Five years ago, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was photographed in New York with his son Kolya – then aged 11.

There may seem nothing strange in this – political leaders often (unfortunately) use their families as props to boost their popularity. And outside the realm of politics, many companies hold a ‘Take Your Child to Work Day’.

However, there is always something very unconventional about Kolya’s appearance. He sat next to his father at the General Assembly of the United Nations; he’s attended official functions alongside presidents Putin and Xi Jinping; he’s been on official visits to Abu Dhabi and Moscow and he has accompanied his father on official parades.

Now, aged 15, he has been photographed alongside his father in armed combat uniform.

This brief observation is not meant to be an intrusion into what seems to be a close father-son relationship. Instead, it is a telling reminder of how the Belarusian president sees himself and his future.

For several years, Kolya’s appearances have prompted speculation that Lukashenko intends to name him his heir and successor to the presidency. Yet, the recent protests in Belarus are a clear sign that the Belarusians do not want succession but a potential transition of power.

Events precipitated after the 2020 Belarusian presidential election held on August 9. The result gave Lukashenko 80 per cent of the vote while his rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, obtained a mere 10 per cent.

Tsikhanouskaya ran instead of her husband Sergei – a pro-democracy dissident who has been under arrest since May 2020, two days after announcing his intention to run against Lukashenko. Meanwhile, she had to flee to Lithuania out of fear of imprisonment.

The opposition is now contesting the results of the election claiming widespread vote-rigging and decrying the lack of international observers to monitor the electoral process. From his side, Lukashenko has accused the opposition of planning a coup.

Nonetheless, no one can deny that a real grassroots movement for democratic reform is growing in strength. Over 100,000 people gathered in Minsk asking Lukashenko to leave. When visiting a factory, Lukashenko was booed by workers chanting “leave!”

Television broadcasters went on strike. On Sergei Tikhanovsky’s 42nd birthday, protestors gathered outside the prison where he is detained to wish him a happy birthday. The tide seems to be turning.

The image portrayed is that of an embattled regime not scared to enter into battle- André DeBattista

Before his rise to power, Lukashenko was a relatively unknown figure in Belarus. The former manager of a state farm, Lukashenko was elected president in 1994 following the ratification of a new constitution.

While constituent republics of the former Soviet Union have tried to change – at least cosmetically – Belarus maintained some of the trappings of the past, right down to the infamous secret service, the KGB.

During his 26-year tenure, Lukashenko has expanded his power base through successive referenda. Gone are the term limits, parliamentary scrutiny and other checks and balances. The media is highly censored and opposition figures are increasingly sidelined. Some members of the opposition have vanished while political protests are often suppressed.

By maintaining some trappings of the Soviet system, Lukashenko created a sense of security and continuity with the past. In doing so, he avoided some of the disillusionment present among some segments of the population in former Soviet republics.

Yet he has also perpetuated a system which is stagnant and unable to reform without causing long-term turmoil. Moreover, Belarus’ dependence on Russia has hampered much of its development – perhaps, including that of creating a viable and independent foreign policy which would suit its particular geopolitical needs.

The future for Belarus is somewhat uncertain. Lukashenko hinted that Russia would provide military assistance should there be an external military threat.

He is also attempting to mount a counter-resistance to show he still has some support in the country. Rallies are being held; Lukashenko is an excellent speaker, and he can easily conjure up images of past threats and present challenges.

He has been photographed holding a rifle with his son Kolya dressed in camouflage. The image portrayed is undoubtedly that of an embattled regime not scared to enter into the battle should it be called to do so.

This poses a critical challenge for the West.

Firstly, the critical point should be that whoever gets to govern Belarus should be chosen by the majority of Belarusians. In a country with no discernible public space and very little in terms of political culture, identifying such a person could prove to be complicated.

Secondly, Belarus should not become another geopolitical playground where Russia and the West jostle for interests. This is a crucial factor.

In the Second World War – commonly known in the former USSR as the Great Patriotic War – thousands of villages and settlements were destroyed.

A common fact cited by many Belarusians is that 25 per cent of the population were killed during this war, while 85 per cent of the capital, Minsk, was razed to the ground. The fear of something similar happening is not too far off the minds of many Belarusians.

Thirdly, the West is right in urging Lukashenko to enter into a dialogue with the opposition. The UK has not accepted the results of the “fraudulent” elections while the US is following the situation closely. Meanwhile, the EU is preparing new sanctions against officials responsible for the “violence, repression and the falsification of election results”.

All three factors, however, point to a need for caution at this very crucial stage. The condemnation against repression, violence and political prisoners can never be too soft. Yet, the temptation to promote rapid and violent regime change should be resisted at all costs.

André DeBattista is a political scientist.

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