1 October 2020

Thursday, 21:00



Does Minsk have a chance to surmount the political crisis without big shocks?



The attention of the entire world community has been focused on Belarus for several weeks now. The August 9 presidential elections and the following events are not just a dramatic page in the history of Belarus. The ongoing events may well become a turning point in the geopolitical confrontation in the post-Soviet space.


Elections and protests

Even before the elections, it was obvious that Belarus was going through a rather tense period. Although the opposition forces that united against the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko, who nominated his candidacy for the sixth presidential term, were not powerful at all: only a fraction of the electorate, which radically opposes the extension of presidential term for the country's leader. That is why, during the election campaign, there were not heated and fundamental discussions, say, about the country's economic performance or Lukashenko’s foreign policy. For many, the transformation of a housewife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya into Lukashenko's main rival after the CEC refused to register as candidates for the presidency public figures with much more political potential. For example, Tikhanovskaya’s husband, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, banker Viktor Babariko and manager Valery Tsepkalo (Tikhanovsky and Babariko were also arrested). In other words, the protesting electorate following Tikhanovskaya demonstrated that they would support anyone but Lukashenko.

Protest actions spread over Belarus even before the elections. A very significant event took place at the very first pre-election rally of Tikhanovskaya in Minsk. Her headquarters merged with the teams of Babariko and Tsepkalo, coordinated by Maria Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo's wife Veronika, respectively. A similar alignment inspired the world media to outrageous rant about three women who challenge the long-term rule of Lukashenko a.k.a Batka. Tikhanovskaya initially began to position herself as a ‘forced’ politician, whose only mission is to remove Lukashenko from power.

The elections confirmed all the alarming expectations of an escalation of tensions in Belarus. The situation worsened immediately after the publication of the CEC data, according to which the incumbent president won 80% of the votes, while only 10% of voters supported Tikhanovskaya. The opposition accused the authorities of falsifying the election results and demanded a new vote. The split over such a fundamental issue as whether or not Lukashenko be president of Belarus caused a stir in one of the most peaceful post-Soviet.

The protests resulted in violent clashes between demonstrators and the law enforcement. The intensity of protests did not subside even after Tikhanovskaya, claiming threats and pressure personality, left Belarus for the neighbouring Lithuania. Also, a group of leading Belarus state-run enterprises, including the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ), Minsk Tractor Plant (MTZ), Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ), Minsk Motor Plant (MMZ), Grodno Azot and other, began a general strike.

Meanwhile, the course of events in Belarus is significantly influenced by external forces. Belarus turns into an arena of confrontation between Russia and the West for influence in the post-Soviet space, since the question of whether Lukashenko remains as the president of Belarus or not has taken on a truly fateful geopolitical significance.


Stay with Russia or make a bow to the West?

In fact, the Belarusian opposition receives strong support from the US and the European Union, while Lukashenko's chances of maintaining his power depend mainly on Russia’s efforts. Even the incident that put the relations between the two member states of the Union State and CSTO subject to the most serious test since the collapse of the USSR just before the presidential elections in Belarus could not stop Russia from helping Belarus.

The detention of the Wagner PMC fighters in Belarus, the loud statements of Minsk about Russia's violation of the sovereignty of Belarus, as well as the Kremlin's discontent with Lukashenko's ‘obstinacy’ and ‘flirting’ with the West seriously affected bilateral relations between the two countries. However, it was Russia and its President Vladimir Putin that the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko could rely upon in his confrontation with the opposition, which launched a broad protest movement. Moscow's support to Lukashenko was largely influenced by the full support of the Belarusian opposition by the West, which triggered Russia’s desperate attempt to "assault" Batka’s power.

Famous Russian writer and columnist Alexander Prokhanov has clearly described what Belarus means to Russia: “It is obvious that Russia cannot lose Belarus under any circumstance. Belarus is our strategic ally. The Russian security services cannot simply watch how they lose their military bases, one of which detects strategic missile launches of the opponent on the other half of the Earth, while the other, with powerful antennas, maintains VLF communication with Russian submarines in the World Ocean. Only Lukashenko can save Russian bases in Belarus. If Lukashenko is replaced by over-excited ladies, the wives of oppositionists, these bases will be disposed of or handed over to the strategic opponents of Russia. Russian generals will never accept the loss of these bases, which would mean a sharp decline in Russia's defence potential. Therefore, they unequivocally support Lukashenko and stability in Belarus... Today Belarus has turned into a front-line state. Prevent this front from approaching Moscow!"

Indeed, Russia, with its entire complex attitude towards the personality of Lukashenko, demonstrates its readiness to support the incumbent Belarusian authorities, since it acts as the guarantor of the pro-Moscow orientation of Minsk. At the same time, the Kremlin constantly refers to the Maidan experience of Ukraine, which has completely moved Kiev to the orbit of Western influence.

The position of the US and the EU on the Belarusian events clearly demonstrates the real reason for the West's interest in the ‘younger’ Slavic ally of Russia. Euro-Atlantic centres do not recognise the victory of Lukashenko and demand another presidential election in Belarus. They try to bring the situation to the only acceptable and logical option for themselves - a change of power in the last Eastern European country supporting Russia. The closest western neighbours of Belarus - Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic countries - have launched an unprecedented campaign to support the internal political opponents of Lukashenko and Tikhanovskaya personally. The largest European powers - France and Germany - also express their strong dissatisfaction with the punitive actions of the Belarusian security forces against the protesters and insist on a "transit of power" in Belarus. However, their position also shows a clear unwillingness to aggravate confrontation with Russia.

The latter circumstance can act as a significant deterrent factor when all the parties involved in the Belarusian ‘campaign’ do not hide their readiness to use force. Thus, NATO continues to increase its military activity near the western borders of Belarus. Belarus launched military exercises near the border with Lithuania and concentrated a large military contingent in the western direction. In parallel, Belarus authorities accompany all these actions with statements of full military-political support from Russia.


Prevent blood

Does Belarus have a chance to surmount the current political crisis without blood and large scale shocks? It seems that the parties to the conflict are not ready to compromise, which does not leave enough room to solve the situation peacefully. Nevertheless, at least two indicate the reluctance of both the authorities and the opposition to make the situation worse. Not to mention the prospect of turning Belarus into a battleground for military showdowns between global centres of power.

First, Alexander Lukashenko, in principle, agreed to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections but only after the adoption of new constitution through a nationwide referendum. The proposed constitutional amendments are supposed to contribute to the redistribution of powers. At the same time, Lukashenko makes it clear that he is ready to share his powers but "not under pressure and not through the street [protests]."

Secondly, the opposition, which has formed a Coordinating Council to remove Lukashenko from the office, nevertheless is committed to continue peaceful protests and declares that it has abandoned plans for a violent seizure of power. Anyway, unlike the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, it is difficult to find accusations of corruption, nepotism and embezzlement against Lukashenko among the slogans of the Belarusian protest movement.

Both of the above factors give hope that holding a dialogue on the political future of Belarus, despite all the difficulties, is still possible. Only if the authorities avoid the violent suppression of peaceful protest actions, while the opposition abandons its maximalist approach just to please the geopolitical aspirations of external forces.