Submitted by George Callaghan…
On August 9 a presidential election was held. The Electoral Commission declared that President Lukashenka had won his sixth consecutive election with 80% of the vote. The president has been in office since 1994. The 66 year old has no intention of resigning.
Although Lukashenka is under pressure he has survived. On September 14 he went to Sochi, Russia to meet with Putin. Lukashenka’s body language made it plain that he was a supplicant. Moscow confirmed that it was offering a USD 1.5 billion loan to Belarus. This is desperately needed because of far above average cash withdrawals since August 9 and the fact that EU sanctions will begin to bite. The Sochi Summit was probably less important than the media fanfare would have us believe. Clearly, Putin took the decision a couple of weeks ago to support Lukashenka at least for the moment.
Mass protests broke out. Many accused the president of huge scale electoral fraud. Exit polls indicated he won 10% of the vote and Svytlana Tikhanouskaya won 60%. She is a 37 year old housewife and political ingenue. She only ran because her husband, a prominent dissident, is in jail.
Discontent had been brewing in the country for years. The president kept promising a rise in living standards. This never materialized. Harping on about the splendours of the Soviet era has less purchase on the junior generation.
When coronavirus came the president scorned it as a psychosis. He refused to introduce any mitigatory measures. He scoffed that only the obese died of it. Victory Day parades went ahead on May 9 to commemorate the Second World War.
An opinion poll showed support for the president at 3% a month before the election. The media is almost entirely state owned. After that profoundly embarrassing opinion poll no more were published. The president took the precaution of banning two of his better-known rivals. He assumed that standing against a total unknown he was assured of a walk over victory. He was openly sexist saying that a woman should never be president.
Economic hardship, the mishandling of coronavirus and Lukashenka’s increasingly irascible nature led to growing disenchantment with his regime. People have seen how life in free countries adjacent to them such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland is more prosperous.
Despite full spectrum state media control the Belarussian public do not live in ignorance. The Russian media is accessible since most Belarussians speak Russian more than Belarussian. The Russian media is not slavishly pro-Lukashenka.
Relations between Minsk and Moscow became quite bad. 32 Russian Wagner mercenaries in Belarus were arrested. Lukashenka said they came to overthrow him. He accused Moscow of being behind the opposition. This was unprecedented. Until now Lukashenka regularly accused NATO of plotting against him.
Belarussians live in nearby countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. From there they broadcast anti-Lukashenka messages. People in Belarus have seen how democracy works in neighboring countries. In Ukraine there was an election in which a sitting president was defeated in 2018. The defeated president accepted this and ceded office. Belarussians are highly cognizant that a different system is very possible in former Soviet countries.
Belarussians were sometimes seen as more Russian than the Russians. Lukashenka has a second home in Sochi and never takes a vacation anywhere besides Belarus or Russia. The government is extremely nostalgic for the Soviet era. This is the only former Soviet country where the internal security service still has the Soviet era name KGB. That is telling.
In 1999 Belarus signed a treaty with Russia agreeing the long-term objective or reunification. Russia provided cut price energy to Belarus. Moscow was fed up after 20 years of subsidizing Belarus that no progress was being made on reunion. If Lukashenka really wants to go back to the USSR he could at least reunite with Russia.
Lukashenka and Putin appear to have a personality clash. Perhaps it is because they are too similar. They both believe in family values, machismo, authoritarianism, militarism and anti-Americanism. Both hark back to the glory days of the USSR.
Belarus allows Russia military bases. Belarus is generally supportive of Russian foreign policy. However, on the Ukraine issue Belarus has played both sides of the street. This apparent neutrality has enabled Lukashenka to be the honest broker in talks between Moscow and Kyiv. These often take place in Minsk.
Putin was increasingly exasperated with Lukashenka. Lukashenka seemed to have turned against the idea of ever fusing with Russia. He began to stress Belarus’ separate identity and promote the Belarussian language. Those who advocated merging with Russia were imprisoned.
A month of protests has rocked the Lukashenka administration like never before. The Coordination Council was running these protests. However, people had been protesting for long before the Coordination Council was founded.
Svytlana Tsihanouskaya was brought to a police station. She was filmed making a statement telling people not to protest. She was then allowed to go to Lithuania.
Up to 220 000 people protested on the streets of Minsk. This is impressive in a city of 2 million. The government hinted at massive use of force against the peaceful protesters. In the end this did not transpire.
Putin seemed unsure what to do. Was Lukashenka going to fall? It could be that the Lukashenka regime was unsalvageable. Lukashenka had been frustrating Putin for years. Moscow did not mind seeing Lukashenka worried. It was worth reminding him that he needs Russian support and he had better not be an ingrate in future.
Lukashenka was desperate. He immediately released the 32 Russian mercenaries whom he previously accused of seeking to overthrow him. This proved his accusation against them to have been false and an electoral stunt.
Moscow threw Lukashenka a lifeline. It offered to send police to reinforce Belarussian Police if needs be. The Union Treaty between the two provides for this. Minsk said that Russia was offering another loan. Moscow has not confirmed this. Some journalists at Belarussian TV resigned in protest at the lies they had to broadcast for Lukashenka. Russian journalists have moved in to fill these vacancies. Belarussian TV is mostly broadcast in Russian.
However, Putin is still lukewarm about Lukashenka. He has said that Russia will always have a cordial relationship with Belarus. Pointedly he did not mention Lukashenka’s name.
There are over 7 000 political prisoners in Belarus. The most eminent opposition activists are already behind bars. A criminal case has been opened against the Coordination Council. It has been charged with fomenting mass disorder.
Lukashenka has made all sorts of ludicrous imprecations against the opposition. He accused them baselessly of seeking to outlaw the Russian language. That is despite the opposition mostly communicating in Russia. The president also said that they wanted to join NATO and the EU. There is little reason to believe this.
Why has Putin supported Lukashenka? Putin presumably believes ‘better the devil you know.’ However exasperating Lukashenka is the alternative could be worse. Putin has always made ‘stability’ his watchword. The overthrow of a president who has served even longer than Putin would be instability. Moreover, if Lukashenka were ousted it might give Russians ideas.
Presumably, Putin wants payback for the assistance he has rendered. Russia might want more army bases particularly along the frontier with Ukraine. This would weaken Ukraine’s strategic position. Moscow would like to see Belarus become more fraternal on foreign policy and recognise Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria. If Belarus bought more Russian products and paid the market price for energy that would be appreciated. But the Belarussian economy is in the doldrums and it can ill afford to do so. Lukashenka has few other options and he knows that he needs to make concessions to Putin. Lukashenka has been rude to Putin for a few years. Now he cannot bite the hand that feeds him.
SCENARIO 1 Lukashenka survives long term
Lukashenka will stop at nothing to retain power. He has support albeit it grudging from Putin. There is not charismatic opponent. EU sanctions can hurt the economy but not break it. The zealous opponents of Lukashenka are in jail or abroad. The security forces are unwavering in their allegiance to the president. Many of them have brutalized peaceful protesters. They fear prosecution in case the president is driven out. Far worse tyrants have survived far tougher situations that Lukashenka faces now.
The opposition is dwindling and demoralized. It could be divided by the president offering faux concessions and thereby co-opting moderate opponents of his. In future Lukashenka will leave nothing to chance. Elections will be even more closely stage managed than before.
The EU would eventually end sanctions as useless. These sanctions would serve only to drive Belarus closer to Russia which is the opposite of what the EU wants.
Nikolai Lukashenka, 16, is the president’s youngest and favorite son. He is being groomed for succession. The president could easily hand over to Nikolai in 10 years.
Lukashenka overthrown by his regime
Even if Lukashenka is out of immediate danger he faces long term problems and they are getting worse. The economy is suffering and there is no end in sight. EU sanctions are going to hurt. No one will invest in the country. It has very little to offer economically. There is a brain drain. Highly educated people are emigration. IT experts are being made tempting offers by Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Lukashenka is a busted flush. Even he said on the record that he has possibly stayed too long.
The SVR (Russian internal intelligence) works closely with its Belarussian counterparts. Russia could presumably find a general from within the army or the KGB to overthrow Lukashenka. However, the Belarussian KGB spies on its own members. It would be difficult to organise a conspiracy of any significant scale without it reaching the ears of Lukashenka.
A new strongman acceptable to Moscow and to the Belarussian people could emerge. He could make enough reforms to mollify the people and the West. The West would be inclined to give him – and it would be a him – a chance.
No one outside the regime has much of a profile or the means to bring down the president. It would be a palace coup. Russia might like to see a leader come to power who fulfils Belarus’ pledge to unite with Russia.
SCENARIO 3 Lukashenka overthrown by the opposition
Although protests are smaller than before they are continuing. Peaceful protests brought down more brutal regimes in the recent past. Think Eastern Europe 1989 or Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 or even Armenia 2018. Lukashenka is bereft of legitimacy. He only holds power through instilling fear and apathy in the populace. Protests could easily flair up again next spring.
It is thought that if push came to shove the armed forces would not open fire on peaceful protesters and kill hundreds of them. This was a solution that Lukashenka hinted at.
Russia is holding behind the scenes talks with the opposition. They have assured Moscow of their friendship. If Lukashenka is pushed out then the new democratic regime will be just as co-operative as Lukashenka is not more so.
If Moscow simply declared that it was withdrawing recognition from Lukashenka then the shockwave this would cause might topple him. The absence of Russian financial and security assistance would cripple the regime. Russia cutting Lukashenka adrift would also be a warning to other dictators in the former USSR: you had better co-operate with Russia or else you will be overthrown. Russia does not have to overthrow these dictators. It can simply decline to save them. Lukashenka is simply too costly politically and financially for Moscow to prop up indefinitely.
The Armenia option is the best one for Russia. Let events in a former USSR country run their course. The new government in Armenia is just as pro-Russian as the old one. Moscow treated the Armenian situation as an internal row and did not take sides.
A new democratic government would have international legitimacy. EU sanctions would be lifted.
In return for Russian acquiescence Moscow might want concessions. A new government might be expected to deliver on Belarus’ 1999 promise to reunite with Russia. The current opposition might view that as undoing democratic gains.
Lukashenka will probably be in office in a week and in a month. Whether he will be there in a year is unwise to conjecture.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.