Ever since he came to power in 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has used controlled elections and other levers at his disposal to prolong his own power and to restrain or eliminate rivals -- in some cases literally, according to those who believe he was behind the unsolved disappearances of several opponents.
The August 9 presidential election that handed the 66-year-old former state-farm manager a sixth straight term was no exception, with the most viable potential challengers barred from the ballot and in some cases jailed -- all but one, in fact, who was apparently deemed no threat.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya had attracted larger and larger crowds as the election neared, however, making the official result -- 10 percent for Tsikhanouskaya, 80 percent for the incumbent -- an absurd lie in the eyes of many Belarusians. So they took to the streets.
Many were already dismayed by the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals ill-equipped to handle the onslaught from a pandemic Lukashenka dismissed as a "mass psychosis."
Hundreds of thousands of people have protested in Minsk, in the western cities of Brest and Hrodna, and elsewhere for many months now -- by far the biggest wave of demonstrations in Belarus since it gained independence in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
For opposing Lukashenka, sometimes described as Europe's last dictator, many have paid a high price. Thousands have been arrested, hundreds beaten on the streets and in detention, with many cases documented as torture, and several have died, in the persistent crackdown.
But Lukashenka is isolated, as the West refuses to recognize him as the legitimate leader and has hit him and his government with sanctions while rolling out the red carpet to Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee to Lithuania shortly after the vote amid threats to her and her family.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Lukashenka but appears wary of hitching to him too tightly for too long. With the Kremlin showing signs of fatigue with a figure who has often rankled Putin by playing nice with the West and resisting closer integration with Moscow, Lukashenka himself has acknowledged, at least indirectly, that he may not serve out his five-year term.
Tsikhanouskaya says Lukashenka will be gone sooner or later. "Whether it's from economic pressure or something else, people will soon stop tolerating him. Yes, people are tired and maybe they will lay low through the winter, because it's hard to be stomped into the dirt by the security forces and then be taken to jail all cold and wet. But in the spring, it's going to flare up again," she predicted to the New Yorker recently.
So will Belarusians, many of whom have known no other ruler, see a seismic change at the top in 2021?
Lukashenka Bets On the 'Siloviki'
Lukashenka appears to be betting on the so-called "siloviki" -- the country's security establishment -- to keep him in power and demonstrators at bay.
On October 29, Lukashenka made three key changes. Interior Minister Yuriy Karayeu, his deputy, General Alyaksandr Barsukou, and the secretary of the Security Council, General Valer Vakulchyk, were made presidential plenipotentiaries in the Hrodna, Minsk, and Brest regions, respectively. All three have been protest hotbeds.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.
The envoys are tasked not only with "suppressing demonstrations, but also supervising the local civil administration, including the governors -- another sign that the apparatus of control and repression is tightening," according to Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies.
On November 19, Lukashenka also promoted Interior Ministry department head Mikalay Karpyankou to the post of deputy minister, with command of the ministry's troops.
Karpyankou was filmed in September wielding a truncheon to smash a window of a Minsk café where protesters were seeking refuge from security forces. He also backed Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich when he expressed his willingness to shoot civilians in a video on October 12.
Karpyankou is reported to have said: "If they resist, we'll use weapons. We humanely use weapons against them, including firearms."
According to the UN, some 27,000 Belarusians had been detained by security forces by early December. Human Rights Watch has said hundreds were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment in the days following the election. Two protesters were killed in those early days at the hands of riot police, one by live ammunition. Others have died since then, including Raman Bandarenka, who was severely beaten by masked men who Amnesty International and other rights activists said were "security force officers."
And with not a single investigation into police abuse, Belarusian security forces wield power with impunity, Belarusian analyst Artsyom Shraybman said. "It just seems that the rules that existed before, the limits of violence and repression that have always been [in place] in Belarus -- such red lines for the state have ceased to exist," Shraybman told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, in late November.
Lukashenka's fate is now largely tied to those personnel, said Kenneth Yalowitz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s. "If the security, intelligence and military forces remain loyal, he will probably survive into next year. But he would be much weaker and dependent on Russia," Yalowitz told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
For now, that support appears solid, although cracks have appeared.
Yauhen Yushkevich, a former senior police investigator who is now in Lithuania, said on December 1 that at least 350 officers from the police and other law enforcement agencies had resigned in protest.
Mark Galeotti, an author and expert on Russia's and other former Soviet security services, draws a parallel with the riot police who were involved in the lethal suppression of the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in neighboring Ukraine. "Ukraine's infamous Berkut riot police have publicly admitted that those who stuck with the regime longest in 2014 felt they had little option but to flee to Russia or the Donbas, whereas those who had calibrated their defections better were able to 'recant' and in most cases avoid serious trouble," Galeotti writes.
As Current Time has reported, several former Berkut officers have been spotted serving now in the Belarusian security services.
Weeks ahead of the August 9 vote, Lukashenka lashed out at Russia, accusing it of unleashing a social-media campaign against him, as well as sending dozens of mercenaries -- who were arrested and shown off on state TV -- to stir up postelection trouble.
Relations with Moscow have been troubled for years and got rockier after Lukashenka balked in December 2019 at specific steps to deepen integration between the two countries under a 1999 union treaty. Angered, Moscow first cut, then reduced cheap energy supplies to Minsk, the lifeblood for much of the country's state-centered economy and a source of revenue as well.
But as protests persisted Lukashenka shifted gears, accusing NATO and the West of orchestrating the crisis and appealing to Putin, who ultimately provided him with Russian state journalists to replace Belarusian ones with suspect loyalty, vows of possible military and police support, and a state loan worth $1.5 billion.
Russia has been slow to release the money, reports say, while what Belarus has received -- $500 million as of October -- has been used to pay off debt to Russian energy giant Gazprom.
"Lukashenka fell into a certain trap when he decided in August and September to appeal to Vladimir Putin for help," Arsen Sivitski, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on December 2.
The Kremlin has been advocating constitutional changes in Belarus that would limit presidential power not for the sake of democracy but to prepare for Lukashenka's ultimate exit, the OSW's Klysinski told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments. "The goal is to weaken position of Lukashenka and to force him to hold earlier elections without him," he said.
In televised remarks on December 2, Putin voiced hope "the Belarusian people" will "build a domestic political dialogue with all political forces" and resolve the situation without external pressure.
Those remarks were proceeded by Lukashenka announcing on November 27 that he would step down as president once a new constitution was adopted and proposed curbing presidential powers as part of the reforms, though he gave no timeline for those moves.
Lukashenka will likely be able to count on short-term Kremlin support due to fears in the Kremlin, Yalowitz said. "Moscow will stick with him for now as it dreads the idea of genuine popular movements succeeding. They will be looking, however, for a reliable replacement. They do not want to use force in Belarus as this would turn the population against Russia," the former U.S. diplomat explained.
The Kremlin's support of Lukashenka has led to some anti-Putin messaging entering the demonstrations in Belarus. That has led some in Russia to question the wisdom of backing him, including the newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets.
"Lukashenka's loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the Belarusian people is a hard fact. And since Moscow is supporting Batka (Lukashenka's nickname), loss of legitimacy...will inevitably claim another victim -- the union of Russia and Belarus," a December 3 article in the newspaper said, going on to warn that NATO would gain influence while Russia loses it.
"While Russia appears to have a stronger hand, it faces difficult choices. The costs of keeping Lukashenka in power, especially by overt means, will be high. And Russia's leverage is more limited than many assume," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus who is now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Some analysts say that one potential leader the Kremlin might not mind seeing in power is Viktar Babaryka, a former top executive of a mostly Russian-owned commercial bank who sought to challenge Lukashenka but was barred from the election and jailed on embezzlement charges he says are false and politically motivated.
"Babaryka could be the right figure, as a new president acceptable for Moscow, the Belarusian nomenklatura, the West and what is also quite important: for the discontented part of society," Klysinski told RFE/RL.
But he said what looked like efforts to court Babaryka and establish him as part of a group of opposition figures who would hold "dialogue" with the state seemed to have been orchestrated by the main security agency and were unlikely to convince the people. "All indications are that the process has been directed by the KGB from start to finish, and as such it is neither attractive nor credible to the vast majority of protesters who are demanding real changes, including the resignation of Lukashenka," Klysinski told RFE/RL.
A Coordination Council established by Tsikhanouskaya had been expected to steer that "dialogue" in the direction the opposition wanted, but the council has "ceased to be active," Shraybman said. "Its leaders were either imprisoned or expelled from the country."
A push by Tsikhanouskaya to dramatically increase the pressure on Lukashenka faltered when her call for a sustained nationwide strike starting on October 26 gained only limited traction, in part due to threats and arrests of workers.
Tsikhanouskaya has been embraced in the West and has a high profile in Europe. Another factor in the future of Belarus is the imminent change of administration in the United States, where President-elect Joe Biden will replace President Donald Trump on January 20.
"The role of the West will become more significant with Biden as president. The U.S. has lagged behind Europe in responding to the crisis in Belarus," Gould-Davies said. "But unlike Trump, Biden has expressed strong support for the opposition and condemned Lukashenka's repression. His wider policy towards Russia and its interventions abroad will also be far tougher."
Tsikhanouskaya remains a "symbolic" figure for the opposition movement that is largely grassroots and coordinated online, explained Pavel Slunkin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Slunkin sees three potential "transitional scenarios" for Belarus: Lukashenka is ousted by the protest movement; hangs on with limited powers, as he said the Kremlin would prefer; or changes his role but retains a large measure of power, as longtime former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has done.
According to Slunkin, much will depend on whether the protests, whose size has decreased amid fatigue, relentless repression, and cold weather, can regain momentum in the spring.
"The finale is open," Slunkin said, "and is being written by Belarusians every day."