Belarus is on the brink of a major change. What role will Russia play?
Why We Wrote This
It’s easy to view the protests happening in Belarus through the lens of what has happened in Ukraine. But the demonstrations set to topple President Lukashenko, and the involvement of Russia, are quite different.
Opposition supporters wave an old Belarusian national flag as they rally in the center of Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 16, 2020. Following several days of brutal police violence after the protests began on Aug. 9, demonstrations have been widespread and peaceful.
August 18, 2020
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By Fred Weir
Belarus today sits in the eye of the political storm. The protests against President Alexander Lukashenko have become so massive and all-encompassing that his swift exit looks all but certain. But the resolution remains obscure.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the crisis presents several tough challenges. Moscow’s key concern will be the status of Belarus as a Russian-allied “buffer state” between Russia and NATO. Any threat to that could lead to concerted Russian action – as happened in Ukraine in 2014.
But Belarus is very different from Ukraine. “I’ve been out with the protesters all these days, and I have not heard a single pro-NATO or anti-Russia slogan voiced. … This is just about Lukashenko,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Mizes Center in Minsk. “Of course we’re going to be friendly to Russia.”
As long as Belarusian membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community are not threatened, it seems unlikely the Kremlin will intervene to prop up Mr. Lukashenko with security assistance.
“Despite a lot of assumptions in the West, Putin and Lukashenko are not really friends,” says Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “He’s always been a difficult partner for the Kremlin, uneasy and unpredictable.”
After several days of extreme police brutality last week, the now peaceful protests against Belarus’ longtime autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko, have become so massive and all-encompassing that his swift exit looks all but certain.
But the resolution to the political revolution sweeping the Slavic, Russian-speaking country of 9.5 million remains obscure.
A near-leaderless opposition is scrambling to capitalize on its unexpected street victory by putting forward a viable transition plan. Mr. Lukashenko, who has been thoroughly discredited but still commands the security forces, is pledging to leave, but only after a process of constitutional reform has been completed and fresh elections carried out.
All the while the Kremlin watches nervously from the sidelines, deeply concerned about the spiraling events in Russia’s close neighbor, economic dependent, and rare military ally. Belarus today sits in the eye of the political storm, and what comes next has the potential to become something much worse, but also could be a new dawning of democracy in a country that has scarcely ever known it.
“We are past the point of no return for Lukashenko,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk, a political activist who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in elections 10 years ago and now heads the Mizes Center, a liberal think tank in Minsk. “In recent days we have seen an outpouring of popular will, a consensus of Belarusian civil society – including huge numbers of workers, who have never before participated in political protests – that there needs to be basic change. Lukashenko’s use of violence against the protesters last week sealed the political and moral case that he has to go. Now we are on the wave of a revolution that is peaceful, and full of hope and joy.”
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Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the disputed election – which he claimed to win with 78% support – is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a political prisoner. She had said that she would not serve as president even if she won, but would simply prepare the ground for fresh, free, and fair elections. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania a week ago, leaving the street protests to be organized by anonymous social media channels.
One of those is Nexta Live (“nexta” means “somebody”), a Telegram channel that rocketed from about 300,000 subscribers to over 2 million in about two weeks. It has become the main focus of organizational instructions, such as where and when to gather, as well as information on the movements of the security forces and how to avoid them. It’s also a repository for testimonials, political news, and declarations, as well as photos and videos of the protests.
“The protests had no leaders. At the beginning, whoever got noticed trying to lead got arrested,” says Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy chair of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. “The authorities tried shutting down the internet, arresting people they thought were associated with Telegram, but none of it worked. Telegram and other social nets have just kept growing.”
But the anonymity of the organizing force also poses a conundrum when it comes to negotiating with the authorities.
“There is an impasse, where the police have stopped beating people, and protesters are not crossing the line,” says Andrey Suzdaltsev, a Belarusian political expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Unfortunately, the regime Lukashenko built did not cultivate capable people who might step in. The opposition is divided, and there is squabbling in its ranks. The people are ungovernable. There is no one to negotiate with. It’s like the Arab Spring, but under Belarusian conditions.”
Not Ukraine 2.0
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the crisis presents several tough challenges, but also an unparalleled opportunity. On Tuesday Mr. Putin held a series of phone calls with European leaders, including those of France and Germany, clearly trying to find common ground on the way forward.
Moscow’s key concern will be the status of Belarus as a Russian-allied “buffer state” between Russia and NATO. Any threat to that could lead to concerted Russian action – as happened in Ukraine in 2014. Then, after a disorderly change of power in Kyiv brought pro-Western actors to power, Moscow intervened by seizing the Russian-populated territory of Crimea and fomenting a still-ongoing civil war in Ukraine’s largely pro-Russian Donbass region.
Belarusian united opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, shown here holding her ballot at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 9, 2020, was forced to flee the country soon after dubious results were announced in favor of President Alexander Lukashenko.
But, as Mr. Romanchuk explains, Belarus is very different from Ukraine. It is not ethnically or linguistically divided, has no reservoir of anti-Russian sentiment similar to that in western Ukraine, and is fully dependent on Russia for its economic needs.
“I’ve been out with the protesters all these days, and I have not heard a single pro-NATO or anti-Russia slogan voiced. Nothing at all about geopolitics. This is just about Lukashenko,” he says. “This is not like Ukraine. Ninety-eight percent of people here speak Russian. There is no doubt that Russia is going to be a major player here. We have 100% energy dependence on Russia, and almost half our exports go there. We want to be an independent country, but of course we’re going to be friendly to Russia.”
Russian analysts say the crisis blindsided the Kremlin, which had expected things to turn out much as they have several times in the past. Mr. Lukashenko won his only free and fair election back in 1994, and has rigged the results in presidential polls at five-year intervals ever since. In each case, Belarus’ educated and professional communities have protested loudly. But they have not succeeded in convincing other groups, such as industrial workers and the very large rural population – who benefit from Mr. Lukashenko’s Soviet-like centrally planned economics – to join them. This time looks very different.
“A difficult partner for the Kremlin”
“Despite a lot of assumptions in the West, Putin and Lukashenko are not really friends. He’s always been a difficult partner for the Kremlin, uneasy and unpredictable,” says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “It’s hard to say how this is going to play out. For Putin, I guess the ideal outcome would be to see a weakened Lukashenko with some sort of transition to rule by someone within the current elite, perhaps someone more cooperative and less volatile.”
For over 20 years Russia and Belarus have inhabited a largely theoretical “union state.” But its realization has been largely thwarted by Mr. Lukashenko’s tendency to take Russian subsidies and energy privileges, while refusing to follow through on things Moscow wants, such as openings for Russian investment in Belarus’ economy.
Mr. Lukashenko has played on Russian fears that Belarus might drift westward – as he did in a weekend phone conversation with Mr. Putin, warning that the protests might open the door to NATO aggression against Belarus. But analysts say his credibility with Mr. Putin is at low ebb after he arrested 33 Russians last month and accused them of trying to destabilize Belarus.
As long as Belarusian membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance, and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community are not threatened, it seems unlikely the Kremlin will intervene to prop up Mr. Lukashenko with security assistance. In two phone calls between Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko in recent days, Russian security help was apparently offered, but Russian analysts insist that only meant military help if Belarusian borders were threatened by NATO. Mr. Putin’s flurry of phone calls with Western leaders this week was probably aimed at clarifying that issue.
A similar “color revolution” in Armenia two years ago did not raise the Kremlin’s hackles because it did not bring any threat of Armenia changing its pro-Russian geopolitical alignment. Russia has since gotten along fine with Armenia’s new leader.
An example for Russia?
But Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition is watching events in Belarus very closely and taking notes. Mr. Putin runs a personal regime that has some similarities to the one Mr. Lukashenko has operated in Belarus for 26 years, but it also has critical differences. His base of support is much broader, his public popularity remains high, and his electoral victories have been much more convincing. Russian institutions are stronger and more diverse, and there is a wide array of permitted opposition and even independent media in Russia.
“Putin will see what’s happening in Belarus as a very bad example for Russian civil society,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This summer, there have been very similar protests in Russia’s far east, in Khabarovsk and Bashkortistan, where protesters are using Telegram channels to coordinate their actions in the same way it’s happening in Minsk. The Kremlin will definitely be concerned about this in the long term.”
But in the shorter run, the Kremlin has been careful not to alienate protesting Belarusians – much of the Russian media has been openly sympathetic to the protesters – and may be positioning itself to mediate a political settlement in its close neighbor.
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“Russia has a lot of links within the Belarusian elite, and the Kremlin is surely trying to pinpoint people inside the regime who are not tainted with the recent police violence, but would be constructive actors from Moscow’s point of view,” says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist with the Moscow liberal daily Kommersant.
“The opposition may have the support of the people in the street at the moment, but they do not have the managerial experience or expertise to govern. So, some kind of reconciliation government is needed, that will allow members of the old elite to join, but also bring in fresh faces,” Mr. Strokan says. “Russia has a lot of cards to play, if they are played wisely, to help bring this about.”