Belarus is so Awkward for Trump Right Now

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

It has been difficult for Americans to pay attention to any politics beyond the November election, but events in Belarus have begun to migrate to the front page. This is bound to be a super awkward problem for the Trump White House.

The TL;DR version of what’s happening in Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for a quarter-century, sustaining the legitimacy of his rule through rigged elections and Soviet-style equality of misery. In the presidential election last week against tough challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, “it appears likely that, if they were actually counted, Tsikhanouskaya would prove the winner,” according to Masha Gessen in the New Yorker. Instead, Lukashenko was declared the winner by an absurd vote margin amid accusations of widespread fraud, a media crackdown and Tsikhanouskaya fleeing the country.

My Washington Post colleague Isabelle Khurshudyan reported that on election night, Lukashenko, perhaps anticipating some blowback to the election rigging, “pledged that Belarus would not have a public uprising like the one that ousted Ukraine’s president in 2014.” It would appear, however, that this is exactly what has happened:

The situation has posed a significant challenge to Lukashenko’s grip on power. The Economist reports Lukashenko “so far retains control of the security services and the army, though there have been some reports of police and soldiers refusing to carry out repressive orders. … The dictator, who has survived by exploiting rivalry between Russia and the West, is in a weak position now. Liberalising would certainly cost him his job.” According to Bloomberg, Lukashenko allies are starting to feel out options like fleeing to Russia, and the Guardian reports the Belarusan leader is seeking assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is a classic tale of an authoritarian despot rigging an election and confronting widespread social protests in response. This narrative has played out dozens of times since the start of the third wave of democratization. They have been called examples of “people power,” “velvet revolutions” or “color revolutions.” Traditionally, the United States government has offered rhetorical and moral support to the folks in the street. On the margins, such support can matter — indeed, on Sunday, protesters in Minsk were chanting about Radio Liberty.

This would be the perfect moment for Donald Trump to act presidential. He does not need to do much, just evoke traditional values of liberty, human rights, free and fair elections, and the rule of law. As former Obama administration officials Michael McFaul and David Kramer recently noted, such statements put pressure on leaders like Lukashenko to realize the whole world is watching. Presidents from both parties have made similar pronouncements for decades. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made such a statement already.

Here we arrive at a very awkward truth, however: The last thing Trump wants to do is praise ordinary citizens mobilizing against an illiberal despot about a rigged election.

Even on Trump’s best days, he likes autocrats and dislikes mass protests. He praised Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin before he was elected. He also praised China’s leadership for cracking down in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since he was elected president, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated fawning admiration for Putin. According to former national security adviser John Bolton and others, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping he would not back protesters in Hong Kong and approved of Xi’s plan for Uighur internment camps in western China.

To be fair, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on China and Russia for human rights abuses in the past few years. To be equally fair, however, not even the most hardcore #MAGA proponent would describe Trump as a fan of social mobilization.

Even though Trump is limiting his media diet to only the most slavish outlets, he must be dimly aware that social mobilization in the United States is stacked against him. Since the day after his inauguration, the United States has witnessed some of the largest and most widespread protests in its history. Even in the teeth of a pandemic, Trump had to use force to clear out Lafayette Square and erect barricades to keep protesters away from the White House. Over the weekend, there were people protesting at the home of the postmaster general. Trump has managed to radicalize Americans in support of the Postal Service.

Compared to all that, Trump’s few attempts to hold rallies in recent months crashed and burned. The only evidence for any social mobilization in favor of Trump comes from, yes, the boaters. Indeed, the traditional civil society organizations that backed Trump in 2016 — evangelical churches, the NRA — are in turmoil in 2020.

Trump has little problem with hypocrisy. He could in theory praise Belarusan protesters and then rail against Americans protesting against a president and a campaign that seems determined to shrink the voting franchise.

In the parts of Trump’s brain that prioritize survival, however, he probably knows the last thing Americans should see are peaceful protests forcing a dictator from office. Some parallels are so obvious even a toddler can notice them.

I hope the White House press corps questions Trump about Belarus. I have little hope that Trump will offer a satisfying answer.

This piece was republished from the Washington Post.

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