It’s a fascinating time for Russia watchers. As the eyes of the world have turned to events in Belarus in recent weeks, so have ours, as we try to attempt to figure out what exactly is going on in this country sandwiched between Russia and Europe. The geopolitical significance of this nation couldn’t be greater as one of Russia’s closest allies. And yet, currently Belarus’ future is hanging in the balance as anti-government protests entered their 11th day on Wednesday.
Although President Putin gave assurances last week to Lukashenko that it would provide military assistance if required, statements from the Kremlin of late have emphasized that no-one should meddle in the internal affairs of Belarus. This hasn’t stopped reports from emerging in recent days which have tried to imply Russian involvement in Belarus – from videos of lines of armoured vehicles (supposedly Russian) to rumours of Russian secret service personnel being shipped across in aeroplanes to replace striking Belarusian journalists. Such ‘stories’ have been branded as fake news by Belarusian government, but there is a clear aim by certain parties to somehow implicate Russia in the current goings on.
The reality is that beyond the popular uprising, there are quite likely other, darker, geopolitical forces at play in Belarus. One US government-funded think-thank recently published a paper entitled ‘Overextending and Overbalancing Russia’ – in short, a detailed plan of how the US could go about undermining Russia to further its geopolitical aims. No. 3 on the list, after arming Syrian rebels and aiding Ukraine is ‘promoting liberalisation in Belarus’. The reality is that Belarus has been in the US’ sights ever since the Ukraine coup in 2014. It was just a matter of time. Even if no direct influence has taken place, you can be sure the ‘Pompeo’ administration will relish the opportunity for regime change. Only this time any maneuvers would be carried out more subtly, so no fingers could be pointed. No US officials will be handing out cookies in the main square.
For while it’s easy to get caught up in the massive mobilization of people power which has been on display in recent days, the fact remains that we don’t know much at all about the leaders of the Belarusian opposition movement which has inspired so much confidence of late. Sergei Tikhanoskii (currently imprisoned), husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who ran against Lukashenko in the recent election, simply describes himself as a businessman. Apparently he owns a video production company ‘Compass Production’ which has an office in Moscow, and produces videos aimed at the Russian and Ukrainian market. Both his wife and mother-in-law are said to have worked with him. But what is most interesting is that one independent Belarusian news site Belsat has published an article on Tikhankovskii which includes interviews with previous employees of his company and paints a rather different picture of the man we are used to hearing about. Far from being the harmless Youtube blogger and principled activist we have been presented with to date, people who know Tikhanovskii have demonstrated huge scepticism at his ability to run for office. Instead, his behavior towards colleagues and employees has been said to be aggressive. One ex-employee said ‘I don’t believe in the sincerity and good intentions of this individual’.
Tikhanovskii rose to fame after creating his video blog ‘Strana dlya Zhizni’ (A Country For Life) in which he complains about everything in Belarus from bureaucracy to social problems. Over the past year he travelled across Belarus interviewing discontented citizens. But it’s not clear how he, or his wife Svetlana (who he met in a night club he used to own) have financed their campaign. In addition, there are also unanswered questions about his wife. Although presented to us as a former English teacher and housewife, Svetlana is said to have worked ‘by contract’ in Ireland. What she was doing there isn’t known, but surely it wasn’t teaching English. And for someone who is clearly apolitical and only voted once in her lifetime – incidentally for Lukashenko – it’s extraordinary that she can put herself forward as a presidential candidate.
Just who these people are, who stands behind them and what is really motivating them, we can’t be sure. In some ways the current situation, with Tikhanovskaya fleeing to a neighbouring state before pronouncing herself as the leader of Belarus, bears a striking resemblance to what we had with Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and the failed US coup. And while there has not been any blatant Maidan-style western meddling demonstrated to date, if we begin to dig a little it is clear that there is an attempt to drive a wedge between Belarus and Russia. Tikhanovskaya’s election program is full of references to ‘reducing Russian influence’ in every sector, from mass media, to infrastructure projects, to the energy sector. It states that Belarus should aim to join the EU and NATO and leave all pacts and treaties where ‘Russia dominates’, including the Eurasian Economic Union and military agreements. Can it possibly be argued that such moves would be in Belarus’ interest?
At the same time there is something almost childlike and naive about Tikhanovskaya’s program. When it comes to the energy sector for example, establishing diversity of more environmentally friendly forms of energy is all well and good, but this won’t happen overnight and requires huge investment. And yet there is great emphasis in the document on breaking away from Russia in this area. Why? Well let’s not forget that the US is desperate to steer European countries away from their reliance on Russian gas in favour of American shale gas. Even if the immediate goal of the Tikhanovskaya campaign is not to switch from Russian to US gas, they may end up doing so in the short term in order to fulfill their goal of reducing reliance on Russia.
While it is obvious that a large body of the Belarusian population wants an end to the stagnation of life under Lukashenko, in favour of modernization and effectively, more globalization and free market capitalism, this is not the case for everyone. And although we can’t completely verify all the polls held in recent times, nor can we outright reject the figure of 69% to 72% in support of Lukashenko which surveys have shown to date. There is no reason to think that the older ‘Soviet’ generation are as dissatisfied with the status quo as the younger people taking to the streets to protest. What their demands are, is also not 100% certain. Is it ‘freedom and democracy’ or more ‘iphones and Starbucks’? When watching a video of a Tikhanovskaya gathering, I found the reasoning of some of the speakers curious. One analyst, Andrei Lavrukhin, asked ‘Why are we so educated but at the same time so poor?’ What he doesn’t understand is that even a system like the one we have in Britain doesn’t guarantee you a well-paid job. There’s a huge number of graduates in the West working in pubs and restaurants.
The reality is this: there isn’t a magic wand; even if a Tikhanovskaya government was to take over tomorrow, it would take years and decades to implement the changes outlined in her manifesto. You just have to look at Ukraine today to get a flavour of what such a future could hold. Belarusians have to think about this: be careful what you wish for.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.