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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Can Fatal Moments Seal an Autocrat's Fate?

By Jamie Dettmer August 21, 2020

Autocrats fall when people lose their fear – and that moment can be signaled dramatically by a simple jeer. As it was last week when Europe's so-called "last dictator," Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko, was booed during a speech at a Minsk factory by workers who chanted for him to step down.

"Until you kill me, there will be no other elections," Lukashenko told the sullen crowd. "Shoot yourself," one emboldened worker shouted at him as he left the stage – a brazen statement no one would have dared utter to his face before the current turmoil rocking Belarus.

The visit was meant to have demonstrated Lukashenko's strong support from a core group of Belarusians, say analysts. The factory, which makes tractor wheels, is one of the large Soviet-like state-run industrial plants that have in the past been pro-Lukashenko strongholds. For veteran observers and journalists, the debacle at the factory was reminiscent of the fall 32 years ago of another European autocrat – Nicolae Ceaușescu, the longtime Communist leader of Romania.

He similarly misjudged the mood of a crowd – as well as the tide of events. In 1984, Ceaușescu had easily sidestepped a planned coup d'état, dispatching nimbly a key military unit to help with the maize harvest. But in December 1989, history caught him up with him as he tried to whip up support against growing anti-government protesters who had been undeterred by a violent state reaction.

Eight minutes into a speech before a mass meeting in Bucharest's Revolution Square, during which he labeled protesters as "fascist agitators who want to destroy socialism," he was booed, triggering a bewildered frown from the autocrat and an impotent wave of his hand. Power seemed to drain away from the Conducător, or leader.

"A fatal moment of weakness, shown live on television, sealed his fate," writes historian Victor Sebestyen in his book Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. "The panic on his face was the beginning of his end. As the first barracker, a taxi driver called Adrian Donea, said later: 'We could see he was scared. At that moment we realized our force.'"

It is unlikely that Lukashenko will share thefate of Ceaușescu, who was executed along with his wife, Elena, after a kangaroo court passed death sentences on the couple. It would more likely be a quick flight to Moscow, where he would take his place as a semi-tolerated guest alongside Ukraine's ousted Viktor Yanukovych, suggest Western diplomats.

And there seems to be plenty of fight left in Lukashenko, according to Keir Giles, an analyst with Chatham House.

"Having failed to swiftly translate popular support into tangible political achievements, there are signs the protests against the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus may be losing momentum in the face of the state's resilience and still-confident security and enforcement apparatus," he warns.

"Attempts to blame the unrest on the West have focused on groups Lukashenko and Russia can both call enemies. And now Lukashenko is not only inventing anti-Russian policies supposedly held by the opposition, such as suppressing the Russian language and closing the border with Russia, but also a supposed military threat from NATO," Giles adds.

"If this is believed in Moscow, where Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already described events in Belarus as part of a 'struggle for the post-Soviet space,' this makes a Russian intervention more likely," he says.

A 2007 research study by American political scientists Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski on "Dictatorial Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats" found authoritarian leaders survive by pursuing one or other of two options – either intensifying repression if they can, or broadening out their support base via nominal reforms. Judging by this week's reaction at the Minsk factory, reform would appear now not to be a viable option for Lukashenko.

According to former British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind, there is no reason for him to stop his brutal crackdown as that would be a sign of weakness which would diminish his hold on power.

"We have the precedents of Tiananmen Square in China, the Iranian ayatollahs suppressing a popular uprising some years ago, and (Nicolas) Maduro in Venezuela clinging to power despite the desperate opposition of his own people. Lukashenko knows that it will be a dacha in Russia at best and a prison cell in Minsk at worst, if he appeared to submit to international pressure at such a time," Rifkind adds in a commentary for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research group based in London.

But that may not be enough – as the ill-fated Ceaușescu discovered, let down by his own involuntary acknowledgement of surprise. Lukashenko's only option may be to secure some form of Kremlin intervention. Chatham House's Keir Giles, believes the West should carefully calibrate its responses and avoid offering a pretext for Russian intervention.

But being kept in power by Putin, though, would leave Lukashenko diminished, the leader in name but in effect a temporary placeman for the Kremlin, no longer the king of his castle.

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