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Authoritarian Leaders Are Watching The Turmoil In Belarus Closely. So Are The People Tiring Of Their Rule.

Opposition supporters help an injured colleague after riot police cracked down on protests on August 10 following official election results that gave incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory. Across the region, authoritarian leaders are watching the upheaval roiling Belarus. Citizens hoping for change are, too.
Opposition supporters help an injured colleague after riot police cracked down on protests on August 10 following official election results that gave incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory. Across the region, authoritarian leaders are watching the upheaval roiling Belarus. Citizens hoping for change are, too.

Congratulations came first from China’s president. Then from the entrenched leaders in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and more.

Behind the warm words welcoming the Belarusian state’s announcement that Alyaksandr Lukashenka had won a sixth term by a landslide were cold calculations, observers said: First, how to secure more time in power in their own countries; and secondly, what to do when faced with strong public opposition themselves.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been in power for 26 years.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been in power for 26 years.

Opponents, meanwhile, looked to the Belarusian election and its aftermath for hints about how to challenge those in power. And they took note as an unlikely candidate drew crowds of supporters in the run-up to the August 9 election -- and then again as protests against the official results were met with a violent security crackdown.

Authoritarian leaders in former Soviet republics want to maintain power, said Paul Stronski, a former White House and State Department official. They also want stability, he said.

“The type of violence that you’re seeing, the [Azerbaijani and Kazakh governments] don’t want that,” Stronski, who worked on Russia and Central Asian policy at the White House National Security Council from 2012 to 2014, told RFE/RL.

“The signal of congratulations is to try to solidify, turn the page on the protest, because [such upheaval] sends bad signals across the region,” he added.

Similar Situations

Several of the countries whose leaders were quick to congratulate Lukashenka face their own sets of problems and discontent. Most have struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic chaos it has unleashed on already brittle economies.

“High turnout & ballot results once again demonstrated the people’s great confidence in you,” Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev said in his congratulatory message to Lukashenka. That assessment flies in the face of the massive protests that continue to shake Belarus amid opposition claims that the official result for Lukashenka – more than 80 percent of the vote – is a fiction.

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Along with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s economic engine, and the latter country has weathered the economic downturn better than some neighbors. Its aging longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbaev, stepped aside as president in 2019 but retained influential positions. Observers have pointed to the beginnings of a quiet succession struggle and wondered how long the current president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, will stay in power.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev

Protests erupted in Kazakhstan last year after the election that formally enshrined Toqaev in the presidency, but the country’s long-oppressed opposition remains splintered and marginalized by security forces. Some opposition figures drew parallels between Lukashenka’s moves and those Nazarbaev has made, suggested that the opposition to Lukashenka was an example for Kazakhstan.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh fugitive who has been accused of stealing millions from a bank and is now an outspoken government opponent, called the Belarusian results falsified. He suggested parallel actions for Kazakh activists looking to replicate the challenge mounted against Lukashenka:

“Dictators will never succeed. This should be a lesson for other dictators like Nazarbaev,” said Zhanbolat Mamai, a political activist who has spearheaded the creation of a new opposition party:

Like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan has relied heavily for years on oil and gas exports to bolster its economy, and President Ilham Aliyev has spent lavishly to transform the capital, Baku, and other parts of the country. He persistently suppressed political opposition groups, independent media, civil society organizations and, according to numerous corruption researchers, has enriched himself and his family.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

While Aliyev congratulated Lukashenka, the leader of one of the main opposition parties also drew parallels with the situation in Azerbaijan.

“The people of Belarus revolted and demanded their rights, and they will get them,” Ali Karimli, a leader of the National Front Party, said in a post on Facebook. “Repressions and arrests don't guarantee eternal rule. All of them will be defeated and be left on history's black page.”

Brittle States

The ex-Soviet republic that observers say faces more imminent political risk is the country that will next hold a presidential election: Tajikistan.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

The incumbent, Emomali Rahmon, has been in power since 1992 – longer than any leader in the former Soviet Union, including Lukashenka.

In recent years, he, his allies, and his relatives have consolidated their grip over swaths of the Tajik economy and government entities; they’ve also tried to assert stronger authority over regions like restive Gorno-Badakhshan, where distrust of the Dushanbe government is deep.

Rahmon, 67, has not announced whether he will stand for reelection in the vote scheduled for October 11. He has won past elections handily – but, like in Belarus, they have been denounced by observers and marred by evidence of fraud.

His son, Rustam, however, has taken on an increasingly public profile in state media in recent years and now is a top official in the Tajik parliament and mayor of the country’s capital, Dushanbe.

That has fueled speculation that Rahmon is positioning his son to take over in a dynastic succession similar to the one in Azerbaijan, where Aliyev’s long-ruling father steered his son into the presidency shortly before his death in 2003.

That prospect has caused concern among Tajiks seeking change, like voters in Belarus.

In Belarus, services still kind of work. That’s not the case in Tajikistan.”
-- Paul Stronski

“Hearing and seeing one person continuously at the helm of power and at the same time not seeing any changes in socio-political and economic processes -- that caused anxiety for Belarusians,” Shokirjon Hakim, a Tajik lawyer and political activist, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service. “They, too, in the end saw no other way [to prompt a] change of power than protests."

“Tajikistan is quite brittle,” Stronski said. “The country has really moved toward full authoritarian, moved from a rentier state.... It’s one of the most fragile states of the former Soviet Union.”

Lukashenka has overseen the Belarusian economy’s slow growth, but he’s also succeeded in building a wide social welfare net and a central-command economy that long blunted discontent that could result from joblessness or widespread poverty.

In Tajikistan, the country’s isolation, its lack of natural resources like oil and gas, and the legacy of an impoverished population has been compounded by the Rahmon government’s policies, his critics say.

“In Belarus, services still kind of work,” Stronski said. “That’s not the case in Tajikistan.”

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In Georgia, where parliamentary elections will also be held in October, the ruling Georgian Dream party had been consolidating its power until a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in 2019, which cast a shadow over Georgian Dream’s future plans.

Teona Akubardia, a security expert affiliated with a party called Strategy Builder, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that the Georgian authorities should look at the Belarusian turmoil with an eye to averting the potential for Russian meddling in the upcoming campaign.

"Georgia must carefully assess the processes taking place in Belarus and, consequently, must assess the threats: what mechanisms Russia can use to intervene in Georgia in the October parliamentary elections,” Akubardia said.

The Maidan’s Shadow

For many leaders in the former Soviet Union, the echoes of the “Maidan” -- the popular unrest that shook Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 -- still reverberate. That has affected how elections are conducted and how public protests are handled.

Then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union and turn toward Moscow sparked months of massive street protests. They culminated in a spasm of violence in early 2014, when riot police cracked down and snipers killed dozens of people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has falsely called the protests that ousted Yanukovych a Western-backed coup.

The Kremlin and other authoritarian leaders in the region have been determined to avoid a repeat of the “Maidan” or another “color revolution” – a reference to popular protests and upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere.

“The word ‘Maidan’ and the word ‘color revolution’ have bad connotations [for governments] across the region; they denigrate it as not a bottom-up action, but something from the top, that’s been purposely organized, and that it brings chaos,” Stronski said.

When it comes to the leaders currently in power, he said, “no one wants a color revolution or another Maidan,” he said.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Georgian, Kazakh, Tajik, and Azerbaijani services
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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