Russian policy often operates on a short-term, flexible basis. The initial goal may be to ensure that whatever his foibles, Lukashenko survives in 2020, and there is no Maidan style change of power in Belarus. The future is less certain because the campaign of Tsikhanouskaya has demonstrated convincingly that Belarusians want a change.

Though the 2020 election campaign has witnessed a complete change in the political landscape of Belarus, with mass crowds embracing a neophyte presidential candidate in Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, there is no mechanism in place for a legitimate change of power, despite a growing rift in the political elite that prompted establishment figures like Viktar Babaryka and Valer Tsapkala to attempt to challenge him.

The nature of the challengers prompted fears in the Diaspora that the new opposition figures were part of a Russian plot to remove Lukashenko and install their own candidate. Babaryka’s ties with Russia’s Gazprom Bank were the most obvious. Was he part of Russia’s plan to take over Belarus?

Too popular to be permitted to run

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

In fact, there is very little evidence that any of the candidates were unpatriotic or had ties to Russia that might undermine their loyalty to the Belarusian state. On the other hand, to have attained such eminent positions prior to the election likely required some Machiavellian manoeuvres.

Tsikhanovsky is another matter altogether. He is best known for his YouTube blog and he entered the election as an ebullient candidate without the slightest compulsion to be discreet or play by the rules. He was the one to publicly attach the epithet of “cockroach” to Lukashenko. The term was instantly insulting and belittling, and highly offensive.

Tsikhanovsky was too popular to be permitted to run, and the authorities, in turn, contrived his arrest and imprisonment. His wife could be permitted to run because it seemed, she did not pose any real threat.

The president, Alexander Lukashenko, has a number of weapons to ensure he retains office: the army, the KGB, OMON troops, the Central Election Commission (CEC), and control over Parliament and the Constitutional Court. On 9 August, the Chair of the CEC likely intends to announce that Lukashenko has received a highly improbable 70 per cent of the vote, and possibly as high as 80 per cent. Given the upsurge of popular support for Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko and his agencies may anticipate a mass protest.

Weighing options

Over 700 kilometres to the northeast, President Vladimir Putin of Russia will also be weighing his options. His relationship with Lukashenko has cooled over the past few years and he has been irritated by some of the feelers the Belarusian leader has advanced to the European Union and the US.

For official Russia, a violent confrontation that keeps Lukashenko in power, but severs, temporarily at least, his improved relations with the West, may be the best possible option.

For Putin, too, there are some potential problems. A popular, not your charismatic opposition figure is something new. Tsikhanouskaya has no history of failed campaigns, espousal of ethnic nationalism, or even yearnings for Europe. But she and her partners Veranika Tsapkala and Maryia Kalesnikova, the spouse and electoral manager of two barred candidates Babaryka and Tsapkala, have managed, against considerable odds, to inspire formerly apolitical Belarusians to brave the pandemic and come out in their thousands to support them.

Tsikhanouskaya lacks a political platform, but she has already said that she sees no future for the Union of Russia and Belarus.

Lukashenko is a shrewd political operator but he has few avenues to which to turn. The arrest of the Wagner Group members, most likely travelling through Belarus en route to Africa, may have taken place without prior communication with the Russian leader. We do not know. It is similar to the appearance of the White Legion three years ago.

The response from Russia has been unusually mild – one can only imagine the reaction if the arrests had happened in Ukraine. A few Russian diplomats, led by the Foreign Minister, have spoken out. Officially, Russia continues to deny the existence of the Wagner Group.

Few unifying factors

What is clear, however, despite the subtleties of his foreign policy approaches, is that Lukashenko is the chief advocate of a pro-Russian direction in Belarusian political life. It is evident in his policies in the 1990s, the creation of the original Union with former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and the formation of a national identity based on the victory over Fascism in 1945, an event now far distant, but one of the few unifying factors of the electorate in both Russia and Belarus.

At times, Lukashenko has referred to Russia as his homeland, and to Homiel and Viciebsk as “Russian cities.” The comments are very similar to those of Putin, who makes no secret of the fact that he does not see Belarus or Ukraine as bona fide states.

The main issues separating Lukashenko from Putin are economic and strategic. Russia is a capitalist country with an authoritarian leader, whereas Belarus maintains strong state control over the economy. Putin’s Russia is prepared to allow Lukashenko some leeway as long as the alliance remains intact.

In terms of integration, he has ample resources at his disposal: oil and gas exports, joint military exercises, mass media, and a form of hybrid warfare using social media that ensures Russia’s version of the world permeates the Belarusian landscape. Language is a potent weapon since Russian is the first language of most Belarusians.

Belarus has appeared somewhat uncooperative at times, but generally a reliable ally, especially following the upheavals of 2013-14 in Ukraine that resulted in the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and a continuing conflict in the eastern regions of Ukrainian Donbas. In every election to date, the Russian president has been the first to congratulate Lukashenko on his victory. Compared to the changes in other post-Soviet states, Belarus is a beacon of stability and has maintained its strong ties with Russia.

Under Moscow’s leadership

However, Belarus is 2020 is considerably weaker economically than Belarus of 2010. GDP is falling, and the purchasing power of the population has dropped dramatically. The situation is unlikely to change because Russia controls energy prices, taxes, and the pipeline through Belarus. Belarusian trade with the EU has continued to rise, but Russia remains its main economic partner.

In addition to the Union, Belarus is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective-Security Treaty Organisation, and others, all under Moscow’s leadership. As Putin once put it, it could be the western province of Russia, but hardly an equal partner in the Russia-Belarus Union.

Yet the future is uncertain. Putin is facing a protracted and powerful protest over a change of governorship in the city of Khabarovsk. His popularity is at an all-time low of 25 per cent. Reports from Russia also suggest that despite the successful referendum on further changes to the Russian Constitution that could keep Putin in power for another twelve years once his current term ends in 2024, he may be thinking of retirement. The exit strategy, however, may take time to put together.

For Lukashenko, on the other hand, though he is now 65 (he turns 66 this month), retirement is not an option. He has a lengthy list of misdeeds, most obviously the elimination of four rivals in the period 1999-2000 when he went through his own constitutional crisis.

He is not a dictator in the style, say, of the late Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, but there is no doubt that there would be cries to bring him to justice if regime change did take place. He may or may not be welcome in Russia. He could not conceivably remain in Belarus without the offer of amnesty.

Russian policy often operates on a short-term, flexible basis. The initial goal may be to ensure that whatever his foibles, Lukashenko survives in 2020, and there is no Maidan style change of power in Belarus. The future is less certain because the campaign of Tsikhanouskaya has demonstrated convincingly that Belarusians want a change.

No amount of force or manipulation of election results is going to change that fact. The people may have been gullible in the past, but a whole generation has now grown up with Lukashenko, and they yearn for something different.

 

 

A Russian version of this article will be available on Reform.by. Watch a discussion about Belarus with David Marples here:

 

A historian and Distinguished University Professor at the Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta as well as an expert at iSANS - the International Strategic Action Network for Security.


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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