MOSCOW -- Belarus' upcoming election on Aug. 9 was supposed to be yet another coronation ceremony for President Alexander Lukashenko. Instead, with the date fast approaching, the man regarded by some as "Europe's last dictator" is facing the toughest challenge of his three-decade rule -- presenting an uncomfortable conundrum for China.
Mass demonstrations against Lukashenko's rule have erupted in recent months across the small Eastern European nation of 9.5 million people. Earlier this week, protests broke out again after the election commission rejected the applications of two strong Lukashenko challengers -- Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko -- with media reports of hundreds of arrests. Previously, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians had signed petitions to register opposition candidates for the polls.
Despite Lukashenko sending riot police to quell the protests and arresting key political opponents, the wave of discontent shows no signs of subsiding. And this political unrest creates a potential no-win situation for China, which has sought to make Belarus an integral part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
If Lukashenko falls, Beijing stands to lose one of its most enthusiastic partners. On the other hand, if Lukashenko holds onto power through brute force, the ensuing backlash from the West could overturn China's efforts to make Belarus its entrance to Europe.
Belarus has emerged as a Belt and Road linchpin due to a combination of geography and politics. The former Soviet republic is located near the port cities of the Baltic states and serves as a major land transit route between Europe and Asia, making it a convenient gateway to Western markets for China.
From a political standpoint, Belarus has won over China with its appearance of stability and outspoken support for Beijing. Lukashenko has ruled virtually unchallenged since 1994, spending a good chunk of those years courting China as a way of reducing his dependence on neighboring Russia. Belarus under Lukashenko has not only enthusiastically embraced the Belt and Road, but also defended China from international criticism over its policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
These factors have convinced China's leadership that it can transform Belarus into a poster child for Belt and Road success.
"The Chinese state really wants to use Belarus as a case study for demonstrating the peaceful and win-win nature of the Belt and Road Initiative," said Zhang Xin, a research fellow at the Center for Russian Studies at Shanghai's East China Normal University. "In that sense, Belarus holds another layer of significance for China as a potential partner."
Over the past decade, China has increased its direct investment into the country 200-fold. China has also provided Belarus with several loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars, backing infrastructure projects and general economic development.
The centerpiece of China's investment in Belarus is undoubtedly the Great Stone Industrial Park, a 112-sq.-km business center on the outskirts of Minsk that Chinese President Xi Jinping once hailed as "the pearl" of the Belt and Road. Great Stone has attracted $1.2 billion in investments and 60 companies from 15 countries since its inception in 2012. In the long run, China hopes to transform the park into a major logistical, financial and innovation hub for its economic operations in Europe.
"Cooperation between China and Belarus has grown tremendously over the past eight years," said Dzmitry Kolkin, deputy administrative director of the BEROC Economic Research Center, an independent Belarusian think tank. He called Great Stone "a core part of the Belt and Road Initiative" and noted that it is China's single biggest overseas investment project.
But the narrative of success is now under threat. Years of economic stagnation have eroded Lukashenko's once robust popularity. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, he refused to institute a national lockdown, instead promising worried citizens that they could protect themselves against the virus by driving tractors and drinking vodka.
Despite Lukashenko's assurances, Belarus now has around 65,000 cases and one of the world's highest per capita infection rates. Many experts argue that the actual figure is likely even higher than officially reported.
As protests against his rule gain momentum and opposition candidates gather support, Lukashenko is hunkering down for the political fight of his life.
The president has hinted that he is prepared to subdue demonstrations using force, urging Belarusians to recall the 2005 Andijian massacre, in which Uzbek troops opened fire on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Before the election commission's decision on Tuesday, security forces had already detained two formidable election rivals -- including Babariko -- while another had been disqualified.
After the protests and slew of arrests this week, Amnesty International expressed concern in a statement. "The Belarusian authorities must respect human rights and must not disperse and prosecute people who stand up for their rights and for their political choices," the rights group said. "Anyone detained simply for peacefully protesting in Minsk, or other cities, is a prisoner of conscience, and must be immediately and unconditionally released."
Arseny Sivitski, director of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, said that "China is undoubtedly monitoring the political situation in Belarus."
"Any worsening of Belarus' position on the international stage is clearly a threat for China's plans to implement the Belt and Road Initiative," he said.
Sivitski explained that China's intention to use Belarus as a "springboard" onto the European market would suffer if Lukashenko's crackdown on the opposition resulted in the West imposing sanctions on Minsk. Previous rounds of Western sanctions, he warned, had deterred Chinese investments in Belarus by increasing the risk of doing business.
Human rights has long been the primary obstacle to Belarus improving its relationship with the U.S. and Europe. Yet Washington and Brussels began relaxing their sanctions regime against Belarus following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, in hopes of convincing Lukashenko to distance himself from Moscow.
This recent thaw in relations could soon be over. The European Union has already threatened to impose sanctions on Belarus if the government continues to arrest opposition figures.
Another question for China is what comes next if Lukashenko falls. Olga Kulai, a Minsk-based China researcher, told the Nikkei Asian Review that so far, the Belarusian opposition has not given any indication of how it feels about China.
She predicted that a post-Lukashenko government would not "tear up the current economic deals" with Beijing since they were too lucrative, but noted that some Belarusian politicians have expressed concern about growing debt to China.
With the election in Belarus less than a month away, Lukashenko's fate is not the only thing that hangs in the balance. China's "success story" in the country is also at stake.