Opinion: In Belarus, the master tactician counts on luck

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, in September 2012.
President Lukashenko (L) meets with Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2012. During Mr. Lukashenko’s last trip to Sochi, the Russian leader did not visit him (source: dpa)

In Belarus, events are occurring that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. On February 13, Iosif Seredich, the editor in chief of the independent Belarusian newspaper Narodnaya Volya, met with President Alexander Lukashenko. On February 17, about 2,000 people attended a “March of Outraged Belarusians.” They demanded the government rescind a new tax but mostly avoided political slogans.

Subsequent demonstrations in recent days have surprised decision-makers in the West. However, these will likely be a catalyst for accelerating a resolution in Minsk: either Lukashenko submits to Moscow (and even then he may still lose his grip on power) or the Kremlin will make the decision in the next few months to remove him.

Securing succession

Despite these developments, the West does not have time to deal with the situation in Minsk. The European Union is holding its breath. The West has refrained from imposing new sanctions against Belarus, but the EU did prolong an arms embargo, as well as asset freezes and travel bans against four Belarusians suspected of involvement in the disappearance of opposition figures. These are all essentially symbolic measures.

EU institutions cannot keep up with member states that are cozying up to Minsk

Some member states maintain almost normal relations with the authorities in Minsk. For years, Lithuania led the way in terms of relaxing the Western stance toward Minsk, although Poland has caught up lately. Meanwhile, Vilnius’s relations with Minsk have chilled markedly, for two reasons. First, Belarus is building a nuclear power plant near the town of Ostravets, about 50 km from Vilnius. In its official propaganda, Minsk says this plant is the cheapest in the world and will be the fastest built. Residents of the region, however, are still traumatized by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and take this type of “advertising” rather badly.

The second factor is that the Polish government (which had previously been the Lukashenko regime’s leading critic) has recently elbowed the Lithuanians aside with a better offer of economic and political cooperation. A steady stream of senior Polish officials have visited Minsk in recent months. In general, EU institutions cannot keep up with member states that are cozying up to Minsk, and even to Alexander Lukashenko.

In contrast, Belarus’s relations with Moscow are deteriorating. President Lukashenko’s last trip to Sochi ended without him talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In previous years, he had gone there to hold long, cordial conversations with his “big brother” to the east. The Kremlin’s official statement made it clear that President Putin’s lack of time to travel south was only a pretext to avoid talking to Mr. Lukashenko.

All of this is because President Lukashenko has made a few gestures, without changing the system. Belarus remains an authoritarian country, complete with censorship and an all-powerful security apparatus, although it currently has almost no political prisoners. The true catalyst for change, however, is Russian politics. Moscow can no longer subsidize the Belarusian economy, so Mr. Lukashenko is in urgent need of funds. He must therefore improve relations with the West.

A protest in Minsk, Belarus
Minsk, March 15, 2017: Demonstrators protest a new tax on “social parasites.” Some observers were surprised that the dissention was not met with harsh reprisals, like in the past (source: dpa)

However, President Lukashenko’s primary concern is maintaining power. His thinking is Soviet and his assessments are made in the context of events in other post-Soviet states. Here he has taken some significant cues – Uzbekistan offers an interesting example. After President Islam Karimov’s death caught the country by surprise, it turned out that no one in the Uzbek political elite was safe – replacing the chief meant replacing the entire power structure. This fact has prompted President Lukashenko to take a hard look at his succession options. It has also caused a lot of anxiety among the bureaucratic oligarchy that was created around him.

Another issue informing the Belarusian dictator’s decisions is Russian policy in Ukraine, especially the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Donbas. After Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, President Lukashenko refused to recognize the Russian-backed rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He was even more frightened by the events of 2014, especially since Belarus has traditionally kept on friendly terms with all political factions in Ukraine, provided they did not support the Belarusian opposition.

When it comes to the fates of their families and their political futures, Mr. Lukashenko’s situation is very similar to that of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Each fears a leadership change on Moscow’s terms. Both leaders, and especially their coteries, want to influence how the succession plays out.

During his stint as Belarus’s foreign minister, Sergei Martynov – who had a reputation as a liberal on Mr. Lukashenko’s team – appealed to the EU to expand its Eastern Partnership program. This call was startling, since Belarus had long kept its distance from the EU’s eastern policies. Mr. Martynov’s timing could have been better, however, since few among the European elite retain much interest in the Eastern Partnership, which is undergoing a serious conceptual crisis.

Moscow’s upper hand

Many experts believe that President Lukashenko chose the wrong time to mend relations with the West. But he does not have much room to maneuver. He is afraid of Mr. Putin, and perhaps has information that fosters this fear. However, this is primarily fear for his own position, since Belarus is deeply dependent on Moscow on many levels, and people outside opposition circles or large cities are comfortable with this dependence.

The Ukrainian lesson shows that there is no possibility that President Putin will give Mr. Lukashenko a free hand

It was telling that a record of Mr. Lukashenko’s conversation with independent editor, Iosif Seredich, was made public. The president revealed that he favored Mr. Seredich’s proposal for roundtable talks. His choice to communicate this offer in a conversation with a semi-opposition figure closely resembles moves made by General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime in in Poland in 1988-1989. The idea is that by appearing to engage with at least a part of the opposition and improving relations with the West, a facsimile of political change can be created – but only an illusion. In Poland, the opposition proved to be strong enough and had sufficient support from the West to negotiate conditions that led to the change of government in 1989. However, in the Belarusian version of the roundtable, Mr. Lukashenko will have to “create” the opposition, because it is too fragmented to be a serious partner and share responsibility for transforming the system.

Western diplomats responsible for relations with Belarus realize that President Lukashenko’s chances of opening up to the West are very limited. The Ukrainian lesson shows that there is no possibility that President Putin will give him a free hand. Currently, the Belarusian leader can only count on soft support from the West if he does not engage in substantive talks with the opposition – a red line he will not cross. EU partners, for their part, will not be able to tolerate police crackdowns on opposition leaders and independent social movements. For Moscow, the red line would be any sort of comprehensive deal between Minsk and Brussels, such as the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine.

Scenarios

There are only two realistic scenarios for Belarus, plus a third that verges on the fantastical.

Alexander Lukashenko’s first and most obvious choice is to follow the path of many post-Soviet states – give in to Russian pressure and return to the fraught path of submission. It would be enough to tighten the screws on the opposition, force EU institutions to respond and chill relations with Brussels. There are several ways this could be done, including cracking down on the Polish minority in Belarus – something Mr. Lukashenko has done before. Warsaw would have to react. This variant would give Moscow complete control over Belarus’s relations with the West.

The Kremlin could probably stir up protests and try to initiate another ‘color’ revolution in the region

In the second scenario, if Lukashenko really gets too big for his britches, Moscow would simply replace him. This could be accomplished in several ways. For example, if social discontent heats up, the Kremlin could probably stir up protests and try to initiate another “color” revolution in the region. The twist this time is that it would be stage-managed from Moscow to sweep away a leader that had lost the Kremlin’s favor. President Lukashenko, whose popularity has fallen in recent polls, could probably be overthrown or even eliminated by Kremlin operatives embedded at all possible levels of Belarus’s government, security services and economy.

The third variant is much less plausible. It is theoretically possible that Mr. Lukashenko successfully bides his time and somehow outwaits Mr. Putin. In this scenario, political change would come from some sort of negotiating process. It would involve power-sharing with at least part of the opposition and shared responsibility for the current economic crisis, whose symptoms are increasingly visible.

Two years ago, Mr. Lukashenko took advantage of his position as host of the Minsk talks where France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE hammered out a cease-fire deal in east Ukraine. For decades, he has demonstrated how adroitly he can maneuver between the West and Moscow. Now, the Belarusian president appears at a loss about what to do. Perhaps he must simply trust luck.

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