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Clara Ferreira Marques

Belarus Offers Autocrats a How-Not-To-Do-It Lesson

The fate of populist President Alexander Lukashenko will be accelerated by his own mistakes.

Riot police in Minsk.

Riot police in Minsk.

Photographer: Siarhei Leskiec/AFP via Getty Images

Authoritarian regimes die in unique ways, and their speed of decline is hard to predict. It is clear, though, that the end has begun in Belarus.

Ignoring his strongest and most unexpected challenger in 26 years, populist President Alexander Lukashenko is sticking firmly to the Soviet strongman script. He has claimed yet another sweeping election victory: Official figures after Sunday’s vote suggest an implausible 80% of the vote, while his charismatic, crowd-pleasing opponent apparently garnered barely 10%. Unarmed protesters, meanwhile, are being silenced with stun grenades, rubber bullets and internet blackouts.

Repression will no doubt continue after a violent night in the capital Minsk, but demonstrations are spreading across the country, fuelled by social media and galvanized in a way that will be far harder to contain than in 2010. There are as-yet unverified photographs and videos on Telegram and Twitter suggesting some polling stations published results that show the opposition well ahead. It is still unclear what Europe and the U.S. will do. More brutality will almost certainly mean fresh Western sanctions, and more influence for Moscow, which has already congratulated Lukashenko.

Whatever does follow, the fate of Belarus’s collective farm boss-turned-autocrat is being accelerated by his own mistakes. This offers a cautionary tale for his post-Soviet rivals including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s aware of his own fragility and facing persistent unrest.