What the fall of Romania's last communist dictator Ceausescu says about the future of Belarus

Demonstrators protest against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Grodno, Belarus, on Aug 20, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MINSK (BLOOMBERG) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko visited one of the nation's big state-owned factories in the capital Minsk this week, aiming to show he still had support despite nationwide calls for his resignation.

He would have done well to remember Nicolae Ceausescu.

The decision of the last Communist leader of Romania to counter a budding revolution by bussing thousands of supposedly loyal factory workers to a rally in December 1989 proved a fateful mistake.

He was heckled and within four days had fled by helicopter, been captured and executed.

The parallels with Mr Lukashenko's reception at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, which builds transporters for Russian missiles, were striking.

He, too, was heckled on Monday (Aug 17) from his stage, a massive truck trailer.

"Belarus will never be the same," Mr Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to the republic, said in an online briefing.

"Lukashenko has no future. It's impossible, for me at least, to see him staying on in any capacity."

Five days after his abortive factory visit, Mr Lukashenko remains in power.

He appears determined to stay on in the face of protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets and international condemnation of the Aug 9 presidential election that he claimed to have won by a landslide to extend his 26-year rule.

And much has changed in the world since the fall of Romania's dictator amid a revolutionary mood that had swept away communist regimes across eastern Europe and heralded the end of the Cold War.

The US under President Donald Trump appears less interested in engaging in European security questions.

And where Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev was resigned by 1989 to the loss of the Soviet Union's East European satellites, Mr Vladimir Putin is today trying to reassert control over Russia's so-called near abroad.

How the story of Belarus' remarkable protest movement ends - whether with Mr Lukashenko deposed, akin to Ceausescu, or clinging to power through a mix of repression and external support like Venezuela's Mr Nicolas Maduro - will have significant implications not just for this nation of 9.4 million, but also its neighbours in the European Union and Russia.


Mr Lukashenko appears still to control the Belarusian security services and to be willing to use them.

On Friday, he accused the West of plotting an invasion to take Belarus' Grodno region near the border with Poland, where he had earlier deployed military forces for large-scale exercises.

He said he had told Putin about the threat, adding that Belarusian security was also an issue for Russia.

For Mr Gould-Davies, now a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, it's likely just a question of time.

The images of Ceausescu and Mr Lukashenko being heckled by the workers they claimed to represent neatly bracket a process of European democratisation that began with the triumph of Poland's Solidarity Movement in the summer of 1989 and continues, despite setbacks, today.

Mr Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in phone calls that he would consider any European interference or pressure "unacceptable," potentially setting the stage for yet another messy geopolitical tug of war over a former Soviet republic, in the footsteps of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

On Wednesday, leaders of the EU's 27 member states sought to thread that needle, saying at a virtual summit they didn't recognise the elections in which Mr Lukashenko claimed 80 per cent of the vote and a sixth term, while stopping short of calling for a new ballot.

Putin, for his part, has for years pressed Mr Lukashenko to agree to merge their two countries into a union state, something the Belarusian leader agreed in principle to do in 1999 under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

He has since doggedly resisted, fearing a Putin takeover.

While a weakened Lukashenko presidency could offer Mr Putin the opportunity to at last seal that deal, it's no longer a given that Belarus' long-serving strongman would have the authority at home to enforce any agreement.

Some in the Kremlin leader's circle already wonder whether Russia would be better off dealing with the opposition if Mr Lukashenko fell.

"Russia was, is and will be engaged in Belarusian politics and Belarusian economics," said Ms Anna Maria Dyner, a security analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, in a virtual briefing.


Catastrophically damaged in World War II, Belarus was rebuilt under the Soviet Union to become one of its wealthiest and most technologically advanced republics.

Independence, when that came in 1991, didn't appear to be widely welcomed, with 84 per cent of the electorate voting to stay in the union in a preceding referendum organised by Soviet authorities.

Re-unification with Russia became a popular idea.That changed over time, however, as the country had its first sustained experience as a modern, independent state, according to Ms Nelly Bekus, a specialist in the former Soviet space who teaches history at the UK's University of Exeter.

Belarusians were subsumed into political unions from the 13th century, including within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

But according to a February survey by the non-government BAW polling agency, 75 per cent of Belarusians now want to remain independent.

Mr Putin long since missed the opportunity to absorb a willing Belarus majority into Russia, says Ms Bekus, though not because of any nationalist or pro-Western sentiments, both of which have been notably absent from the protests.

Rather than the birth of a nation, she said, "what we're witnessing is the birth of a democracy".

The problem for all sides is that demands for justice and democratic rights don't fit well with any bid to subordinate the country to Russia's own less than democratic political system, while the geopolitically neutral tenor of the protests is unlikely to be enough to satisfy Putin's unionist ambitions.

On Thursday, Russia's own opposition leader, Mr Alexei Navalny, was in intensive care in a Siberian hospital from a suspected poisoning.

The result for Belarus, according to Ms Dyner, is a volatile situation in which Putin is both reluctant to intervene directly for fear of stirring anti-Russian feeling, and hesitant to let pro-democracy protesters force the replacement of Mr Lukashenko.

"You can't predict what will happen tonight, let alone in the longer future," she said.

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