KYIV, Ukraine—For nearly three decades, President Alexander Lukashenko has relied on a mix of vote-rigging, obedient state media and pure coercion to retain power in Belarus through “a series of unfair contests,” according to democracy watchdog Freedom House. This week’s presidential election will be no different. Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994, is virtually guaranteed to sweep the polls.
But the mustachioed strongman will have few opportunities to rest on his laurels, experts say. A deteriorating economic situation and his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis have fueled discontent in recent months, while a newly unified opposition movement has sprung up to harness that anger. That means winning the Aug. 9 election may only be the easy part. “Lukashenko is facing so many challenges at the same time,” says Minsk-based independent journalist Hanna Liubakova. “And he cannot really find an answer.”
Soviet-style paternalism has long been a central feature of life in Belarus. With more than two-thirds of the economy in state hands, and a vast security service at his disposal, Lukashenko has cast himself as both provider- and enforcer-in-chief. The formula has worked for years, with Belarusians enjoying relative stability—especially amid the tumult that that has gripped its southern neighbor, Ukraine, since 2014—in exchange for political docility.