Friday, March 24, 2017

The Belarusian Triangle: Lukashenka, Putin and the Belarusian People

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 24 – Tomorrow and Sunday, Belarusians are slated to take part in the largest anti-Lukashenka demonstrations since at least 2010, an event that has prompted predictions ranging from the overthrow of the Lukashenka regime to the military intervention of Vladimir Putin to the survival of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

            Because the situation in Belarus is a revolutionary one – the powers that be appear divided and unable to act in a consistent way to defend their own interests in survival and the population is no longer prepared to put up with Minsk’s repressive and economically backward policies – the situation could move in any of these directions or perhaps others.

            But one thing is clear, and it should be kept in mind as the events of the next 72 hours unfold: each of the actors in this drama is constrained by what he believes the other two are likely to do, and thus, all are engaged in a complicated calculus because what may strengthen them against one opponent could lead to their being weakened relative to another.

            The Belarusian people and its leaders in the opposition want to secure Lukashenka’s departure in a non-violent way that will preclude any Russian intervention and that will open the way for the country to move toward democracy, freedom and integration with Europe, all goals that Putin and Moscow very much oppose.

            Thus, the opposition if one may lump everyone from the longtime political opponents of the Lukashenka regime to those in the population who have simply “had enough” together has an obvious interest in avoiding violence even if that limits its ability to push Lukashenka out and an equally obvious one in pursuing its goals in an understated way.

            Revolutionary movements are seldom able to go very far when they forswear all violence and prevent their demands in a form far more restrained than many of their supporters like. But if the Belarusian movement violates either of these limits, there is a real danger that either Lukashenka will crack down so hard that recent gains will be lost or that Moscow will intervene.

            Lukashenka also finds himself caught between the people and Moscow.  If he makes too many concessions, the opposition will demand more; if he doesn’t and uses force instead, he will destroy what remaining popular sympathy he has and, what is more important for him, any chance that he can win the Western support he needs to play the game he has with Moscow.

            If he appears too weak, pro-Moscow forces within his own regime may decide that they have to move to overthrow him; and Moscow may conclude that it has more to gain than lose by intervening. Similarly, if Lukashenka cracks down too hard, Moscow may decide the Belarusian president has destroyed the basis of his independence rather than made himself stronger.

            In either of those cases, at least some in Moscow would likely push for an intervention to install someone more malleable in Minsk while the situation remains or can be presented as being more fluid and undefined.

            At the same time, Moscow is constrained as well by both the rise of the Belarusian people and the actions of Lukashenka.  The Kremlin is certainly frightened by the prospect that the second Slavic republic has shown that its people want democracy and independence from Russia and would like to teach them a lesson.

            At the same time, the price of doing so would be high regardless of whether it consisted of supporting a gelded Lukashenka now willing to do Moscow’s will or the installation of a Russian gauleiter. Either would undermine any chance for an agreement with the West and likely would lead to an expansion of sanctions.

            Because of this complexity – one created after Russian intervention in Ukraine following the Maidan there – the balance of the small analytic community that focuses on Belarus has shifted from the assumption of radical change either by Lukashenka’s departure or Moscow’s intervention to one that suggests this weekend’s demos will mark the high point in this round of national rebirth.

            Among those taking that view is Andrey Kazakevich who suggests that a decline in activism among the Belarusian people is “inevitable” after Sunday ( But the complexity of the situation makes any such prediction problematic.

            Lukashenka may or may not survive; the Belarusian people may or may not triumph; and Russia may or may not intervene.  But one thing is certain: the rise of the Belarusian nation has changed the political calculus for all concerned; and if it does not lead to radical changes now, it almost certainly will in the future.

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