Belarus crisis approaches a bloody showdown

Belorussian security forces have been given authority to use lethal force against protesters. As the opposition calls for escalating protests, the threat of a massacre is growing.

It is telling that Alexander Lukashenko’s embattled government has made public its approval of lethal force. Facing protests that show continued energy and scale, Lukashenko is desperate to end this challenge to his rule. He’s hoping the threat of death will scare protesters back into their homes.

Since Lukashenko’s Aug. 9 theft of the presidential election — a theft in which he showed North Korean-style creative polling — protesters have demanded new elections. But if the pretender president hoped his threat of bloodletting would end the protests, Lukashenko is surely disappointed.

On Monday, opposition leader and erstwhile president-in-waiting Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took to Telegram to issue a rebuttal. Tsikhanouskaya issued three demands. First, that Lukashenko announces his resignation. Second, that his security forces stop attacking protesters. Third, that all political prisoners be released.

“If our demands are not met by October 25,” Tsikhanouskaya warned, “the whole country will peacefully take to the streets with the People’s Ultimatum. And on October 26, a national strike of all enterprises will begin, all roads will be blocked, sales in state stores will collapse.”

What happens next?

Lukashenko is highly unlikely to accede to these demands. The dictator is now openly consolidated by , who has pledged to keep him in power in return for new puppet-like loyalty. In addition, Lukashenko’s recent public speeches and rifle-wielding appearances alongside his security forces also offer passing indications that he might be mentally unstable.

Lukashenko may truly believe some of the Russian propaganda rhetoric that the protest movement is actually a secret NATO plot to unseat him. On that count, the Russian intelligence services are preparing for provocation-incidents, indicating that they might launch some kind of attack on opposition protesters. Taken together, this gives an indication that bloodshed is far likelier than compromise.

There is hope, however.

The European Union and the United States have now introduced limited sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime. The west should warn that more encompassing sanctions will follow unless Lukashenko makes immediate compromises. Putin should also be notified that his support for any killings will result in Russia-specific sanctions. Putin will not tolerate an openly pro-western government taking power in Minsk. But if he senses that the economic costs of keeping Lukashenko in power are too high, he will tacitly support a transitional political process.

But if the world sits idle, bloodshed will follow.

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