ZOiS Spotlight 4/2024

Belarus’s Parliamentary ‘Elections’ Mark the Entrenchment of Lukashenka’s Authoritarian Regime

by Emma Mateo 21/02/2024

After the brutal crackdown on the protests following elections in 2020, Belarusian President Lukashenka is using the 2024 parliamentary elections to secure his power. Belarus’s future will be shaped by his ambitions to create new alliances outside Europe, as well as by the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Minsk, Belarus, February 2024: Members of the election commission prepare a polling station for early voting in the parliamentary and local elections. © IMAGO / SNA

Belarus is due to hold parliamentary elections on 25 February 2024. These elections are significant not because they will lead to meaningful change in the country’s politics, but because they are the first to take place since the 2020 presidential elections. Then, the blatant falsification of the incumbent Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s victory over Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya saw hundreds of thousands of Belarusians take to the streets of Minsk and at least 100 other towns and cities. For a brief moment, Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime seemed threatened. However, the government successfully crushed the protests over the subsequent months. By the end of 2020, more than 33,000 people had been arrested, thousands beaten or tortured, and several protesters killed. Many more protesters and their families fled the country in fear. Prosecutions associated with the protests continue to this day, and there are currently over 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus. Lukashenka’s control over Belarusian politics and society is tighter than ever. The 2024 elections serve as a sobering reminder of the ways in which Belarus has slid into greater authoritarianism since the more hopeful days of summer 2020.

As in 2020, no independent election monitors will be observing the upcoming elections – only invited observers from friendly states, such as Russia and Azerbaijan, will be present. However, we don’t need observers to know that these elections will be neither free nor fair. Whilst in 2020, Lukashenka allowed some seemingly unthreatening opposition candidates to run, in 2023, the political landscape was reformed. With twelve official political parties closed down, only four parties are left on the ballot paper, all of which support Lukashenka. The Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna uses an asterisk after the term ‘elections’, with a footnote highlighting that free and fair elections are not currently possible in the country.

Ongoing repression

It seems inevitable that Lukashenka will win the elections, and meaningful post-election protests are unlikely. In addition to the repression of opposition networks, other steps have been taken to undermine protests, such as new waves of arrests and additional training for security forces. Photographing completed ballot papers is forbidden and measures have been introduced to anonymise electoral committee members, who were previously pressured by protesters to release the ‘true’ vote counts. After the elections, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA) will be convened following constitutional changes in 2022. Approximately 1,200 representatives of civil society, government and the civil service will be appointed by local and national authorities. The APBA will have authority over all branches of government and will be able to cancel election results and government decisions. However, rather than enhancing democracy in Belarus, this pro-regime assembly will be chaired by Lukashenka, serving to enhance his power and prepare the regime for a loyal successor.

The sustained repression since 2020 means that many Belarusians have chosen to leave the country. As a result, this country of 9.4 million people is now grappling with high levels of emigration. An estimated 200,000–500,000 Belarusians are living in exile. Many of these emigrés are well-educated professionals, leading to concerns about brain drain. Increasing awareness of this issue has seen the government introduce some attempts at counter-measures: Belarusians can no longer renew their passports, file for divorce or sell property from abroad, which may force some exiles to return. However, those who do return risk arrest – an estimated 100 Belarusians were detained on returning from abroad in 2023. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be effective at tackling brain drain and helping the Belarusian economy.

Deepening ties with Russia, seeking new alliances

Support from Putin has been crucial in enabling Lukashenka to crack down on protesters and bolster the economy, which has been hit by Western sanctions. Since 2020, Belarus has therefore significantly strengthened its ties with Russia. Lukashenka allowed Belarusian territory to be used as a launchpad for Russia’s invasion of northern Ukraine in February 2022, and Belarus is hosting Russian troops, military hardware, tactical nuclear weapons and Wagner mercenaries. Lukashenka has been vocal about his refusal to send Belarusian troops into Ukraine, and polls suggest that few Belarusians support the idea of the country participating in military action. Nevertheless, the Belarusian regime is aiding Russia’s war: the European Parliament recently called on the International Criminal Court to recognise Lukashenka’s complicity in Russia’s war crimes.

Faced with sanctions over repression and its support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, Belarus is seeking closer relations with the Global South – particularly with non-democratic regimes. In 2023, Belarus made it clear that it wants to join the BRICS+ alliance, and may be admitted at the 2024 summit in Russia this summer. Lukashenka has also sought closer bilateral relations with China, visiting the country twice in 2023, and has proposed a trilateral partnership with Russia and North Korea. These foreign policy approaches mark a shift from the years preceding 2020, where Lukashenka was seeking to avoid an over-reliance on Russia and courted the EU as well as fellow authoritarian states.

A future for Ukraine, a future for Belarus

In exile, Tsikhanouskaya and her United Transitional Cabinet are making plans for a future democratic Belarus and working to gather support from Western allies. But prospects that another wave of popular resistance will oust Lukashenka from power seem distant. All but the most apolitical civil society organisations have been shut down, and unregistered organisations are criminalised. Independent media have been wiped out, with many media outlets, as well as the Belarusian Association of Journalists, declared ‘extremist organisations’. Nowadays, simply following these organisations on social media is a crime. Protests against the war in Ukraine were quickly shut down, and the arrest and prosecution of protesters, activists and journalists continue.

Some Belarusians view Ukraine’s victory over Russia as their best hope for change in Belarus, believing that a weakened Putin will no longer be able to prop up Lukashenka’s regime. Volunteers have been sharing information about Russian military movements in Belarus with the ‘Belarusian Hajun’ project, risking arrest. Meanwhile, Belarusian volunteers fight in Ukraine as the Kalinouski regiment, their mission being ‘liberation of Belarus through the liberation of Ukraine’. Belarus might be going to the polls, but in the face of entrenched authoritarianism at home, the country’s future is more likely to be shaped by events on the battlefields of Ukraine.  

Dr Emma Mateo is a sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.