This time last year Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was an unknown housewife mother in Belarus or beyond its borders.
In just a few weeks, he became a household name and rallied opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Tsikhanouskaya rose to fame after stepping into the shoes of her blogger husband Sergei Tikhanovsky when he was jailed last May. He wanted to challenge Lukashenko in the August presidential election.
But when Lukashenko claimed victory, Tsikhanouskaya felt compelled to flee to Lithuania, claiming the vote was rigged in his favor.
She continued to carry out the Belarusian opposition from exile in Vilnius, while thousands took to the streets to ask him to resign.
But his power to be heard is now diminishing, analysts say, as Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent has extinguished demonstrations at home and caused fractures in any opposition figure who tries to orchestrate protests from the sidelines.
“Unfortunately, street protests have subsided,” Valerij Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst and author of a book on Lukashenko, told Euronews.
“People are in jail, out of work or out of the country in forced exile or they feel scared at home.
“The price of protesting has become unbearable. Last fall, you could get away with 15 days in prison as an administrative offense for participating in an unauthorized protest, and now, being a criminal liability, you can go to jail. during years.
“Also, morale is different now, quite low, frankly – initial expectations that Lukashenko will come out soon have been shattered. Many now believe that it no longer makes sense to go outside. Third, many politically active and anti-Lukashenko people have left the country. What we see now are just rare flash mobs that erupt here and there. They are not enough to create change. “
Splinters of the opposition movement
New opposition movements have emerged in recent months.
First, it was Viktor Babariko, who was a candidate in last year’s presidential election but was put behind bars last June, preventing him from running. Through his confidants, he announced that he was creating his own political party Juntos.
Then, in early April, Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat, revealed plans for his own party “to build a new Belarus.”
It comes amid rumors that Tsikhanouskaya’s broad opposition movement is divided after months of unsuccessful opposition to Lukashenko.
Latushko did not respond to interview requests, but is believed to represent a presidential-parliamentary form of government.
“Both Pavel Latushko and Viktor Babariko understand that, with the street protests of months silenced, it makes no sense to continue to rely solely on them,” said Artyom Shraibman, a non-Minsk-resident academic at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Euronews. “They understand that a long road awaits them. Both are focused on the future.
“I am afraid that the opposition parties will deviate from the united front and follow their own paths, although their goal remains the same: a democratic Belarus without Lukashenko.
“But with them taking the lead, the question of whether they can function unanimously as a single democratic front against Lukashenko remains up in the air.”
Shraibman said this could have been predicted when Babariko broke away from the Coordination Council, a non-governmental body created by Tsikhanouskaya to facilitate a democratic transfer of power. Latushko, however, remains in it.
“I do not think that these new political parties, and any new ones – their appearance is perhaps inevitable now – are a good sign for the opposition. Certainly, fragmentation is taking place, and the new players are first aware of their own political ambitions. Unfortunately, “Alyaksandr Klaskouski, a Belarusian political analyst, told Euronews.
“Both Latushko and Babariko have their hopes pinned on the indefinite future, not on the current situation,” he added.
Has Tsikhanouskaya lost his political power?
Babariko’s movements, and now Latushko’s, have raised questions about whether Tsikhanouskaya, the most recognizable face of the opposition, can still legitimately speak on their behalf.
“Due to the publicity she has received in foreign media, she is still a big name outside of Belarus, but her perception in Belarus remains the same as what she herself has evoked: she is a loving wife, a mother and a mere symbol of opposition. Klaskouski said.
“He is definitely in an unenviable situation now: the street protests he relied on the most did not produce the desired results, a swift expulsion of Lukashenko,” Shraibman said.
“On top of that, unlike the other opposition leaders, she does not have her own political party, which significantly complicates her position.
“The only area left for him, for now, is the international representation of the Belarusian opposition.”
However, Klaskouski added, Тsikhanouskaya’s political weight has been significantly diminished by the crackdown on protests.
“It is obvious that she, outside of Belarus and without her own political party and perhaps without great political aspirations for the future, now faces a daunting task: what to do next?” Klaskouski said.
“You will soon find yourself at a point where you will not be able to speak as a single voice of the opposition. Certainly there is a crisis in the opposition, only a few want to talk about it so far … establishing the new parties is inopportune and distracts from the main objective: a change of regime “.
However, Tsikhanouskaya’s office in Vilnius rejects fears that 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 mobilize supporters and strengthen local structures. This is the structuring of civil society, working for the future, ”said Anna Krasulina, a spokeswoman for Tsikhanouskaya, as quoted by the Lithuanian national broadcaster LRT.
Tsikhanouskaya said earlier this year that he expects Lukashenko to be forced to resign in the spring amid a wave of new protests and new economic sanctions from the EU and the United States. But the administration in Minsk appears to be more tenacious than expected, analysts say.
Lukashenko has yet to comment on the establishment of the new opposition parties, but they, and any other new (opposition) parties, play his game, Shraibman believes.
“It is much easier to crush each one of them one by one than to put out a monolithic opposition front with one voice,” Shraibman added.
More importantly, the new parties may be doomed from day one, as their legal registration seems unlikely.
“I am 100 percent sure that they will be labeled bad and will be barred from registration,” Karbalevich said.
“Lukashenko has spearheaded an initiative to reform all political parties in Belarus; they will all have to re-register before the end of the year. I am just sure that none of the existing opposition parties will overcome the hurdle.”
At the same time, Klaskouski points out that not a single opposition political party has been registered in the last 20 years.
“It would be naive to believe that we will see a change now, when the country is affected by devastating political divisions and when any change is against Lukashenko’s interests,” Klaskouski said. “Some of the existing political parties are likely to be excluded after the new Belarusian Political Parties Law comes into effect from 2022.”
Will Russia stay with Lukashenko?
So if the Belarusian opposition can’t force change, who can? Some analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin may make a surprising move.
Although Russia’s political influence in Minsk is more limited than it was in the early 1990s, the Kremlin is believed to be considering a possible regime change in Belarus.
“His top priority is stability; Putin has mentioned it several times after the controversial presidential elections. In this sense, Moscow is in favor of stability, but not necessarily in favor of Lukashenka, “said Vytautas Dumbliauskas, associate professor at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius.
“I am convinced that with the emergence of the new opposition parties, it is only a matter of time until Minsk, under the supervision and blessing of the Kremlin, launches a handful of its own parties to demonstrate ostensible democracy.”
“And if there is a new presidential election, the candidate from Moscow who faces such a new party will have the best chances.”
He also does not rule out that Moscow could reach an agreement with some of the former candidates for the presidential race in 2020, including Babariko himself, for a new presidential election without Lukashenko.
“As absurd as it may seem, anything is possible: the Kremlin’s cunning can never be underestimated. History has many examples of Russia that goes against any logic ”, underlined for Euronews the Lithuanian analyst, who observes the events in neighboring Belarus.
However, the opposition hopes to restart the massive protests against Lukashenko, which subsided 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 momentum lost, the opposition runs the risk of being labeled a political fringe not only by the Lukashenko regime but by some of the opponents themselves.”
Every weekday at 1900 CEST, Discovering europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to be alerted about this and other breaking news. Is available in Apple Y Android devices.
Do you have comments on this article? Or is there another topic in Europe that we should be covering? Email [email protected]
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism