Supporting Protesters Without Undermining Them

For autocratic leaders like Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, outside sympathy is akin to intervention.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at a protest on the Place du Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attends a protest on the Place du Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. (Thierry Monasse / Getty)

When Alexander Lukashenko began to face the biggest challenge yet to his 26-year rule of Belarus, he attributed it to only one thing: Western meddling.

“We have managed to take steps to anticipate and thwart a major plan to destabilize Belarus,” the longtime president said in the run-up to last month’s disputed elections. “The masks have been ripped off the puppets we have here and the puppet masters, who are sitting beyond Belarus’s borders.”

Absent from this narrative, of course, are all the other things that could have prompted hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets for seven consecutive weeks: the botched handling of the pandemic, which Lukashenko erroneously claimed would kill no one in Belarus; Lukashenko’s assertion that women are constitutionally unfit for the role of president; the government’s violent crackdowns on peaceful protests and Lukashenko’s threat to bring in Russian troops to quell them further. (He doesn’t appear to mind foreign involvement so long as he has invited it.)

As far as narratives go, though, this can be an effective one. When regimes the likes of Lukashenko’s cry foreign interference in mass protests, every expression of outside sympathy can be repackaged and reframed as akin to intervention, giving autocrats the pretext to quash dissent, even if doing so requires force. The Belarusian opposition, led by Lukashenko’s primary opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is well aware of this—so much so, in fact, that she has gone to great lengths to stress that these protests are neither pro-Russia nor pro–European Union. “Our revolution is not geopolitical,” Tikhanovskaya said in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. “It is a democratic revolution.”

The question then becomes: How can foreign powers support the Belarusian prodemocracy movement without undermining it?

Framing dissent as a product of foreign interference is a well-tested tactic in the autocratic playbook. It’s how Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed protests against him in the run-up to local elections last year. The same argument was made by Chinese authorities in response to the ongoing prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong, which Beijing portrayed as funded by the West.

Lukashenko trumpeted this argument well before the August 9 election, in which he purports to have secured 80 percent of the vote (a result that has widely been dismissed by observers both within and outside the country as rigged). Though many countries expressed concern about the eruption of state violence in Belarus after the vote, it wasn’t until Lukashenko’s inauguration, which was held this week in a secret ceremony in Minsk, that many countries began to formally declare the longtime leader’s rule illegitimate, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Slovakia. Lithuania took its rejection of Lukashenko’s rule one step further by formally recognizing Tikhanovskaya and the opposition’s coordination council as “the only legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people.”

That most countries haven’t gone as far as Lithuania has is, in some ways, to the Belarusian opposition’s advantage: Though Tikhanovskaya has become the symbol of the prodemocracy movement in the country, she has long stressed that her desire is not to lead Belarus, but rather to ensure that it gets free and fair elections. By recognizing Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate president, Lithuania has inadvertently created a conundrum similar to that faced by the U.S. and other countries when they opted to formally recognize Juan Guaidó as the rightful Venezuelan president, despite Nicolás Maduro’s firm entrenchment in power: The symbolism is strong, but it does little to actually effect change, let alone counter the narrative that the West is meddling in affairs that are not its own.

Tikhanovskaya, for her part, isn’t asking the world to recognize her leadership. She is asking for something more substantial: sanctions. In a meeting with EU leaders in Brussels this week, she urged the bloc to focus its sanctions on individuals involved in the election’s falsification and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters. The primary goal, she said, is to pressure Lukashenko to enter into a dialogue with the coordination council, the majority of whose members have been detained or forced to flee Belarus. (Lukashenko has so far ruled out meeting with the council, which he has accused of attempting a “coup” against him.)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko holds up his fist during a rally. (Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Getty)

Some of these sanctions have already started to materialize. Lithuania was the first to impose travel bans on Lukashenko and dozens of other Belarusian officials. Britain announced this week that, in coordination with the U.S. and Canada, it too would be preparing sanctions against “those responsible for serious human rights violations.” The EU is also considering its own sanctions, though it has so far failed to secure the necessary unanimity among its members to implement them—a challenge the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, said puts “our credibility … at stake.”

Sanctions undoubtedly apply more pressure on Lukashenko than statements alone. And rooting them in Belarusian authorities’ human-rights violations, as the U.K. has, makes them harder to unpick for Lukashenko, whose violent response to the peaceful demonstrations has been widely documented.

Perhaps the easiest way for foreign governments to support Belarus’s prodemocracy movement without undermining it is by focusing on the one thing Lukashenko has pinned his legitimacy on: the will of the Belarusian people. So far, Lukashenko’s narrative has rested on the notion that he alone claims the support of the majority of Belarusians, irrespective of what the independent media or the demonstrations might suggest. By coming out in favor of Belarusians’ right to decide the fate of their country in free and fair elections, foreign governments can support them without feeding into Lukashenko’s narrative of meddling.

“Nobody else but the People of Belarus have the ultimate right to decide the destiny of their country,” the presidents of Romania, Poland, and Lithuania said in a joint statement. Though Lukashenko might dislike the messengers, he would be hard pressed to condemn the message.

Still, when I asked Maryia Martysevich, a Belarusian writer and board member of the Belarusian PEN Centre, how foreign governments could go about helping Belarus without appearing to interfere, she told me their approach may not even matter. “He would invent [the interference] even if nothing happens.”