12.08.2021
Regime change efforts in Belarus have entered a stalemate. But Russia might be working towards an ‘Armenian solution’ for Minsk
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
Editor-in-Chief;
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director

Аffiliation

SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000

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Just one year on from Belarus’ disputed presidential election, the tense situation in the country has ground into a stalemate between the government and opposition activists. The next move seems unclear even to the major players.

In the wake of the vote, activists failed to overthrow veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko, even though last fall it felt like another ‘spring’ revolution was inevitable. The contributing factors have been outlined repeatedly. First, the authorities opted for a ruthless crackdown and there was no noticeable discord among the security services organizing it. Secondly, Moscow offered support, sending a clear signal it would not tolerate a regime change in the country at present. Third, the response by the West was tepid – nothing compared to the overwhelming solidarity with protesters, backed up by material support, that we saw in Ukraine.

However, Lukashenko’s gambit didn’t put an end to the crisis. Instead, all it secured was his grip on the levers of power. The Belarusian leader, of course, wants things to go back to normal – and his ‘Big Conversation’ question-and-answer session with the public proved that he thinks that the unpleasant chapter is over and he can continue with his pre-election policies.

But it still seems strange to act like nothing has changed. The veteran president and his team are used to dealing with disputed election results. Moreover, the West’s opinion doesn’t concern them as much as it used to, having burned most of the bridges with it already. Now, though, the legitimacy of the Belarusian regime is shaken to the core – the situation has deteriorated severely compared to any previous crises.

The West and Lukashenko’s political opponents are not the main problem – they have been efficiently neutralized.

The problem is the leader’s failure to offer any kind of future to his people beyond simply weathering the worst of the storm.

Reaching out to the West again is a no-go for Belarus, most likely for good. Lukashenko is not Erdogan. Yes, he can be quite resourceful (staging a migration crisis for an adversary next door out of nothing is a very impressive achievement), but nobody is going to swallow their resentment to negotiate with the Belarusian president at the expense of domestic approval. He just doesn’t have that kind of reach.

Russia no longer feels like playing his game of endless integration talks – it wants to see concrete outcomes. Domestic resources needed for the country’s growth used to be few and far between before, with no chance to scrape up any going forward.

The only ‘future’ offered to regular Belarusians is the image of an eternal leader who promises to never let ‘those scumbags’ take power. Lukashenko’s opponents in the West are also facing a stalemate. Sanctions are increasing Belarus’ dependence on Russia, turning it into one of its subsidized regions, which is exactly what the West was trying to avoid in the first place.

Setting up an alternative community outside Belarus does not affect the status quo inside the country, no matter how many important offices Tikhanovskaya visits in Europe and America. Those who oppose the Belarusian regime insist things can’t go on like this for much longer, that it will ‘blow up,’ and so on.

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In the future, the leading position in Belarus may be taken by those groups that are absolutely indifferent to the ideas of national revival, and which are focused on economic, political and military integration with the West. Today’s clash of “red-greens” with “white-red-whites” is beneficial to them. The third force, positioning itself as a “new multi-vector”, but having a clear Atlantic vector, will not manifest itself in the nearest future and will be formed among people who today still go to rallies both “for Lukashenko” and “against Lukashenko”.
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However, the last few decades showed that ‘blowing up’ only happens when the government fails to opt for extremely tough measures. When they are introduced with no holds barred, the pompous conviction that freedom is bound to triumph turns sour. North Korea is a perfect example: its leadership learned their lessons from the events of 1989-1991 and know that any sign of weakness will trigger a collapse, while showing none will ensure victory. There is another vital condition here, though; namely a powerful source of external support that helps counteract hostile external pressure. For North Korea that was China, and in the case of Belarus it is now Russia.

Likening Minsk to Pyongyang is not a value judgment here. I am simply pointing out similarities in political tactics and the resolve of the leadership. What Lukashenko demonstrated in terms of the latter, having forced an emergency landing of a foreign civil aircraft to detain an opposition figure and having launched his large-scale Operation Illegal Migrant, is absolutely on par with Kim’s behavior.

The West can chant about a doomed dictator all they like, or admire how just one year saw Svetlana Tikhanovskaya transformed from a housewife into a real political figure invited to meet with US President Joe Biden or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but that’s all idle talk. And so it will remain, until Moscow for whatever reason decides to withdraw its support for Lukashenko and let the chips fall where they may.

That scenario is hard to imagine, since Belarus is of critical importance for Russia from a security standpoint, but Moscow is similarly stuck in a stalemate. Lukashenko stayed in power mostly thanks to Putin, so many expected the issues related to ‘developing the Union State’ and potential further integration to be resolved quickly and according to Moscow’s wishes. That didn’t happen.

Judging by what we can see, negotiations continue to be protracted, sluggish and mostly fruitless. This seems even odder now that Minsk is more economically dependent on Moscow: even during his press conference, Lukashenko reiterated that Belarus needs money.

In Russia, there is more and more annoyance on the subject. Some say that it’s time to quit pampering a slippery partner and either force him to accept the conditions or use the many tools he has at hand to ensure a transition of power that would be acceptable to the Kremlin.

Lukashenko, though, is a very experienced and savvy politician. He knows that Moscow also depends on him, since unexpected political developments and regime change would not turn out in his neighbor’s favor. This very concern is what made Russia back Lukashenko last year, even though his campaign platform was basically anti-Russian. Now that Moscow publicly bet on him, it would be unbecoming and risky to backtrack.

Can Russia secure a transfer of power in Belarus to someone it views as acceptable? Let’s be honest: the whole business of regime change and, more generally, capitalizing on the domestic politics of neighboring countries isn’t Russia's strong suit.

In the thirty years since the collapse of the USSR, there has hardly been an example of Moscow successfully putting its protégé on the throne of a former Soviet state. There were times when power shifted in a direction favorable to Russia, but it always happened due to objective reasons, such as internal political developments in these countries.

Moscow would, at times, facilitate these developments, but it never tried to intentionally shape an environment favorable to Russia. When it did get involved in the domestic affairs of its neighbors, what resulted was the opposite of the initial expectations: one only needs to recall Moscow’s handling of the events in Ukraine – both in 2004 and in 2014.

When it comes to foreign interference, Russia possesses neither the skills nor the experience that the EU or the US have – even if the collective West hasn’t been as successful at it lately, but that’s another story. Moscow has never been good at winning the loyalty of other nations’ elites, despite it being something that Russia’s ‘soft-power’ fans have long dreamed about, and it is too late to try and adopt the American model. That would be a bad fit for our country, anyway.

Lukashenko, though, is a very experienced and savvy politician. He knows that Moscow also depends on him, since unexpected political developments and regime change would not turn out in his neighbor’s favor. This very concern is what made Russia back Lukashenko last year, even though his campaign platform was basically anti-Russian. Now that Moscow publicly bet on him, it would be unbecoming and risky to backtrack.

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Can Russia secure a transfer of power in Belarus to someone it views as acceptable? Let’s be honest: the whole business of regime change and, more generally, capitalizing on the domestic politics of neighboring countries isn’t Russia’s strong suit. In the thirty years since the collapse of the USSR, there has hardly been an example of Moscow successfully putting its protégé on the throne of a former Soviet state. There were times when power shifted in a direction favorable to Russia, but it always happened due to objective reasons, such as internal political developments in these countries.

Moscow would, at times, facilitate these developments, but it never tried to intentionally shape an environment favorable to Russia. When it did get involved in the domestic affairs of its neighbors, what resulted was the opposite of the initial expectations: one only needs to recall Moscow’s handling of the events in Ukraine – both in 2004 and in 2014.

When it comes to foreign interference, Russia possesses neither the skills nor the experience that the EU or the US have – even if the collective West hasn’t been as successful at it lately, but that’s another story. Moscow has never been good at winning the loyalty of other nations’ elites, despite it being something that Russia’s ‘soft-power’ fans have long dreamed about, and it is too late to try and adopt the American model. That would be a bad fit for our country, anyway.

Last year, many used to draw parallels between Belarus and Armenia. The opposition in, or, more often now, outside of Belarus kept wondering how Yerevan’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan managed to convince the Kremlin that taking power from pro-Moscow forces wouldn’t pose any threat to Russia’s interests.

They needed to know what to do to assure their counterparts that Belarus without Lukashenko is not going to shun the alliance with Russia. There seemed to be no arguments that would be powerful or convincing enough – but that wasn’t because the people or factions were the wrong ones, no. It was mainly because the level of general mistrust internationally had grown so much that it became hard to believe just about anybody on anything.

The situation in Belarus is different from Armenia’s in that it has no clear Russian military presence. Lukashenko did bring up the subject of a Russian military base every now and then during his prolonged presidency, but never went through with it. As was noted earlier, his gut never fails him. He understands too well that a foreign military presence changes the balance of power, even if we’re talking about a close ally.

But a week ago, speaking about the obvious external threats, the Belarusian president didn’t rule out the possibility of soliciting Russian military assistance in order to address them.

It might have been just a figure of speech, but if Russia took him up on his word and actively welcomed the idea of deploying Russian troops in Belarus solely for the purpose of forging a more understandable and controllable relation with Minsk rather than confronting NATO, it might have created a foundation for a different track, both in terms of the transition of power and further bilateral relations. It’s possible Russia would then stop caring that much about who’s in power in Belarus once it knows that any hostile policies can be dealt with by a set of tools that includes a military option. In reality it almost never comes to that, because a considerable military presence usually doesn’t fail to promote constructive cooperation.

Setting up a ‘perimeter’ for a strategic neighbor’s external policy while allowing complete freedom in its internal affairs is not a bad alternative to integration or a merger. Armenia is almost there. It might work as a solution for Belarus, too.

If this theory is plausible and, perhaps, has occurred to more people than just the author, it explains well why Russia’s military and foreign policy officials are so eager to support Lukashenko’s unceasing rhetoric about external enemies. The more enemies, the higher the demand for Russia’s military intervention – and the closer the opportunity to drive the situation out of the frustrating, prolonged stalemate.

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