An approaching crisis
By now, it is a fairly common pattern for long-held political and social dissatisfaction to boil over in certain nations in the face of the additional pressures of these troubled times. Not even the mighty US is exempt with its political and social fabric bursting at the seams in a fight for the identity of the nation. Then there is Lebanon which continues to erupt in a chorus calling for complete and undisputed revolution. The latest instance in the line of such agitations that have burst into full-blown dissension is the case of Belarus. Widespread protests have broken out regarding a disputed election that saw Alexander Lukashenko win 80 per cent of the popular vote. Lukashenko is a leader from the Soviet era, an autocrat who has held power in his nation since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is worth noting that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OECD) has not recognised any elections in Belarus as free and fair since 1995. Lukashenko and his administration have also been the target of various sanctions by the EU and the US for human rights violations, amongst other crimes. So this isn't the first time that disputed elections have taken place in the nation. What makes this time different is the background context and the events that have followed in the region. The ongoing crisis in Belarus is teetering on the edge of sparking off a Cold War-era confrontation over the fate of the region. On one side, the EU has taken the extraordinary measure of convening an emergency summit to discuss the crisis and extend their fullest support to the people of Belarus in opposition to the Lukashenko Government. On the other hand, Lukashenko has accused NATO of building up troop concentration on its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. He has also accused the same powers of orchestrating the protests against his rule. At the same time, Lukashenko has appealed to Moscow for help and started military manoeuvres on its western border. For now, Putin has not taken an active role in the situation and instead issued statements warning EU members to leave the sovereign matters of Belarus to its elected government. But the EU is moving forward with sanctions and condemnations with the fear that Belarus will turn into the second-Ukraine if things continue on their current trajectory. Their biggest fear is that Putin will use the political tensions to intervene militarily in Belarus as he had in Ukraine.
This is clearly a regression of diplomatic ties between the Western powers and Belarus. For a time in 2016, it appeared as though Lukashenko had turned his back on his traditional ally in Moscow and turned towards ties (limited as they were) with its EU and NATO neighbours. The EU had reciprocated by lifting many of the sanctions on the leaders of the EU. It is worth noting that Lukashenko is not just a Soviet-era autocrat but also a die-hard supporter of the erstwhile Union. He is known to be the only deputy of the Supreme Council of Belarus to oppose the dissolution in 1991. Additionally, he has largely attempted to keep western capitalism at bay in his nation and supported state ownership and widespread use of Soviet symbolism. In other words, Lukashenko may well be banking on the 'support' of his traditional ally. But this, to say the least, is an awkward reconciliation considering that the Belarus Government started 2020 by accusing Putin of attempting to integrate Belarus into Russia. The situation further deteriorated as late as July when 33 Russian military contractors were arrested in Minsk on charges of attempting to influence the August elections.
The rebound is based on the obvious fact that Lukashenko and his administration is under siege from all directions. Years of economic stagnation and an ineffectual and virtually non-existent COVID-19 response have seen the traditionally suppressed citizens of Belarus rise up. With the support of the Western powers, the protests will likely grow. In desperation, Lukashenko may even approach China which has been its latest financial backer after souring relations with Russia. But that is a matter for the future. For now, thousands have been arrested under the repressive lockdown and the opposition leader in the August elections has fled the nation. It is certain that if the EU is committed to acting, it must act fast and with decisiveness or risk losing the initiative to those who may attempt to capitalise on the chaos and human misery that is unfolding in Belarus.