to Venezuela has its limits, as evidenced when Rosneft, faced with U.S. sanctions, cut ties with Venezuela

Lessons from Belarus

Another fundamental difference exists between Belarus and Venezuela: non-state actors. In Venezuela, armed actors running illicit mining and drug trafficking operations are key allies for Maduro. These actors help divide internal control between several groups, preventing the state’s security forces from coalescing against the regime.

While such groups are largely absent from the situation in Belarus, secret police like Venezuela’s SEBIN serve a similar purpose—allowing the regime to identify dissidents and prevent military uprisings. Fractured security forces are common in dictatorial regimes for this exact reason. Democratic revolutions often rely on a decisive contingent of these security forces joining protesters. 

It’s easy to see the similarities between Lukashenko’s Belarus and Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro. And, while substantial differences exist, comparative studies are the touchstone scholars use to assess the effectiveness of democratic movements across the world. 

The developments out of Belarus reveal the power of electoral arenas in authoritarian regimes, even when elections are rigged. After 26 years, Belarusians had grown accustomed to fraudulent elections. And still, Tikhanovskaya managed to galvanize the population to vote—an act of political defiance they likely expected would make no difference. 

But it did. The 2020 election became a catalyst for popular uprisings, mounting unprecedented pressure on “Europe’s last dictator”. 

In Venezuela, there’s no predicting if a similar result would occur. If the opposition decides to participate in the December election, it would be on Maduro’s terms. The candidates allowed to run would likely attract little support and would struggle to effectively argue in favor of voting. A united front is much easier during presidential elections, where forces can rally behind any individual candidate the government accepts.

Currently, a lack of enthusiasm and public trust plagues the Venezuelan opposition, as efforts to oust Maduro remain unsuccessful despite extensive international recognition for the National Assembly and widespread government unpopularity. Belarus teaches us that disputed elections have the potential to energize the opposition and threaten even long established dictators. If Lukashenko falls, it may strengthen arguments for electoral participation, but that is yet to be seen and continuing to follow Belarus may reveal more important lessons for Venezuela in the months ahead.