Letter From the Editors

On Aug. 11, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko reported that the country had registered the world’s “first vaccine against the novel coronavirus infection.” Technically, this is true, but Russia took the momentous step before the completion of any clinical studies on human subjects (aka Phase III trials, a standard requirement on the international level).

By contrast, according to many commentators, Russia and its neighbor Belarus have decades of experience with a different type of vaccine – a series of shots to prevent the spread of political competition. Russia’s latest one was the passage of Constitutional amendments in July that effectively allow one person to be elected president an unlimited number of times. Belarus abolished term limits back in 2004, but perennial leader Aleksandr Lukashenko (aka batka) boosted his immunity further: Opposition candidates need to gather 100,000 citizens’ signatures to run for president, and the Central Electoral Commission can reject signatures on the flimsiest pretexts. In 2020, after several contenders managed to clear this hurdle, most of them were arrested and jailed on various charges. And here are the CEC’s official results of the Aug. 9 election: Batka has won a sixth term, with 80% of the vote.

However, the time-tested vaccine has triggered a strong antibody response. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who became a candidate for the united opposition after her husband, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was imprisoned and barred from running – is declaring herself the winner, despite having garnered (officially) only 10% of the vote. Hundreds of thousands of Belarussians are protesting all across the country. In some cities, law enforcement is trying to quash the unrest, sometimes by violent means, but according to Nikolai Raisky, there are more demonstrations happening every day: “People are taking to the streets in various cities, often with flowers, and are forming lines and clapping. Passing motorists invariably honk in support. Rallies of mainly women have acquired a special role. Law enforcement doesn’t dare disperse them.” An unprecedented wrinkle is that some workers at state-owned enterprises are going on strike.

Political commentators are hotly debating where these protests will go next: Does the opposition movement have enough energy to oust Lukashenko? This may not be a question of raw force, but of strategic ingredients – and on this topic, Michael McFaul and Dmitry Nekrasov offer fascinatingly different opinions.

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, the former US ambassador to Russia reviews common denominators of successful regime changes in the post-Soviet world – all of which he says are lacking (so far) in Belarus: (1) a charismatic leader, such as Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko or Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili; (2) a rift within the ruling elite, which would open a door for the opposition to recruit some of them; and (3) violence. Yes, that’s right – McFaul said that the protests would have to show “a lot of blood” in order to stir up sufficient outrage for the West to exert pressure on the incumbent regime.

Nekrasov agrees that Belarus will remain under Lukashenko’s power, but offers his own Russian-flavored recipe for a grassroots revolution. One crucial ingredient is a young, energetic population. The other is – believe it or not – oligarchs. “[I]n countries without well-established democratic institutions, oligarchic groups are the only force realistically capable of preventing a country from sinking into authoritarianism.” When the public becomes dissatisfied with the current regime, oligarchs can help consolidate a viable opposition by providing a party platform and organizational resources – and, when necessary, using their clout to bring a motley crew of zealots to consensus.

“Of course,” Nekrasov concludes, “well-established democratic institutions and procedures will protect your country against dictatorship even better – and at a lower cost – than oligarchs. But developing such institutions requires a lot more time and effort.”

No matter how “democratic” or “dictatorial” a country is, an election is always a clinical trial of sorts on a large set of human subjects. And no matter how predictable the outcome may seem, the range and intensity of reactions are unpredictable.