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Why Putin Should Fear Belarus

The possible political demise of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko after a quarter-century in power is not the only reason why the country's August 9 presidential election matters. The other is the long-standing tendency of political developments in Belarus to foreshadow events in Russia.

MOSCOW – President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. But his grip on the country has weakened significantly in recent months, and he may well be out after the presidential election scheduled for August 9. Such an outcome would not only shake up Belarus; it also would give Russian President Vladimir Putin serious cause for concern.

At the beginning of 2020, Lukashenko seemed unchallengeable. Most Belarusians believed that their strongman leader would win a sixth term in office in the same corrupt way that he had secured his previous victories. And even Lukashenko’s opponents suddenly went silent as he defended Belarusian sovereignty in the face of Putin’s plans to “integrate” the two post-Soviet states.

But COVID-19 has changed everything. As Lukashenko proclaimed the pandemic “nonsense” and lied regularly about its scope and casualties, ordinary people affected by the crisis to started to turn on him. They particularly resented pressure by the authorities to attend May 9 commemorations of the end of World War II without face masks or protective gloves, and to sign a petition in favor of Lukashenko’s re-election.