Thursday, January 15, 2015

Would a Belarusian Maidan Help or Hurt Ukraine?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, January 15 – If a Maidan-like movement were to arise in Belarus and overthrow Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Moscow almost certainly would invade as it has in Ukraine and would likely enjoy greater success in subordinating that country to the will of the Kremlin, Kseniya Kirillova argues.


            Consequently, as appalling as Lukashenka is to anyone concerned about democracy and human rights, his overthrow now would work against the interests both of Ukraine and more generally of all those who want to see Belarus and democracy spread across the region (


            The commentator, who lives in the United States but writes regularly for Ukrainian news outlets, provides a detailed argument in support of what she clearly feels is a counter-intuitive conclusion for Ukrainians and others – and one that she is concerned may even be viewed by them as an act of betrayal.


            Kirillova begins by pointing out that 2015 is the year of the next presidential elections and notes that in the past Lukashenka has done whatever was necessary to suppress the opposition and guarantee his retention of power.  It is entirely possible, she continues, that the dictator will do the same thing this time around.


            But at the same time, she points out that Lukashenka’s popularity among Belarusians is nonetheless “sufficiently high” at least in part because of the role he has assumed as a mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and that as a result, he may not have to take the same kind of steps he has in the past. Indeed, some of his opponents may be counting on that.


            Belarusian opposition figures have routinely warned Ukrainians against expecting anything good from Lukashenka in the long term because as they point out, Kirillova acknowledges,  the Belarusian leader will do whatever is necessary to defend his own interests if they are in conflict with those of the Belarusian people, Ukraine or anyone else.


            Kirillova stresses that no one should think she has any sympathies for the Belarusian leader. She has been in his country frequently, knows the most prominent opposition figures, and recognizes that his dictatorship has attacked the human and civil rights of everyone there.


            At the same time, she writes, “despite all my solidarity with the Belarusian dissidents,” she finds that they continue to maintain two “mutually exclusive” ideas. On the one hand, they say, “Lukashenka is a tyrant and a dictator.” But on the other, they insist that “Lukashenka is a Kremlin puppet.”


            Under certain conditions, these two things can coincide and both be true, but in others, that will not be the case. In that event, the issue becomes who is Lukashenka in fact – and what will he do and what will Moscow do in response?


            “Put in simplest terms,” she says, “as long as Kremlin policy doesn’t interfere with Lukashenka being a dictator, he is not against being ‘a puppet,’ but if Moscow by its actions will attempt to limit his influence and take the situation in Belarus under its control, then he will have to choose” between these two roles.


            Everything on view suggests, Kirillova continues, that “despite his traditional dependence on Russia, Lukashenka is more a dictator than a puppet. Moreover, he is a dictator in the full sense of the world, and therefore is organically incapable of sharing his absolute power with anyone” -- including Moscow.


            If the Russian government pushes for things that will limit his power or even lead to his demise as some in Moscow have suggested they would like given the Belarusian leader’s statements about Ukraine, then, Moscow’s actions “will have the opposite effect” from the one the Kremlin intends and push him further away from Russia.


            Certain groups in Russia are even now talking about “the Ukrainization of Belarus,” that is, splitting the country into easterners and westerners and “provoking a civil conflict” Moscow could exploit.


            Indeed, Kirillova points out, some Russian officials, including Duma deputy Aleksey Pushkov have provided a kind of confirmation that Moscow is planning something like that by accusing the US of planning to overthrow Lukashenka. That is because in recent times, Moscow has regularly accused others of doing what it is doing itself or plans to do.


            Given all this, how should Ukrainians or others concerned about the fate of democracy in Europe react if a Maidan were to begin in Mensk.  If it were organized on pro-Western slogans and Lukashenka put it down as he probably could, Moscow might be satisfied because such an action would “finally push the Belarusian dictator into Putin’s embrace.”


            And even if the Maidan were successful, Kirillova points out, Putin might use that as the occasion to repeat a Donbas-style scenario in Belarus, something he could likely do even more easily than in Ukraine because Belarusian institutions are more thoroughly penetrated with Russian agents and Belarusians are not Ukrainians.


            As a result, Putin would control Belarus and Ukraine would face a new threat from the north, the commentator says.


            “Unfortunately,” she adds, no other scenarios seem possible; and that forces Ukrainians to make what is an uncomfortable choice: to back Lukashenka against a Maidan lest a Maidan play into Putin’s hands and against their own and those of the Belarusian people. Although she does not say so, only a change in Western policy toward the region could open something better.


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