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Has Lukashenko fatally fractured Belarus' opposition movement?

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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya interacts with supporters in Warsaw, Poland
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya interacts with supporters in Warsaw, Poland   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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This time last year Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was a stay-at-home mum unknown in Belarus or beyond its borders.

In just a matter of weeks, she became a household name and united those opposing long-time president Alexander Lukashenko.

Tsikhanouskaya thrust herself into the limelight after her stepping into the shoes of her blogger husband Sergei Tikhanovsky when he was jailed last May. He had wanted to challenge Lukashenko in August's presidential elections.

But when Lukashenko claimed victory, Tsikhanouskaya felt forced to flee to Lithuania, claiming the poll was rigged in his favour.

She continued to conduct Belarus' opposition from exile in Vilnius, as thousands hit the streets to call for him to step down.

But her power to be heard is now on the wane, say analysts, as Lukashenko's crackdown on dissent has extinguished demonstrations at home and caused fractures in any opposition figures trying to orchestrate protests from the sidelines.

“Unfortunately, street protests have dwindled away," Valerij Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst and author of a book on Lukashenko, told Euronews.

"The people are either in prison, out of jobs or out of the country in forced exile or sit frightened at home.

"The price of protesting has become unbearable. Last autumn, you could get away with 15 days in custody as the administrative offence for participating in an unsanctioned protest, and now, with it being a criminal liability, one can go to jail for years.

“Besides, the morale is different now, quite low, frankly – the initial expectations that Lukashenko will be out soon have been shattered. Many now believe it makes no sense to hit the streets anymore. Thirdly, many politically active, anti-Lukashenko people have left the country. What we see now are only rare flash mobs erupting here and there. They are not enough to create change.”

Credit: AP
People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020Credit: AP

Opposition movement splinters

In recent months new opposition movements have emerged.

First, it was Viktor Babariko, who was a candidate for last year's presidential election but was put behind bars last June, preventing him from running. Through his confidantes, he announced he was setting up his own political party Together.

Then in early April, Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat, revealed plans for his own party "to build a new Belarus".

It comes amid rumours that Tsikhanouskaya's broad opposition movement is divided after months of fruitless opposition to Lukashenko.

Latushko did not respond to requests for an interview, but he is believed to stand for a parliamentary-presidential form of government.

“Both Pavel Latushko and Viktor Babariko understand that, with the months-long street protests silenced, it does not make sense to further rely only on them," Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told Euronews. "They understand that a long-drawn-out path awaits. They are both focusing on the future.

“I am afraid the opposition parties can stray from the single front and walk their own paths, although the goal they have remains the same – a democratic Lukashenko-less Belarus," Alyaksandr Klaskouski, a Belarusian political analyst, told Euronews.

"But with them taking the direction, the question is if they will be able to work together as a single democratic front (against Lukashenko).

“I do not think that these new political parties, and any other new ones -- their appearance is perhaps inevitable now -- are a good sign for the opposition. There is certainly fragmentation going on, with the new players being mindful of their own political ambitions first. Unfortunately,” added Klaskouski.

“Both Latushko and Babariko have their hopes pinned on an indefinite future, not on today’s situation,” he added.

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Women argue with a police officer during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020Credit: AP

Has Tsikhanouskaya lost her political power?

The moves by Babariko, and now Latushko, have prompted questions over whether Tsikhanouskaya, the most recognisable face of the opposition, can still legitimately speak on its behalf.

“Owing to the publicity she has received in foreign media, she is still a big name outside Belarus, but her perception in Belarus remains the same one she has conjured up herself – she is a loving wife, mother and just a mere symbol of the opposition,” said Klaskouski.

“She is definitely in an unenviable situation now: the street protests she counted on most did not produce the desired results – a quick ouster of Lukashenko.

“On top of that, unlike the other opposition leaders, she does not have her own political party, which significantly complicates her position.

"The only ambit that remains to her, for now, is the international representation of the Belarusian opposition.”

Nevertheless, Klaskouski added, Тsikhanouskaya’s political weight has been significantly diminished by the clampdown on protests.

“It is obvious that she, out of Belarus and without her own political party and perhaps without big political aspirations for the future, is now facing a daunting task: what to do next?" said Klaskouski.

"She can soon find herself in a spot where she will not be able to speak as a single voice of the opposition. There is certainly a crisis in the opposition, just a few want to speak about it so far… establishing the new parties is untimely and distracts from the main goal – a change of the regime.”

Tsikhanouskaya's office in Vilnius, however, dismisses fears the opposition has weakened as a result of the emergence of new parties.

“By creating their own parties, they (Babariko and Latushko) are trying to mobilise supporters and strengthen local structures. This is the structuring of civil society, work for the future,” Anna Krasulina, a spokeswoman for Tsikhanouskaya, was quoted by the national Lithuanian broadcaster LRT.

Tsikhanouskaya said earlier this year she hopes Lukashenko will be forced to step down in the spring amid a wave of new protests and new EU and US economic sanctions. But the administration in Minsk appears to be more tenacious than expected, analysts say.

Lukashenko has not yet commented on the establishment of the new opposition parties, but they – and any other new (opposition) party play into his hands, Klaskouski believes.

“It is much easier to crush each of them one by one,” said Klaskouski.

Most importantly, the new parties are perhaps doomed from day one as their legal registration seems improbable.

“I am certain 100 per cent that they will be labelled as bad and prevented from registration," Karbalevich said.

"Lukashenko has spearheaded an initiative to overhaul all political parties in Belarus – all of them will have to re-register by the end of the year. I am only sure that none of the existing opposition parties will clear the hurdle.”

Concurring, Klaskouski notes that not a single opposition political party has ever been registered over the last 20 years.

“It would be naïve to believe that we will see a change now, when the country is gripped by ravaging political divisions and when any change is against the interests of Lukashenko,” Klaskouski said. “Some of the existing political parties are likely to be barred after the new Law on Belarus’ Political Parties goes into force from 2022.”

Credit: AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko take a break during a match of the Night Hockey League teams in Rosa KhutorCredit: AP

Will Russia stick by Lukashenko?

So if Belarus' opposition cannot force change, who can? Some analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin may make a surprise move.

Though Russia’s political clout in Minsk is more limited than in the early 1990s, the Kremlin is believed to be mulling a potential regime change in Belarus.

“His utmost priority is stability — Putin has mentioned that several times after the contested presidential election. In this sense, Moscow is pro-stability, but not necessarily pro-Lukashenka," said Vytautas Dumbliauskas, an associate professor of Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius.

"I am convinced that with the new opposition parties popping up, it is just a matter of time until Minsk, under the Kremlin’s supervision and blessing, will launch a handful of its own parties to demonstrate ostensible democracy.

"And if there is a new presidential election, Moscow’s candidate being muddled through such a new party will stand the best chances.”

He also does not rule out that Moscow can hammer out a deal with some of the former presidential race candidates in 2020, even Babariko himself, for a new Lukashenko-free presidential election.

“As preposterous as, it sounds, everything is possible – the Kremlin’s canniness can never be underestimated. History has plenty of examples of Russia going against any logic,” the Lithuanian analyst, observing events in neighbouring Belarus, underlined for Euronews.

The opposition, however, is hoping to restart mass protests against Lukashenko, which died down over the winter. In his appeal, Latushko called for demonstrations on May 9, the day Belarus celebrates the end of World War II.

But Klaskouski has a warning for the opposition.

“With the momentum lost, the opposition risk being labelled as political marginals not only by the Lukashenko regime but by some of the oppositionists themselves.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly attributed some quotes to Artyom Shraibman, instead of Alyaksandr Klaskouski.