Russia Will Use a Weakened Lukashenko to its Advantage
Kseniya Kirillova explores why the widespread protests in Belarus following its rigged Presidential Election provide an opportunity for Vladimir Putin
Mass protests caused by the results of last week’s Presidential Election are not abating in Belarus.
According to the Central Election Commission, the sitting President Alexander Lukashenko received at least 80% of the vote, while the results of independent, unofficial exit polls show that almost 72.1% of the electorate supported the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and only 13.7% backed Lukashenko.
Popular discontent in Belarus had been brewing for a long time.
On the night of 10 August, it spilled out into the streets, not only in the capital Minsk, but in many other Belarusian cities. In response, Lukashenko – often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – began to crackdown on the protests as hard as possible. Minsk was put under martial law and security forces with equipment were pulled into the city. Many central streets were blocked and entrance to the capital was limited. Police used water cannon, stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas, and violently detained protestors.
At the same time, Lukashenko said that the protests were the result of “foreign interference” – accusing countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Russia. Without diminishing the authenticity of popular discontent, it should be noted that, of all the listed countries, only Russia tried to take advantage of the situation in its own interests.
A few weeks before the vote, for instance, the Russian media began promoting the idea that the West allegedly “plans to organise a Maidan in Belarus” – a reference to the 2013 popular uprising in Ukraine.
The arrest and detention in Belarus on 29 July of 33 employees of a Russian private military company seemed to be a completely plausible attempt to stop Russian interference. According to Belarusian security officials, they had received information about the arrival of “more than 200 militants who intended to destabilise the situation during the election campaign”.
The conflicting explanations put forward by Russian following the arrests also indicate that Moscow did not have a ready-made version in case the operation failed.
First, Telegram channels close to the Kremlin reported that Minsk was used by the 33 mercenaries as a transit point for transfer to other countries – mostly in Africa. Then, on 30 July, the Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement that the detained group was in transit through Minsk to Istanbul and that all the logistics on the territory of Belarus were provided by a Belarusian company. On 6 August, Russian media released a fantastic version of events that claimed the Ukrainian secret security services had intentionally lured the mercenaries to Belarus under the pretext of a contract for the protection of Rosneft facilities in Venezuela.
All of these accounts are evidence of Moscow’s attempts to invent an explanation on the hoof to cover-up an unpleasant mission failure.
Hooked by Moscow
What was the purpose of Russia sending a landing of armed militants to Belarus?
According to the Belarusian secret police, the Russians planned terrorist attacks and other provocations to make the ensuing protests as bloody as possible. It is likely that the purpose of this was not to overthrow Lukashenko, but an attempt to force him to turn to Russia for help to suppress unrest.
Even if Lukashenko had not resorted to asking Moscow for help, the Kremlin could have introduced so-called ‘peacekeepers’ under the pretext of protecting people in the event of bloody clashes in the streets. Such a scenario would have, in effect, meant the annexation of Belarus.
This analysis is supported by the revelations of some Russian political scientists and observers. Journalists at the business newspaper Vzglyad, which is close to the Kremlin, openly admitted immediately after Belarus’ Presidential Election that it is beneficial to Russia if Lukashenko retains power – but in a weakened state due, to opposition battles and the repression of his own people, leading to the worsening of the country’s relations with the West, causing Lukashenko to become more dependent on Moscow.
“If, in the end, the sitting President still manages to retain power, he will inevitably emerge weakened by the conflict with his own people,” the journalists cynically admitted. “His legitimacy will be undermined, relations with some of the elites will be ruined, and bridges with the West, hastily erected in recent years, will be burned again. Russia is satisfied with this.”
Another journalist at the same newspaper noted that “Lukashenko’s ability to resist Russian pressure would be limited”.
Following the arrest of the Russian mercenaries, the tone of the majority of the pro-Kremlin media in relation to Lukashenko changed.
They admitted that he has no legitimacy in the eyes of his own people and nearly all leading Russian observers openly called Lukashenko’s quarrel with Moscow a “fatal mistake”.
The Telegram channel Nezygar – which is close to Putin’s administration – re-posted a message that said Lukashenko should have agreed to the post of Secretary of the Security Council of the Union State between Belarus and Russia last December and that all of his problems stem from a refusal to accept this “tempting” offer.
On the eve of the election, the Vzglyad newspaper admitted that Russia is ready to support any winner of Belarus’ election – including avid opponents of Lukashenko.
With the election having taken place, the impression now is that Moscow is again leaning towards supporting the Belarusian dictator while emphasising that his position is precarious and that it is dangerous for him to quarrel with Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his “victory” and the hosts of popular Russian talk shows expressed restrained approval of the way he broke up protestors – but didn’t completely abandon criticism of him.
It seems as if Belarus’ protests lack organisation and a clear strategy and even opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya refused to participate in them and was then forced to leave for Lithuania, recording an appeal urging citizens to be careful of going onto the streets. This increases the likelihood that Lukashenko will be able to suppress popular discontent by force and remain in power.
At the same time, his illegitimacy is obvious both to the citizens of Belarus and to the rest of the world – something that will make the “last dictator of Europe” even more dependent on Putin’s Kremlin.