Is Belarus the New Ukraine? And What Will Putin Do?
In the wake of a popular uprising against President Lukashenko, Steven Komarnyckyj looks at the important differences with the overthrow of Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014
On 11 August 2020, a cleaner in the Minsk metro was filmed sponging blood from a station platform. “I saw the riot police chase and attack an innocent man,” she said before continuing to wash away the gore.
The Belarusian police are violently suppressing protests which exploded after 10 August when the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko was allegedly re-elected with 80% of the vote. But Minsk, the country’s capital, and other major cities have been rocked by protests because many people thought the results were faked.
The state security services have been extremely brutal, using stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators, and at least one demonstrator has died. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had run against Lukashenko for the presidency, was forcibly removed from the country on Monday. She posted a tearful video on YouTube saying that she had left Belarus for the sake of her children and urging Belarusians to accept the result. What is going on?
Back in the USSR
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, has been in power for 25 years. He has ruthlessly crushed previous opposition and his rule may be summed up as ‘Back in the USSR’. Belarus has not experienced the chaotic market reforms and oligarchy seen in Russia and Ukraine. The country even re-adopted the flag of the Belarusian Soviet Republic.
Belarus lost 30% of its population in World War Two and suffered famines and terror under the Soviet regime in the thirties. Many Belarusians remembered some of the post-war Soviet period as one of relative calm when there were sausages in the supermarkets. But Lukashenko’s ultimately unsustainable high levels of public spending can only be supported by borrowing. He has kept the country’s unprofitable industries afloat by milking cash from whoever he could, but mainly Russia. Belarus has borders with the EU and Russia and is also eyed by China, which wants to use it as a gateway to Europe.
Lukashenko has flirted with the idea of reunifying his country with Russia, and even signed a unification treaty with Yeltsin in 1999. But he avoided rejoining Russia and simply borrowed money from the Kremlin. Similarly, he flirted with the European Union but no agreement was reached because of his appalling human rights record. A Serbian company, Dana Holdings, is one of the most prominent players in Minsk’s construction sector. The firm has close links to Lukashenko and wins tenders for vast projects in Minsk.
China has pumped money into Belarus through car manufacturing and a business park, but Lukashenko still depends mainly on Russian Roubles to finance his regime.
Lukashenko looked set to win the 2020 elections by his usual methods until Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took her place on the ballot on 14 July 2020. Her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, had registered as a presidential candidate but was arrested on 29 May. She took his place and was supported by two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband had been barred from standing, and Maria Kolesnikova, who was the campaign chief of another candidate who was barred from standing.
Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign gained momentum, drawing tens of thousands to her rallies and gaining a huge social media following. But her main political consultant, Vitali Shkliarov, who has worked for Obama and Merkel, was arrested on 29 July. Reports suggested that he would be interrogated about alleged Kremlin links.
Thirty-three Russian men were arrested in Minsk on the same day. They were mercenaries for the Wagner Group, a supposedly private Russian military firm which allegedly carries out deniable operations for the Kremlin. Lukashenko claimed that the men were in Belarus to commit acts of terrorism and sabotage the elections. He was trying to frighten people into voting for him by threatening them with the prospect of a Russian takeover. However, it is unlikely that Putin wanted to destabilise Belarus and have to deal with the subsequent chaos. Lukashenko might just have arrested the men on the spur of the moment or he could have agreed on the plan in advance with Putin.
But it didn’t work. Soon after the election, it became clear that the results had been faked. Some polling stations bravely declared totals showing that Tsikhanouskaya had won convincingly. An election official in Vitebsk was apparently recorded talking about how the results would be falsified to hand victory to Lukashenko.
Belarusians had no choice but to protest this massive fraud.
Putin’s Play and the Maidan Precedent
The Kremlin is still backing Lukashenko, in spite of reassurances from Tsikhanouskaya that Belarus would remain on friendly terms with Russia if she won. However, Putin will not want to support the overthrow of an autocrat by a popular movement.
The protests in Belarus resemble Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which swept pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power. But there are big differences. Ukraine’s economy is controlled by rival groups of oligarchs who sponsor politicians. No Ukrainian president can concentrate all power in his hands. Yanukovych lost power in part because he forgot that in Ukraine you can break the law but you can never break the rules. The Ukrainian protestors had some support from politicians including the mayor of Kyiv.
But Lukashenko largely controls economic and political life in Belarus. He has enough money to purchase the tear-gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and the men to use them, to hold off the protestors.
The Belarusian protestors are also less organised than their Ukrainian counterparts who spent years planning to overthrow the would-be dictator.
Finally, Lukashenko has decided that Yanukovych was not violent enough soon enough to strangle the rebellion against him. He will not make that mistake. The Kremlin is watching nervously. Khabarovsk, in eastern Russia, is currently gripped by protests in support of a popular governor, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested on 9 July 2020. Some of the protestors are calling for Putin’s resignation. If Lukashenko falls more Russians might be inspired to try to overthrow their own autocrat. And the Kremlin really would not like that.