In recent times, the Republic of Belarus has captured the world’s attention for its transformation, into what many now describe as a fully-fledged ‘rogue state’. In the last two years Belarus has morphed from a once largely stable, albeit authoritarian, state, to one of the most pressing threats to peace and order in Europe. The Belarusian government, led since 1994 by the dictatorial Aleksandr Lukashenka, has become increasingly violent and repressive in response to the opposition protest movement that emerged following Lukashenka’s victory in rigged-elections in August 2020 – which many consider to have truly been won by the exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Since August 2020, the Belarusian security services have exacted a brutal crackdown on protestors and freedom of expression; 35,000 are thought to have been arrested while 150,000 have fled to neighbouring Ukraine, as the Lukashenka government tries to cling to power. In 2021, Belarus’ piratical behaviour has escalated to new heights. Lukashenka’s government has run up the score in disturbingly reckless and vicious offences against its own citizens, targeting them both at home and, increasingly, abroad. Already accused of torturing imprisoned protestors, the security services of Belarus, still ominously known as the KGB, stunned the world when in May they redirected and grounded a Ryanair flight flying from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest the opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was travelling on-board with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega; she was also detained. Then, at the start of August, a litany of fresh acts of brutality transpired.
The Belarusian Olympic sprinter, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, after making non-political criticisms of the Belarusian team’s coaching staff at the 2020 Tokyo games, was ordered home by Belarusian team officials. Fearing for her safety in her home country, Tsimanouskaya sought refuge at the Tokyo Polish Embassy and fled via Vienna to Warsaw. The sprinter’s grandmother had warned her that she would not be safe upon returning to Belarus and the Olympian has since been joined in Poland by her husband. Yet even being abroad does not seem to promise guaranteed sanctuary to at-risk Belarusians.
Vitaly Shyshov, who led Belarusian House, an organisation assisting Belarusians who have fled to Ukraine, was found dead hanging from a tree with a broken nose in a Kiev park on August 3rd. While a Ukrainian police investigation is ongoing, many of Shyshov’s colleagues at Belarusian House and fellow dissidents strongly suspect the involvement of the Belarusian security services. Shyshov had previously reported being followed by strangers and Belarusian House released a statement, saying: ‘There is no doubt that this was a planned operation by security operatives to liquidate a Belarusian dangerous for the regime.’ Responding to Shyshov’s death, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who herself was forced to leave her home country, called it ‘worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe.’
Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has been involved with arranging clandestine flights from Iraq, smuggling refugees over and directing them across its borders into Poland and Lithuania in order to create a local migration crisis; Warsaw accuses Minsk of weaponizing migration like this in retaliation to Poland’s granting of asylum to the sprinter Tsimanouskaya. Such brazen acts, committed with complete disregard for human life, to achieve cynical political goals leave analysts at a loss as to how to understand the Belarusian government. Belarus expert Andrew Wilson has put forward the ‘madman theory’ of foreign policy, ‘according to which unpredictability and rash behaviour are actually an asset, unsettling opponents and even allies’, to rationalise the strategies employed by Aleksandr Lukashenka.
By making Belarus impossible to predict, Lukashenka intends to catch his opponents off-guard. The package of economic sanctions brought against Belarus by the EU in June were designed to force Lukashenka to relax his aggression. Yet Belarus has only escalated its maniacal behaviours, suddenly exiting the Eastern Partnership with the EU which had been in place since 2009 in June.
Belarus’ spiralling behaviour poses a serious challenge to the West. Sanctions have as yet failed to achieve the desired results. Wilson posits that Belarus’ leaders may in the future resort to aggressive economic takeovers of national financial assets in order to bankroll the regime. Meanwhile, the City of London must come under greater scrutiny, with the Belarusian opposition calling for investigations as to whether the Belarusian state is already benefitting from bonds and money raised in UK markets.
The picture remains unclear as to how long Lukashenka’s regime can last. However, so far it has succeeded in hanging on to power by whatever means it deems necessary, and so long as Russia’s problems with civil unrest persist, Moscow will look to back its ally in Minsk. The threat that Belarus might escalate its behaviour further needs to be taken seriously by Western leaders, from whom Tsikhanouskaya is currently seeking support, and they must take further coordinated actions to end Lukashenka’s increasingly international reign of terror.
James Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Northumbria University. His focus is on Soviet dissidents and their use in the politics and international relations of the Cold War. He previously studied at Glasgow University, doing a Master’s in East European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. During this time he studied Russian and wrote his thesis, ‘Returning to Machiavelli: Giving Belarus-Russia relations the Original Realist Treatment’, which received the prize for best dissertation from the Centre for East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Glasgow.
James is a Staff Writer at Strife.