Staunton, January 7 – For the last six months, Moscow has adopted a wait-and-see approach to Belarusian developments, supporting Alyaksandr Lukashenka while pushing him to change political arrangements in his country, Yevgeny Gontmakher says. But if it continues that approach, it will permanently alienate Belarusian public opinion and Belarus as a country.
To avoid that, the Moscow commentator says, the Russian government must begin to reach out to the Belarusian opposition in semi-official ways in order to ensure that the opposition will only usher in new elections rather than carry out a real revolution that almost inevitably would be anti-Russian (mk.ru/politics/2021/01/07/rossiya-teryaet-belorussiyu.html).
Some in Moscow believe that Lukashenka is mastering the situation, but they are wrong. If street protests are less massive than they were, it is because “protest has passed into the next stage,” shifting from the central squares of Minsk to the neighborhoods of cities and towns throughout the country, Gontmakher says.
The commentator adds that “this very much recalls the Polish events of the 1970s and 1980s which ended with the collapse of ‘the socialist system’ throughout Central Europe and then with the disintegration of the USSR.” But because of the Internet, things are moving much faster in that direction than they did in pre-Internet Poland.
And “if the Kremlin will continue to delay, then this course of development will become a reality, something that should worry because it will entail a dramatic deterioration of Belarusian attitudes toward Russia and ever-greater sanctions from the United States and the European Union.
Young Belarusians have already turned against Moscow, but it has been striking that in Belarus until this crisis, “there have been practically no anti-Russian attitudes,” something that “unfortunately, is unique for the present post-Soviet space.” If Moscow continues to back Lukashenka, that alone will cost Moscow its standing in Minsk and ability to influence events.
“It is obvious that [if the Russian government continues in the direction it is going now] whoever comes to power in Belarus after Lukashenka will not be inclined to support any partnership with Russia let alone in the framework of a Union state. In the best case, one will have a peaceful coexistence of two formerly ‘fraternal’ countries.”
Russian “can avoid such a scenario only by shifting from its wait-and-see approach to an active policy toward the Lukashenka regime” by “above all” establishing contacts with the opposition Coordination Council. Lukashenka will react hysterically, but these can begin at the parliamentary or informal level – and Moscow needs to do so now, Gontmakher says.
Only if Moscow makes this change will the Coordination Council remain what it says it wants to be, a bridge to free and fair elections. If the Kremlin continues to ignore the opposition and back Lukashenka, it will become something more than that, quite possibly a revolutionary movement like Solidarity once was in Poland.
That danger is so great and also so obvious that Moscow must rethink its approach to Minsk now, Gontmakher concludes.