Updated at 13:31,08-06-2021

Lukashenko plans 'people's assembly' but Belarus reform unlikely

The Guardian

Lukashenko plans 'people's assembly' but Belarus reform unlikely
Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who last autumn promised a transition to a parliamentary system of government. Photograph: Tut.by/AFP/Getty
President who won rigged election last August has backing of Putin and has resumed attacks on dissent

Nearly six months after huge street protests over a rigged presidential election were met with a ruthless, violent crackdown by his riot police, the Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko is still clinging on to power, and appears more determined than ever to prevail in his standoff with much of the country’s population.

A set-piece gathering this week, at which Lukashenko had initially promised to make genuine concessions and maybe even negotiate a route out of power, is now expected to be a loyal assembly that will rubber-stamp the president’s plan to stay on at the helm. The so-called All Belarusian People’s Assembly, planned for Thursday, is unlikely to result in any real political change, say observers.

“Lukashenko has apparently decided that he has already won and can now backtrack on some of his promises,” said the Minsk-based political analyst Artyom Shraibman. “For now, it looks more like a routine gathering of loyalists. But we cannot exclude the possibility that Russia will insist on something more.”

At the height of protests last August, Lukashenko’s days appeared numbered, as hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country demanded new elections, and backed the idea of a transitional government led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed presidential hopeful who had stood against Lukashenko in the vote.

Lukashenko saw off the immediate threat with violence, arrests and the harassment of protest organisers, and won grudging backing from the Kremlin, which appeared to believe he was a better option than acquiescing to the power of the street.

After a meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko said he would proceed with constitutional reform to ensure a smooth transition to a parliamentary system of government, but after some months of semi-conciliatory rhetoric, he has reverted to form in recent weeks, threatening a new wave of violence.

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“Many have already understood that we will act firmly to defend the country. And the rest will come to understand … I will defend the country whatever it costs me, whether it’s on a tank or with a machine gun in my hands,” he said at a government meeting last week. A recording was also leaked in which a deputy interior minister speaks about building a prison camp for protesters.

The riot police and KGB, which have stayed loyal to Lukashenko, have embarked on a scorched earth policy against all involved in organising protests. Hundreds of people remain in jail while thousands have left the country, with many politically active Belarusians now based in Warsaw or Vilnius. The vast weekly rallies of autumn have become a thing of the past, with only smaller, local outbreaks of protest.

“The dynamic has changed since September and October, but we still see the process of the system rotting. We are trying to stimulate this process and to build channels to increase the number of defections,” said Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Tikhanovskaya.

But the inner circle round Lukashenko has proved to be loyal, and willing to crack down against both protesters and journalists covering the grim events. Dozens of Belarusian journalists have been targeted by authorities while foreign journalists have mainly been denied accreditation.

Tut.by, the biggest independent Belarusian news portal, has been stripped of its legal status as a media outlet, while one of its journalists, Katerina Borisevich, has been in prison since November. She faces jail time for the alleged crime of leaking medical data, after she disclosed that a protester who was beaten to death by regime-linked thugs was not, as the official version claimed, drunk at the time.

“It sounds like a theatre of the absurd, but it is happening to us in reality,” said Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of Tut.by.

In the months since she left Belarus, Tikhanovskaya has met numerous western politicians and been treated as the country’s legitimate leader. She declared 7 February a “day of international solidarity” with Belarus, but as time goes on she has struggled to retain influence inside the country. Most of the leaders of the “coordination council” she set up to oversee a transition of power have either been jailed or forced to flee.

While Tikhanovskaya has the backing of most of the EU, Moscow does not yet seem ready to ditch its troublesome ally Lukashenko. The Kremlin is wary of revolutionary change, especially now it faces its own protest wave after the return to Russia of Alexei Navalny, and has accused the west of meddling in Belarusian affairs by embracing Tikhanovskaya.

“We are trying to show that the coordination council is still a better option for Russia, and are fighting the fears of Moscow. We are trying to explain the situation is not about geopolitics but, unfortunately, month after month it’s becoming more about geopolitics,” said Viačorka.