Sometimes, you know a dictator by the company they keep.
Though thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to demonstrate against what they see as Sunday’s blatantly rigged presidential election, President Alexander Lukashenko could at least bask in the congratulations of his fellow autocrats.
On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko on his re-election. According to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, Xi “extended warm congratulations and best wishes” to his Belarusian counterpart.
The Kremlin also had warm words. In a congratulatory message, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday’s vote “undoubtedly meets the fundamental interests of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Belarus,” and promised “mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas.”
Lukashenko has held power in the former Soviet republic for 26 years, but opposition supporters launched an unprecedented wave of protests Sunday after state TV announced that the incumbent was ahead in the polls. By Monday, as official exit polls published by state-run news agency Belta put Lukashenko at about 80% of the vote, protests showed no sign of abating.
Western governments were quick to condemn the Belarusian elections as a naked power grab by Lukashenko, who has been mocked for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and criticized for his attempts to quash protests.
“Minimum standards for democratic elections were not fulfilled during the presidential election” the German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin. “That is not acceptable. The Federal government condemns the many arrests and violence against peaceful protesters.”
“The violence and the attempts by Belarusian authorities to suppress protests are completely unacceptable,” said James Duddridge, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister.
And US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was “deeply concerned” about the election process, which he said was neither free nor fair, citing “severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, intimidation tactics employed against opposition candidates, and the detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists.”
But hand-wringing in Western capitals is not likely to halt Lukashenko’s bid to stay in power. And it’s no surprise that authoritarian leaders such as Putin and Xi are rallying behind him.
Some of the reasons are straightforward. China has invested heavily in Belarus, a relatively low-wage country with an educated workforce. Russia shares a customs union with Belarus, and has close military ties with a country it wants to keep out of the EU and NATO’s orbit.
Lukashenko, of course, has been an occasional irritant to the Kremlin, most recently with the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries on suspicion of terrorism, accused of trying “to destabilize” Belarus on the eve of the election.
But Xi and Putin also likely share a horror of the political transfer of power. Putin recently secured a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in power until 2036, and China’s ruling Communist Party also pushed through constitutional changes that would allow Xi to rule indefinitely.
They also reject democratic protest. Supporting Lukashenko sends a signal – to Russia’s small and embattled opposition, to China’s democratic activists, and to Hong Kong – that these aspiring leaders-for-life will tolerate no real dissent.
Russia, for its part, is ginning up a counter-narrative. Dmitry Polyanskiy, First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia in the UN, said he saw the hidden hand of the West in Belarusian protests. This echoes the official Russian line that Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution – which saw the ouster of a pro-Russian president after street protests – was engineered by US and Western intelligence.
“Déjà vu in #Minsk,” Polyanskiy said on Twitter. “It’s clear there are those who don’t agree with #Lukashenko reelection, but they are still loud minority which tries to impose its will on silent majority. And #Western’geoengineers’ shamelessly exploit this as they did in Maidan in #Ukraineruining the country.”
Lukashenko has made clear that change won’t come through protest.
As young Belarusians took to the streets, Lukashenko seemed to issue a veiled threat to his own citizens: “I warned that there will be no Maidan, no matter how much someone wants it,” the longtime leader told reporters Monday, according to Belta. “Therefore, it is necessary to calm down, calm down. And for the third time, I am telling parents to check where their child is, so it won’t hurt later.”