Congratulations came first from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China’s president. Then from the entrenched leaders in Tajikistan,
Behind the warm words welcoming the Belarusian state’s announcement that Alyaksandr Lukashenka had won a sixth term by a landslide were cold calculations, observers said: First, how to secure more time in power in their own countries; and secondly, what to do when faced with strong public opposition themselves.
Opponents, meanwhile, looked to the Belarusian election and its aftermath for hints about how to challenge those in power. And they took note as an unlikely candidate drew crowds of supporters in the run-up to the August 9 election — and then again as protests against the official results were met with a violent security crackdown.
Authoritarian leaders in former Soviet republics want to maintain power, said Paul Stronski, a former White House and State Department official. They also want stability, he said.
“The type of violence that you’re seeing, the [Azerbaijani and Kazakh governments] don’t want that,” Stronski, who worked on Russia and Central Asian policy at the White House National Security Council from 2012 to 2014, told RFE/RL.
“The signal of congratulations is to try to solidify, turn the page on the protest, because [such upheaval] sends bad signals across the region,” he added.
Several of the countries whose leaders were quick to congratulate Lukashenka face their own sets of problems and discontent. Most have struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic chaos it has unleashed on already brittle economies.
“High turnout & ballot results once again demonstrated the people’s great confidence in you,” Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev said in his congratulatory message to Lukashenka. That assessment flies in the face of the massive protests that continue to shake Belarus amid opposition claims that the official result for Lukashenka – more than 80 percent of the vote – is a fiction.
Along with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s economic engine, and the latter country has weathered the coronavirus response better than some neighbors. Its aging longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbaev, stepped aside last year but retained potentially influential positions. Observers have pointed to the beginnings of a quiet succession struggle and wondered how long the current president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, will stay in power.
Protests erupted in Kazakhstan last year after the election that formally enshrined Toqaev in the presidency, but the country’s long-oppressed opposition remains splintered and marginalized by security forces. Some opposition figures drew parallels between Lukashenka’s moves and those Nazarbaev has made, suggested that the opposition to Lukashenka was an example for Kazakhstan.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh fugitive who has been accused of stealing millions from a bank and is now an outspoken government opponent, called the Belarusian results falsified. He suggested parallel actions for Kazakh activists looking to replicate the challenge mounted against Lukashenka:
Like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan has relied heavily for years on oil and gas exports to bolster its economy, and President Ilham Aliyev has spent lavishly to transform the capital, Baku, and other parts of the country. He is also accused of brutally suppressing political opposition groups, independent media, civil society organizations and, according to numerous corruption researchers, has enriched himself and his family.
While Aliyev congratulated Lukashenka, the leader of one of the main opposition parties also drew parallels with the situation in Azerbaijan.
“The people of Belarus revolted and demanded their rights, and they will get them,” Ali Karimli, a leader of the National Front Party, said in a post on Facebook. “Repressions and arrests don’t guarantee eternal rule. All of them will be defeated and be left on history’s black page.”
The ex-Soviet republic that observers say faces the greatest risks is the country that will next hold a presidential election: Tajikistan.
The incumbent, Emomali Rahmon, has been in power since 1992 – longer than any leader in the former Soviet Union, including Lukashenka.
In recent years, he, his allies, and his relatives have consolidated their grip over swaths of the Tajik economy and government entities, even as parts of the country have slipped out of the firm control of the government in Dushanbe.
Rahmon, 68, has not announced whether he will stand for reelection in the vote scheduled for October 11. He has won past elections handily – but, like in Belarus, they have been denounced by observers and marred by evidence of fraud.
His son, Rustam, however, has taken on an increasingly public profile in state media in recent years and now is a top official in the Tajik parliament and mayor of the country’s capital, Dushanbe.
That has fueled speculation that Rahmon is positioning his son to take over in a dynastic succession similar to the one in Azerbaijan, where Aliyev’s long-ruling father steered his son into the presidency shortly before his death in 2003.
That prospect has caused concern among Tajiks seeking change, like voters in Belarus.