What happens when Belarus loses its dictator?
ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, the dictator of Belarus, spends much of his time inspecting factories, scrutinising harvests and presiding over ice-hockey matches. For nearly a week in May he did none of those thingsor anything else in public, fuelling intense speculation about his health. The moustachioed former collective-farm boss has governed Belarus since 1994. He has responded to growing opposition with increasing repression. Massive demonstrations erupted after he stole an election in 2020; his government lashed out by jailing and torturing thousands of dissidents. Now Belarusians wonder whether bad health may be what removes him from power. The presidents minions say he is physically fit, but his unexplained absence raises the question: what would happen if he permanently left the scene? The rumours about his health began on May 9th, after he was escorted away in a buggy during Russias Victory Day parade in Moscow, while other foreign leaders accompanied Russias president, Vladimir Putin. Mr Lukashenko then skipped a celebratory lunch. On May 14th he missed a state event marking Belaruss Flag Day. Independent media reported that the 68-year-old had been taken to a clinic with suspected viral heart inflammation, which is treatable. On the following day his press service sought to quell rumours about his health by releasing a video showing the barrel-chested Mr Lukashenko conferring with military officers. He sounded hoarse, but well enough to assert his authority. Even so, speculation about who will succeed him has begun. Belaruss constitution outlines the formal process in the event of Mr Lukashenkos death. A presidential election would probably be called between 30 and 70 days later. The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Natalya Kochanova, a trusted footsoldier of Mr Lukashenkos, would govern in the interim. But in practice the new leader will emerge from a struggle involving Belaruss security elite and Russia, says Nigel Gould-Davies of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London. Mr Lukashenko has chosen no successor. He may be grooming his younger son, Kolya, for the top job: the teenager appeared by his fathers side during the crackdown on protesters in 2020. Mr Lukashenko has strived to concentrate power in his own hands and has often replaced chiefs of security to ensure that none gains enough influence to challenge him. But one candidate believed to be eyeing the post is the secretary of the Security Council, Alexander Volfovich, who commands the countrys security apparatus. He is a strong advocate for Russias interests. The Kremlin, which has used Belarus as a staging post and logistical base for its invasion of Ukraine, would like Mr Lukashenkos eventual successor to be its puppet; the unruly Mr Lukashenko, who initially criticised Russias annexation of Crimea and quarrelled with his neighbour over oil taxes, has never quite been that. But most members of the Belarusian elite would like to retain some distance from Russia. They do not want the country to become entirely subservient to its powerful neighbour. They are especially eager to avoid being pulled deeper into the Ukraine war, which is unpopular among Belarusians. The opposition in exile hopes that Mr Lukashenkos death would bring about a democratic opening. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was probably the true winner of the presidential election in 2020, fled to Lithuania. Two other opposition leadersViktor Babaryko and Maria Kolesnikovaare in prison. But Pavel Latushka, Ms Tikhanovskayas deputy, says their group is prepared. They would not take part in another rigged election. Instead, they would call for mass civil unrest. I am in support of agitation, says Mr Latushka. Meanwhile, more radical members of the opposition, emboldened by Russias setbacks in Ukraine, are pushing for cyber and guerilla warfare against the Belarusian state. Some members of the opposition fear that, after the trauma of 2020, Belarusians will be afraid to protest and will allow power to pass from one tyrant to another without resistance. If Belarusians do rise up, Russian security forces might well intervene to ensure that the next president is not someone with Ukraine-like ideas about sovereignty and freedom from Russian influence. Mr Putin will certainly hope to extend his influence, perhaps even seeking to annex Belarus as he did with Crimea in 2014. That could prove unwise: Russias depleted forces would struggle to take the country by force, as they have parts of Ukraine. Theyre losing the war, points out Mr Gould-Davies. Why open another front?