The West may have to choose caution when dealing with Lukashenko

OPINION

The man commonly referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ is in crisis. Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has lost his legitimacy as the leader of the Belarusian people. Demonstrations sprung up across Belarus after official results of the presidential election on the 9th August declared that he had won 80% of the vote. This was an election that was, in the words of the European Council, ‘neither free nor fair’. The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who drew in huge crowds during her electoral campaign, was said to have won just 10% of the vote. This result clearly sits at odds with the results of some individual polling stations, whose independently-published results gave Tikhanovskaya upwards of 80% of the vote in those areas.

The lack of faith that people had in the official results manifested itself in the biggest protests than an independent Belarus has ever witnessed. The sheer numbers of protesters are a further confirmation that Lukashenko’s landslide victory was not free from state interference. In true strongman-style, Lukashenko has responded to the protests with severe repression. He has constantly scorned calls for change, often jeering at those who challenge the legitimacy of his leadership in speeches. For example, he told a crowd of striking workers at the MKZT truck factory in Minsk that, “as long as you don’t kill me, new elections won’t happen”. However, he has been taunted just as much by protestors, including by the MKZT workers, who greeted Lukashenko with chants of “Уходи!” ~ “Leave!”.

The violence he has shown through the use of law enforcement squads against his own people, against people whose only crime is to call for a fair election, has led to significant condemnation from the West. Despite feeble initial responses from Western governments, the EU has now declared that it does not recognise Lukashenko’s victory and is discussing the introduction of sanctions against those that facilitated fraud in the election. The UK has also condemned Lukashenko’s use of violence against protestors, while also declaring the results of the election illegitimate. Meanwhile, thousands have been arrested in Belarus and hundreds wounded by police brutality. The deaths of two protesters also did little to deter the anti-Lukashenko movement. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stands as the symbol for change in Belarus, was forced to flee to Lithuania after the election, out of fear that she or her children could be targeted by the state. Her husband was already in prison before Election Day. Still, Belarus certainly looks on the precipice of major change which could be driven by the people and bring an end to over a quarter of a century of Lukashenko’s rule. As a result, many are looking to see what Russia’s next move will be.

In comparison to some post-Soviet states (Ukraine and Georgia stick out as prime examples), Belarus has enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with Russia. Lukashenko has at times played its eastern neighbour off against the European Union, but the strongman in Minsk has generally seen eye-to-eye with his Moscow counterpart over the past twenty years. Russia and Belarus are currently bound together in the Union State. This vaguely-defined organisation calls for cooperation on foreign policy and social policies, aiming for a unified parliament and common currency to represent both countries.

In recent years, existing cracks have begun to manifest themselves more clearly. Most recently, Lukashenko has accused Putin of trying to swallow up Belarus after Russia put pressure on its western neighbour to formally agree to a merger of the two countries. This came at a time when Putin was considering ways to overcome (for a second time) the two-term limit on the Russian presidency – some commentators suggested that a new constitution of a newly-unified state would enable him to stay on as leader. Then, in the days before the election, Lukashenko accused Russia of trying to manoeuvre him out of power, detaining 33 Russians that he declared were part of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. Despite all this, as he faces protests that could remove him from power, Lukashenko has now appealed to Putin for support. Putin has been vague about the help he is willing to offer but has suggested that he would provide military aid if Lukashenko was to request it, in order to combat foreign interference. Even while he finds it acceptable for Russia to intervene, Putin has warned both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron that any Western involvement in Belarus would be ‘unacceptable’.

Moscow is aware that there is a possibility that Lukashenko will not complete this new, disputed term. Putin may even see this as an opportunity to replace the stubborn dictator with someone that is more pliable and less likely to cause trouble for Russia. The ideal scenario for Putin may well be a managed succession, in which Lukashenko would stand aside for a pro-Russia candidate with a more compliant temperament. Putin likely hopes for a resolution to the crisis but one that reaches a conclusion without foreign intervention, ‘foreign intervention’ being code for anything Putin could interpret as Western involvement.

If a pro-European politician was swept into power in Minsk, as many protesting Lukashenko’s rule may in fact hope for, Putin would likely not react well. Some in the West have pointed to Russia’s reaction to political developments in Ukraine over the last 20 years as an indication of how he may respond to the situation in Belarus. Russia condemned the Orange Revolution of 2004, with Putin labelling it the result of American interference in Ukraine, as he told director Oliver Stone in the 2017 TV show, The Putin Interviews. The Orange Revolution began after a fraudulent presidential election in 2004 and resulted in the replacement of pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych with Viktor Yushchenko, who supported closer ties with NATO and the EU. The parallels with the current situation in Belarus should be noted. Fast forward to 2013, when Yanukovych was in power once more and suspended the signing of an EU agreement, protests against persistent corruption in the Ukrainian government turned into the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. This ultimately removed Yanukovych from power. Russia’s strong condemnation of this changeover escalated into Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the Russo-Ukrainian War in the Donbass region.

Russia’s belligerent response to the Ukrainian Revolution demonstrates Putin’s determination to resist Western values in what he regards as Russia’s natural sphere of influence in a post-USSR world. Russia was hostile toward the expansion of NATO and the EU to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, considering this a violation of the spirit of cooperation that American leaders proclaimed after the end of the Cold War. Considering that Belarus has been Russia’s closest, and often only, European ally in the last 30 years, Moscow would likely regard the election of a pro-European politician in Belarus with a similar level of alarm.

So, why has Russia not intervened in Belarus yet? If it is the fear of Western sanctions, we may want to remember that the West responded with strong sanctions against Russia after it annexed the Crimea and effectively waged war in eastern Ukraine. Despite their intent, the sanctions have hit ordinary Russians harder than they have hit Putin’s top clique. While they may have shown Putin that the West’s criticisms of his aggressive foreign policy go beyond verbal condemnations, they likely are not enough to deter him from taking a hard-line in neighbouring countries.

Rather, Putin is likely more guided by the lessons of history. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1967 when trying to command greater conformity to Soviet policies – but only succeeded in fostering significant resentment in Eastern Europe for years to come. Similarly, in August 1991, when hard-line communists used tanks to reclaim control of the Soviet Union, which they perceived to be crumbling under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, they were responded to with large demonstrations in Moscow. After just a few days, the communists’ attempted coup fell apart, and after a few months, so too did the Soviet Union. If Russian forces were to sweep into Belarus to suppress the demonstrations, it would not win Lukashenko any supporters. Nor would it bring any real benefit to Putin. The protests currently are far less anti-Russian than those in Ukraine in either 2004 or 2013-14, but Russian military involvement in favour of Lukashenko could very well change this.

Putin is unlikely to directly intervene in Belarus as he did in Ukraine. This does not mean that the West should make strong overtures to pry Belarus from Russia’s grasp. Such attempts would likely only strengthen the Kremlin’s resolve with regard to its eastern neighbour. Putin is currently playing a waiting game with regard to Lukashenko, and it may well be that European governments, while applying sanctions and condemning Lukashenko’s actions, may also have to tow a cautious line.

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