Revolutions don’t always move quickly. Although it’s often forgotten later, many revolutionary periods have had long intervals where nothing much seems to happen – where momentum builds up or dissipates, opinion matures, plans are hatched.
So this week in Belarus, with an apparent stalemate between the government of Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents. He has so far been unable to intimidate the opposition and prevent it from massing large numbers of protesters in the street, but it has been unable to force him from office or produce major cracks in the regime.
When we looked at this three weeks ago, I said that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was unlikely to commit himself too quickly to either supporting or replacing Lukashenko, and that he would probably prefer to wait and see how things played out. Putin has indeed kept fairly quiet, but he seems to be leaning towards trying to prop up the Belarusian leader*, at least for the short term.
In a very interesting commentary published last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel argues that the Russians are covertly directing Lukashenko’s response, and that the price of Putin’s support will be the effective absorption of Belarus into Russia:
While these Belarusian manoeuvres are insignificant militarily, the move has significant political implications: Belarus has surrendered its armed forces, and hence its sovereignty, to Russia. Any move the army makes will be not only with Moscow’s consent but under its orders.
… Russian intellectuals – particularly those affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – advocated a smoother transition at the beginning of the crisis. By dropping Lukashenka early on, Moscow could have preserved its influence without being drawn into debates on national identity. But, as is so often the case in Russian politics, those with reason and intellect on their side held little power.
If he’s right, it will frustrate the protesters’ attempt to make Lukashenko, rather than the country’s geopolitical status, the main issue. Their objective has been to topple the president without antagonising the Kremlin, and particularly without being seen as agents of western influence. But if Putin is determined to portray them that way, there’s not a lot they can do about it.
So far Russia’s involvement seems to be mostly behind the scenes. Putin can still draw back if at some point he decides that Lukashenko is a broken reed. But although the regime has been unable to scare off the protesters, it has otherwise been giving a reasonably good account of itself. It is still possible that it will be able to ride out the crisis, with opponents forced into silence or exile.
It’s not clear how much influence western countries can have on the outcome. The European Union has supported sanctions against Belarus’s leaders, although details are still being worked out. The United States, engrossed in an election campaign in which Russian influence is a significant issue, has trailed along behind.
What Putin really wants is for intervention to not be necessary. Private reassurances to Lukashenko and his circle may be enough to stiffen their backbone and thereby wear down the opposition. The most effective promise of support is the one that never has to be cashed in. But despite large-scale arrests at the weekend, the protesters remain defiant.
If the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny was, as I suggested, an attempt by Putin or someone close to him to send a message to the Belarusian opposition, there’s no sign so far that it has worked. What it has done, however, is to deplete Putin’s already thin stock of moral capital in the eyes of western governments: particularly Germany, where Navalny is being treated, and which is usually the most conciliatory among the EU’s leaders.
Its neighbors Poland and Lithuania are especially hostile to the idea of Belarus effectively becoming a Russian province. (Western Belarus was part of Poland before 1939, although it is not ethnically Polish.) But whether or not they can realistically do anything to prevent it is another question.
And if Putin is going to make a decisive move, he may want to do it soon, while he still has a sympathetic ear in the White House.
* Technical note: in the previous post I spelt the adjective “Belarussian”, which to me seems more logical, but I find that this is very much a minority position, so I have switched to the more common “Belarusian”. (WordPress doesn’t recognise either as a word.)