In the Republic of Belarus protestors calling for legitimate elections have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in face of government repression. The outcome may also have implications for the EU and Russia, with Russia having the most influence over events. Despite geo-political concerns, the greatest danger to Belarus is its own government.
Belarus has been beset by the most serious protests since it became independent in 1990. They are also the most serious during the 26 year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. The division within Belarus is very clear: protestors waving red and white flags are calling for Mr Lukashenko to step down, but he has made it abundantly clear that he will not do so. There has been a brutal crackdown on the protestors and opposition figures. People have been dragged from streets to be brutalised in police cells and most who dared to stand against Lukashenko in the 2020 election have been forced abroad. Some have disappeared altogether. This has not stopped the protests and the de facto opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has continued to call for fresh elections from abroad. How this will turn out in the long run is difficult to say as outside powers have as much interest in the outcome as the Belarusians do.
Authoritarian rule is not the only shadow cast over Belarus. There is also the question of its location in Europe where it is sandwiched between a crisis-riven EU and NATO and a revitalised Russia. The most apt description of this is of a clash between Western values and Kremlin self-interest (Nigel Gould-Davies, IISS) whereby the EU promotes democracy and will back a peaceful transition, while for the Kremlin the unrest in Belarus would remove an ally and possibly have direct repercussions for Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia. While the EU will restrict itself to sanctions and moral support, Mr Putin has not ruled out a direct intervention into Belarus. It is not in his interests to actually do this but it is clear that of the EU/NATO and the Kremlin it is the latter that has by far the biggest influence on what happens within Belarus. The trouble is, there are serious tensions and differences between the West and Russia and Belarus is sat close to the centre of it. The last time this flared up was in Ukraine and nobody wants to see that again, although many worry about it.
There is no reason other than the strategic jockeying for power and advantage of geo-politics that countries should not decide for themselves who they do and don’t deal with, or why they should end up as buffers between opposing powers, but the pointless battle for influence goes on. Unfortunately Belarus is a part of this, whether the people of the country like it or not. Fortunately, it may not matter, because as many a pundit will tell you, Belarus is not Ukraine and their circumstances are very different. Firstly, Belarusian politics is not the fractured mess that was characteristic of Ukraine, with one foot in the EU and the other in Russia’s political and economic sphere of influence. Secondly, the current dissent is specifically related to the internal situation in Belarus and the question of Belarus’s place in Europe barely gets a mention.
With regard to the EU/NATO and Russia, Mr Lukashenko is notorious for playing of one bloc against the other, but little has been heard from the opposition. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is conjuring enemies from every possible direction (including his supporters in Russia) and the Kremlin has ratcheted up its propaganda machine against Belarusian dissenters and the West, the dissent in Belarus has avoided geopolitics altogether. The weighty matter of where Belarus fits into Europe is a question for the future but there is a strong chance that the focus will be on nation building in a strongly independent Belarus. Moreover, should there actually be a drift towards the orbit of either the EU/NATO or Russia no one is going to be surprised if the drift is eastwards. There is a natural affinity between Belarus and Russia that virtually guarantees that relations would be cordial and any move by the Kremlin to secure Belarus would in fact be counterproductive. If the West really means what it says about the self-determination of peoples then it should have no brook with this. Mr Putin has made much of the similarities between the people of Belarus and those of Russia, but there is some truth behind the words. An independent and democratic Belarus is unlikely to be hostile to Russia if it is left alone to decide its future. To be succinct, Putin does not need to win over Belarus, but he can lose it altogether if he chooses the harder path.
With regard to Belarusian politics, it is probably more diverse than it appears, but the nature of the government stifles any open debate. The limited political organisation there is in Belarus is currently focused on internal matters, specifically the three aims of the ending of political repression, the freeing of political prisoners and the holding of free and fair elections. Political activity in Belarus is so constrained that opposition figures have formed a unified Opposition Committee to campaign for these aims. Aside from this, there are no manifestos circulating, no competition between political parties, simply a call for political freedom and an end to political repression. Ms Tikhanovskaya has declared that she has no intention to serve as President and would step down to allow elections to take place.
The biggest problem for the future is that Mr Lukashenko does not want to let go of power and despite his fractious relationship with Vladimir Putin is able to count on Putin’s support for now. Mr Putin has made it clear that he has security forces ready to aid Lukashenko and there have been reports of covert FSB flights from Russia. Meanwhile, Russian state media has openly talked of the need for intervention, while the Kremlin is increasing its control of the Belarusian media. This is driven by two concerns, one is that a Belarus free of Lukashenko would drift towards the EU/NATO; the other is the more immediate problem of protests taking place in Russia itself. Lukashenko and Putin have taken different paths to maintaining power, and it can be argued that Putin has the support and respect of a significant number of the Russian people. This is not forgetting that there has been significant manipulation and backroom manoeuvring to allow this to happen and those who fall foul of Putin have a tendency to be poisoned (In Belarus they disappear). A similarity is that both seek to maintain power, to the extent that both have envisaged themselves at the head of a union between Belarus and Russia. How the Kremlin reads the situation in Belarus and how it acts on this will have a strong influence on the outcome of the Belarusian political crisis but it more likely to be decided by the Lukashenko regime’s ability to survive in the face of mass dissent. As it stands, it faces its biggest threat since Lukashenko took power in 1994.
In part three we’ll look at the potential for mediation.
Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.