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Lukashenko’s Belarus isn’t going anywhere just yet

Lukashenko’s Belarus isn’t going anywhere just yet

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Sergei Kuznetsov is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe. His work has been published in European outlets, including the Financial Times and POLITICO.

The health of a nation’s leader would hardly disrupt the stability of a country with democratically elected institutions and prevailing rule of law. However, it may spell great trouble for authoritarian Belarus, where the entire political system has been concentrated in the hands of a single person.

Sixty-eight-year-old Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, and his apparently shattered health was thrust into the spotlight recently, after an unusual public absence for almost a week after the Victory Day parade in Moscow earlier this month.

Lukashenko looked unhealthy during the celebrations, which he left ahead of other attending post-Soviet leaders. And when he reappeared in public in Belarus, his battered appearance and bandaged left arm only added to mounting speculation regarding his condition.

“There are many rumors about the dictator Lukashenka’s health. For us, it means only one thing: We should be well prepared for every scenario,” tweeted Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — the exiled Belarusian opposition leader — adding that Belarus should be “turned on the path to democracy,” while Russia should be prevented from interfering.

But even if Lukashenko’s health deteriorates further, the truth is the country’s opposition has little leverage on the situation.

After the massive street protests following the country’s presidential election in 2020, all opposition leaders — even mid- to low-level ones — are now either in jail or in exile. Meanwhile, independent media has been silenced in Belarus, with dozens of journalists in prison, and hundreds of local nonprofit organizations have been closed by the government, collapsing civil society.

Because of this unprecedented repression, calls by exiled opposition for supporters to take to the streets have long been ignored — as witnessed in February 2022, when only a few hundred people took to the streets of Minsk to protest the involvement of Belarus in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

And even if Lukashenko’s condition were to worsen to the point of rendering him incapacitated, it’s debatable whether the opposition would be able to nudge its supporters to take to the streets — especially with Lukashenko’s loyalists in law enforcement and the army remaining as united as ever.

But Tsikhanouskaya’s warning regarding possible interference from Moscow does bear weight.

Certainly, no one can doubt the Kremlin will try its best to make sure that any real power in Minsk remains in the hands of those loyal to Moscow. After all, the country’s involvement in the war against Ukraine — particularly as a springboard for Russian troops to attack Kyiv in the invasion’s first weeks — seems to have provided sufficient evidence to Russian President Vladimir Putin of just how important it is for the Kremlin to maintain control over its neighboring country.

According to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who spoke with POLITICO, many top officials within the top echelons of the Belarus military and security services are “completely oriented toward Moscow.”

“There are many rumors about the dictator Lukashenka’s health. For us, it means only one thing: We should be well prepared for every scenario,” tweeted Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya | Stefani Reynold/AFP via Getty Images

From that echelon, Podolyak singled out Alexander Volfovich — chief of the Security Council of Belarus, who often appears to issue warnings against the West. “Regretfully, Poland and the Baltic states are intent on militarization, on stepping up military activities, on deploying new army units, on commissioning new samples of military hardware of offensive nature. How can one regard this? Only as a bid for aggression,” Volfovich said earlier this year.

Meanwhile, among Lukashenko’s civilian loyalists, Natalya Kochanova — head of the upper chamber of the nation’s parliament — stands out. Kochanova’s the one who would supposedly temporarily take up the reins of power in the event of the president’s incapacitation or death. And she’s long supported Lukashenko in his crackdowns on the opposition, calling him “a wise and experienced politician” to whom she’s pledged loyalty “for the rest of her life.”

Lukashenko seems to favor Kochanova as well, referring to her as “almost a ready-made president” in 2020. But whether the Kremlin would be satisfied with Kochanova as the new long-term leader of Belarus remains unclear.

Remarkably, Lukashenko’s health problems came during an active attempt to reshuffle his system of rule in a way that would retain his grip on the country, even if he were to stand aside as president.

According to Lukashenko’s apparent idea, he would be able relinquish the presidency but would then be automatically appointed as permanent head of the Belarusian People’s Assembly, which was given extraordinary powers during the 2022 constitutional referendum.

Formerly an advisory body, under this new plan the assembly will soon be able to appoint senior judges, approve the results of presidential elections and initiate impeachment proceedings against the nation’s president — among holding other powers. So, even if he were to step aside, there’s no doubt that Lukashenko would make sure of the new head of state’s loyalty.

But, so far, Lukashenko hasn’t rushed to fully implement this plan, which suggests that as long as his health holds, he’s in no hurry to say goodbye to the presidency.

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