Staunton, September 20 – With the arrests of such transparently innocent people as actor Pavel Ustinov and journalist Ivan Golunov, the Kremlin is repeating the kind of repression Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited upon his country in 2010-2011 to keep himself in power but with far fewer prospects that this will have the same effect in Russia, Kseniya Kirillova says.
In a remarkable turnabout, the US-based Russian journalist writes, Moscow is copying Minsk and its indiscriminate use of violence, alienating those who had been willing to cooperate with it while forgetting that it doesn’t have someone at its back as Minsk did in the form of Moscow (qha.com.ua/po-polochkam/v-rossii-ne-prekrashhayutsya-pikety-iz-za-dela-ustinova-vosem-let-nazad-v-belarusi-sumeli-podavit-massovye-protesty-vospolzuyutsya-li-v-rf-opytom-soseda/).
The increasing lack of care Russian siloviki are displaying in bringing charges against people very much recalls what happened in Minsk eight years ago, Kirillova explains. “The Belarus leadership made exactly the same beet on crude force and total intimidation eight years ago” to block what has become known as the Revolution via Social Media.
Then in Belarus as now in Russia, the level of protests reflected less issues around elections than the deteriorating economic situation. Those crises, she says, affected in Belarus and affect in Russia almost all strata of the population; and so perhaps it is no surprise that the powers that be in the two capitals have responded in similar ways.
Beginning in June 2011, Belarusians went into the streets in increasing numbers not only in Minsk but in other Belarusian cities to demand change. In response, the Belarusian siloviki “closed off the squares, arrested activists ‘preemptively’ even before the beginning of demonstrations,” and increasingly used anonymous hooded allies to attack the crowds.
This show of force worked at one level. By November of that year, the number of Belarusians going into the streets had fallen to almost zero; and Lukashenka’s regime survived that challenge, continuing in power to this day. But at another level, such actions had the effect of intensifying opposition attitudes and spreading them to people who had not felt them before.
After all, when anyone could become a victim, everyone had the incentive to try to change the situation before that occurred, something that led the Belarusian authorities to become ever more repressive in response.
What is important now, Kirillova suggests, is that the Russian siloviki appear to have taken a page out of the Belarusian KGB playbook, focusing on the ways in which Russia today is very much like Belarus eight years ago and forgetting the fundamental differences in the situations of the two countries, differences that do not work in the Kremlin’s favor.
The chief similarity between Russia now and Belarus in 2011 is the involvement in protests of increasingly broad strata of the population. In the past, Moscow targeted those it wanted to attack, but now it faces a situation in which almost everyone has turned against it – and so Moscow has turned against all, rendering its own situation more untenable.
The Russian authorities have struck out at so many “accidental” figures that the most committed supporters of the Kremlin now “understand that in such a state of arbitrariness,they too may fall under the wheel of repression and that neither their fame nor their loyalty will save them.”
Belarus was able to get away with this, but Russia is far less likely to, Kirillova continues, because of one fundamental difference in the two situations. “Lukashenka always had behind his back a serious resource in the form of Russia,” a country that would support him in various ways.
But if Lukashenka had that resource, Moscow doesn’t. There is no one it can rely on and thus nowhere to retreat. That limits its ability to maneuver, something Lukashenka always has, and means any concession “viewed by some as a victory and by others as treason leads to the weakening of Putin’s position and the loss of trust in him – including the trust of the siloviki.”
“Of course,” Kirillova concedes, “the Kremlin’s resources in the force sectoralong with the fear of the Russian majority of a hypothetical ‘maidan’ are still very great, but Russia today does not have that reserve of firmness which it had (and which Belarus dependent on it) in 2011.”
What this means, she concludes, is that even if the current protests die out, “protest attitudes will not ‘dissipate,’ and at the next provocation by the authorities, they will beyond doubt break out with new force,” not the pattern Putin hopes for but rather the one he has good reason to fear.