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Protests in Belarus turn deadly following sham election

Protesters and security forces are clashing across Belarus tonight, with at least one person dead, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.

Why it matters: Sunday’s rigged presidential elections have yielded political uncertainty unlike any seen in Aleksander Lukashenko’s 26-year tenure. After claiming an implausible 80% of the vote, Lukashenko is using every tool in the authoritarian arsenal to maintain his grip on power.

Driving the news: The results have been challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who stood in for her jailed husband as a candidate and managed to unite the opposition behind her. She’s now believed to be in hiding for her own safety.

  • Authorities arrested 3,000 people last night and have partially shut down the internet, but demonstrations are nonetheless raging in several cities. Videos of protesters being beaten, some to unconsciousness, have inflamed public anger.
  • Opposition activists are reportedly also planning strikes. Lukashenko has dismissed their efforts as futile attempts “to spoil the holiday.”
  • “I warned that there wouldn’t be a Maidan, however much some people want that,” he said, referring to the 2014 revolution in neighboring Ukraine.
  • The first death confirmed by authorities came when an explosive device a protesters had intended to throw detonated in his hand, according to the interior minister.

Breaking it down: Lukashenko’s know-nothing approach to the pandemic — he kept the country open and prescribed vodka and exercise — seemed to catalyze discontent with his Soviet-style leadership.

  • “In the previous elections, there was always a feeling that the majority either supports President Lukashenko or is at least indifferent enough to accept him,” said Alyaksey Znatkevich, a journalist for Radio Free Europe in Belarus.
  • “There was always this argument: ‘OK, the results may be falsified, but there are obviously more people who support Lukashenko than support the alternative candidates. This perception has changed now — not only in the capital, Minsk, but in the regional cities, the smaller towns.”
  • For the first time, analysts say, the government realized the majority might very well be against them. Then came the arrests, and later the vote-rigging.
The scene tonight in Minsk. Photo: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS via Getty

The big picture: Tonight's events in Minsk will be watched closely in Moscow and Washington. While Lukashenko has long played Russia and the West off each other, he now risks alienating both.

  • In December, he rebuffed the Kremlin's push toward a Russia-Belarus political union. When Russia subsequently halted oil exports to Belarus, the U.S. sensed an opportunity.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus in February, smiling alongside Lukashenko and vowing to export all the oil Belarus needed to ensure its “independence."
  • In April, the U.S. nominated its first ambassador to Belarus in a decade. Both the U.S. and EU discussed further loosening sanctions imposed after a previous post-election crackdown.
  • In Belarus, public support for the Russia-Belarus union fell from 60% to 40% over the last year, per the NYT, while support for joining the EU (currently a remote prospect) rose to a new high of 32%.
  • Then, in a bizarre preelection incident, Belarus arrested 33 Russian mercenaries, whom Lukashenko accused of plotting an attack.

What to watch: The pendulum may now swing back. Putin was quick to congratulate Lukashenko on his “victory,” and emphasize “the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas.”

  • Pompeo, meanwhile, condemned elections he described as “not free and fair,” along with the “ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters.”
Data: Axios Research; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

It may seem that Lukashenko has “nowhere to turn,” after alienating Belarusians, angering Russia and repelling the West, notes Carnegie Moscow’s Maxim Samorukov.

  • In fact, Samorukov writes, Lukashenko remains the best bet for the uncertainty-fearing elites in Minsk and Moscow, while policymakers in the West still see him as “the best available guarantor of Belarus’s sovereignty.”
  • “Outdated regimes can prove extremely resilient if favored by broader geopolitics,” he writes. “The same may prove true for Lukashenko, who, from his position atop a geopolitical fault line, will weather every storm as long as Russia and the West mistrust him less than they do each other."

The big picture: Lukashenko has weathered more storms than most. Just nine leaders who were in power when he was elected in 1994 — during Bill Clinton's first term — are still in office.

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