Belarus on the brink

A week after its presidential election, Belarus is poised on the brink of dramatic political change. President Alexander Lukashenko is engaged in what looks like a losing struggle for his political survival.

Official results show Lukashenko re-elected with 80.1% of the vote against 10.1% for his main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – an utterly unbelievable margin. If Lukashenko had been a little more modest and had only credited himself with, say, a lead of ten or fifteen points, it’s possible he would have been able to ride out the storm. But dictators tend not to think that way.

In my preview I warned that “large-scale ballot rigging … could set in train a process with unpredictable consequences.” That’s certainly how it looks now, with huge opposition demonstrations that the regime seems powerless to stop, and a steady stream of defections from its usual supporters. Unless he, or someone else on his behalf, is willing to use massive, deadly force, Lukashenko’s rule appears to be almost over.

Attention has turned to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has had a rocky relationship with Lukashenko over recent years but for whom Belarus is a vital strategic interest. The two men spoke at the weekend, with Lukashenko seeking a promise of military assistance and Putin clearly wary about providing it.

As the Guardian’s Moscow reporter Andrew Roth puts it:

In a statement, the Kremlin said Moscow stood ready to provide help in accordance with a collective military pact. It also said Belarus was under external pressure, without naming the source.

But Putin has stopped short of offering support or an endorsement of Lukashenko, who is facing the gravest crisis of his career. It is likely that Moscow will wait and see whether Lukashenko can survive the next weeks or even days …

Fundamentally, Putin has three options: to intervene in support of Lukashenko, to intervene to try to replace him in some way, or to do nothing. But the first option is rapidly disappearing as Lukashenko’s support crumbles – particularly since an unsuccessful intervention, resulting in a hostile government coming to power in Belarus, is the worst of all possible outcomes from Putin’s point of view.

Better, perhaps, to try to engineer a transfer of power to some new Moscow-friendly leadership. But that too is fraught with difficulty. It’s clear that cosmetic change would not satisfy the opposition, which is demanding free and fair elections, and there’s no sign of an anti-Lukashenko force emerging from within the current regime.

Putin may well decide to sit on his hands and hope for the best. If Lukashenko falls as a result, the new government may feel some degree of gratitude to Putin for cutting him loose. But the toppling of an authoritarian ruler on his borders, even one that he had some troubles with, is bound to make Putin uncomfortable; it’s a precedent that he could well do without.

Speaking of precedents, all sides are conscious of the events of 2014 in Ukraine, when popular revolution brought down a pro-Russian leader and led to armed intervention by Moscow. But although there are obvious similarities, the Belarussian situation is unlike Ukraine in important ways.

In Ukraine, attitudes to Russia framed the political divide; the opposition to Yanukovych was driven by his tilt towards Moscow and away from the west. In Belarus, however, the opposition is specifically anti-Lukashenko – it has no particular reason to be anti-Russian. In that respect it is more like Armenia, where a popular revolution in 2018 produced a more democratic but still pro-Russian leadership.

Reading some of the recent commentary on Belarus, one might think that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine had been a great success. In fact the reverse is true; while it gained him a new province and imposed a drain on Ukraine’s military resources, it alienated Ukrainian opinion and aroused suspicions across the region. In terms of the goal of securing a sympathetic Ukrainian government, it was a complete failure.

The point is not that Putin played his hand badly in Ukraine, but that he simply didn’t have a lot of cards to start with. In Belarus he has a slightly better hand: its institutional ties to Russia are much stronger and there is not such a reservoir of anti-Russian feeling. Even so, military conquest is hardly a serious option.

The other parallel sometimes mentioned is Syria, where Russian intervention succeeded in preserving the rule of Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, despite apparently overwhelming opposition. But while that gives a useful reminder of the Russian president’s ruthlessness, it cannot be supposed that Belarus’s neighbors would tolerate anything like the carnage of the Syrian civil war being played out on their doorstep.

If Lukashenko is able to regain some degree of control it’s possible to imagine Russian intervention to support him in the short term, with a view to then pushing him aside and coming to an accommodation with at least some elements of the opposition. But that option is slipping away as the opposition becomes more and more confident of its strength.

A democratic Belarus would be almost certain to be more pro-western; it’s not an attractive proposition for Putin. But nor is the idea of Russia being saddled with the responsibility of holding down a hostile Belarussian population. “Wait and see” may well be the most attractive alternative.

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