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Belarus protesters vs “Psycho 3%”

Belarus protesters vs “Psycho 3%”

What will it take to bring change to the one European country where nothing ever changes? Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus long enough to consider his Russian neighbor Vladimir Putin "the new guy." Since 1994, he's beaten back periodic calls for political change. That's now getting harder.


Years ago, Lukashenko was popular. Many Belarusians were gratified that, in the years that followed Soviet collapse, their country avoided the economic chaos of Boris Yeltsin's Russia and the political upheavals in next-door Ukraine.

But over time, his popularity has withered, particularly in Minsk, the country's capital. Protesters, who have gathered in city streets in recent days in historically high numbers, have dubbed their president "Psycho 3%."

The "psycho" part refers to his insistence that the coronavirus is merely a "psychosis" that can be managed with saunas and vodka. Lukashenko rejected calls for a COVID lockdown in his country with a warning that it would leave citizens without enough to eat. (Not a ringing self-endorsement for a man who has been in power for 26 years.)

The "3%" refers to his approval rating in a recent informal online poll. A more credible survey from the Belarus Academy of Sciences, conducted in April and leaked to Western media, suggested that about one-third of Belarusians still trust Lukashenko, but that's not impressive in a country where the president controls nearly all traditional media. The "Psycho 3%" label has even become a fashion item among protesters.

Outsiders are watching. Russian officials remain interested in Lukashenko's fate because they believe Belarus remains a bulwark against the further expansion of Europe toward Russia's border. Europe takes an interest, because Belarus has often been labelled "Europe's last dictatorship" — and because Belarus has long been a transit point for Russian oil headed West.

Time to vote. Lukashenko's immediate problem is a national election on August 9, and his campaign strategy might look familiar to Mr Putin. For example, Lukashenko is now a lock to win a sixth term, in part because two leading opposition figures, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko, have been barred from running.

Babariko, the stronger of the two candidates, faces money-laundering charges that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calls "politically motivated." Tsepkalo had more than half the signatures on his election petition invalidated. In Belarus, as in other authoritarian states, the law exists not to protect the people from the excesses of their leaders but the other way around.

These moves then triggered protests that quickly got the president's attention. When the Psycho 3% idea became a popular internet meme, Lukashenko shut down mobile internet connections nationwide, and his police then hit the streets of Minsk to beat some protesters and arrest others. A few journalists went to jail, too.

Pointing fingers at Russia. The interesting twist on Lukashenko's new campaign messaging is that he claims his strongest rivals are agents of the Russian government — Babariko is the former head of a Russian-owned bank, and Tsepkalo has been linked to a deep-pocketed Russian oligarch.

This is the latest sign of friction in the long-complicated relationship between Minsk and Moscow. Putin has pressured Lukashenko to lead Belarus into a "Union State" with Russia, while Lukashenko fears that "union" might make Belarus into a Russian province. Russia has long shipped fuel to Belarus at a discounted price that Belarus can then sell to Europeans at a markup. A lack of progress on the union project has ended that economic support, at least for now.

The enemy within. But like all long-time dictators, Lukashenko's greatest challenge may be demographic. No Belarussian under 30 can remember life without him, and the number of older voters, his most reliable backers, is dwindling.

He also has a more immediate worry: Any dictator can rest easy if he believes that soldiers and police will follow his orders to pull the trigger. But Lukashenko can't help but notice that the Psycho 3% internet memes include photos of anonymous protesters in both police and army uniforms.

Unfortunately for Lukashenko, not even Europe's last dictator can shut down the internet forever.

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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