STOLYPIN: Moscow is not Minsk, but it is in its shadow

STOLYPIN: Moscow is not Minsk, but it is in its shadow
Will Russia come to Lukashenko's aid and prevent the popular protests ousting the last dictator in Europe? / wiki
By Mark Galeotti director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and also an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies August 15, 2020

Can Lukashenko survive? While not impossible, it is looking increasingly unlikely. With the situation on the ground moving so quickly, though, I will not pretend to predict whether Lukashenko will have fallen, declared martial law, or however else he may have responded to the current wave of protests by the time this goes online. As Lenin wrote, “it is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious law.”

The dilemma Lukashenko faces is a truly existential one, and there seem few good options available to him now he has opted to escalate his war on his own people.

He’s not the only one who is worrying, though. The sudden emergence of a nation-wide protest movement in Belarus, one that embraces students and pensioners, factory workers and computer programmers, is also posing a massive dilemma for the Kremlin, and one for which there seem similarly few good options.

The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It

Many outside commentators, used to writing about Russia and predicting Putin’s imminent demise, want to turn the discussion eastwards. (And don’t even get me started on those American writers who, as with seemingly everything else, want to use Lukashenko as a parable for Trump.) The assumption is that any victory for people power in Belarus must empower opposition to the Kremlin in Russia.

Ironically enough, Lukashenko himself has tried to adopt this argument in a bid to win Russian support. Before he had a conversation with him on Saturday, Lukashenko told the Belta news agency that he needed to talk to Putin “because it is not a threat to just Belarus anymore.” Rather, “defending Belarus today is no less than defending our entire space, the Union State.”

This may be true, but we really ought not to take it as read. This was, after all, one of the conceits after the Euromaidan, and six years on there is little evidence that Russians see Ukraine as a role model. If anything the opposite is true: the Kremlin’s propagandists have quite successfully managed to make it a short-hand for chaos and, if anything, a return to a 1990s ‘time of troubles.’

Of course, the response is that Ukraine has not yet been able to fulfil its potential, that if and when it achieves the promise of the Maidan, then it will pose a dangerous alternative model for Russia. However, the point is precisely that six years on that is still far from a reality. Belarus – whose economy is still dependent on almost Soviet-style industrial leviathans and whose political system will need to be cleansed of 25 years of ‘Lukashenkoism’ – is unlikely to resolve its future challenges overnight.

If nothing else, the Kremlin itself – which usually errs on the side of paranoia – shows little sign yet of fearing democratic contagion. If anything, the messages in the state-controlled and -adjacent media suggest a growing disenchantment with ‘Batka’ such that the Russians would be willing to let him fall.

What Is To Be Done?

The Kremlin’s concerns are likely more geopolitical than that. At present, this is wholly anti-Lukashenko movement, with no anti-Russian dimension, nor even an explicitly pro-Western one.

Indeed, two of the three would-be opposition candidates, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, would likely to acceptable to Moscow, if they were willing to give it the right guarantees. Babariko had been given financial support by Russia’s Gazprom, and Tsepkalo had initially fled to Moscow, before moving on to Kyiv.

However, presumed rightful president-elect Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to exile in supportive neighbouring Lithuania and, although the chances of the EU bestirring itself actually to do anything until the crisis is settled one way or the other are minimal, many European countries are certainly making the right noises.

The danger, as far as Moscow is concerned, is that in any post-Lukashenko politics, the inevitable bidding war between candidates seeking to win support would lead to promises being made about EU membership or the like. To this extent, it makes no real difference whether or not these are plausible for a country which is so closely tied to Moscow. Russia, after all, accounts for more than a third of Belarusian exports and over half its imports. The two countries are also locked into mutual security guarantees and formal ‘Union State’ status.

Promises are the fuel of politics. In many ways Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych fell precisely because he promised a deal with the EU and then reneged on it under Russian pressure. Moscow must be concerned about a similar process in Belarus.

And not just Moscow, but Putin. It is clear that he is preoccupied to the point of distraction with Russia’s geopolitical position, and also with his historical legacy, to which this is connected. Ukraine has, to all intents and purposes, been ‘lost.’ Could Putin allow another Slavic ‘Near Abroad’ state also to wrest itself from Russia’s sphere of influence? Especially one with which Russia is meant to be in “union”, however fraught, contested and sometimes meaningless than actually turned out to be.

The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

Lukashenko was never ‘Putin’s man.’ Quite the opposite, he was a persistent thorn in his side, and before the elections had been perfectly content to paint Moscow as his enemy in a bid to win local political support, arresting 33 Wagner mercenaries apparently in transit and claiming they were part of some nefarious ‘hybrid’ plot.

The Kremlin does not have any serious ideological commitment to fighting democracy or protecting autocracy in their own right. Nikol Pashinyan was hardly its dream candidate, but after his election following Armenia’s own popular revolution in 2018, it has been able to work with him, as he has made it clear he does not propose any major changes in Armenia’s foreign policy.

Thus, a new leader who could offer stability and promise to guarantee Belarus’s current position of being half a Russian ally, half a neutral power, might well be satisfactory to Moscow.

After all, what else can it do? Although contingency plans are no doubt being worked on within the General Staff – that is their job, after all – a military option is almost certainly off the table. This is not Ukraine in 2014: the Belarusian KGB and military are less infiltrated by Russian agents than their Ukrainian counterparts then, the chain of command is not in crisis, and there is no reason to believe that all or most of its soldiers would fight.

That the Russian military could defeat 16,500 troops – even with the addition of security forces – in open battle is not in doubt. Pacification would be another matter, and for what? The political costs of rolling into a country with bitter memories of Nazi occupation would be huge. Russians have no interest in seeing their flag flying over Minsk, let alone the cost of taking responsibility for 9.5 million people with a GDP per capita half their own.

Moscow is not without some muscle it could exert, from economic sanctions to political pressure, but the irony is that this only really can be used against the government, not the street. Short of providing some extra OMON riot police, something that would have a disastrous effect on Belarusian attitudes to Russia, there is not much it could do.

In fairness, Moscow seems to be making no operational or political preparations for any kind of intervention. There is no serious talk of ‘fascist revanchism’ or ‘NATO colour revolution,’ as accompanied intervention in Ukraine. It would be tempting to hope that the Kremlin has learned the lesson of its Pyrrhic operation in the Donbas, but probably more likely that it simply realises it has little to gain and much to lose by trying to help Lukashenko.

What the Friends of the People are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats

A delicious Machiavellian option, after all, would be for Putin overtly to move against Lukashenko, whether with ‘polite people’ – ‘little green men’ from the other side of the looking-glass – or, more likely, political pressure. It could offer him sanctuary in its expanding colony of ex-dictators, while loudly hailing the chance for free and fair elections, hoping to accrue new political capital in Belarus as the ‘Union State’ partner who stood with the people.

Putin is not a risk-taker, though, and nor does he have the dark sense of sophisticated irony such a strategy would imply. Instead, there is probably a great deal of agonising taking place in the Kremlin, and an equal amount of information-gathering.

Russia has, after all, a complex network of economic and political contacts inside Belarus, not least because of the way it has been used as a turntable for covert trades, from shifting money out to the West – especially through Lithuania – to smuggling in sanctioned luxury goods for the elite. It has also strong connections into the military, police and even KGB. Those contacts are likely being worked to try and ascertain the mood and discipline of the security forces (on which Lukashenko’s future now wholly depends), the divisions within the elite, and the opinions of potential post-Lukashenko movers and shakers.

The Russian popular stereotype is that whereas the Ukrainians are passionate and unreliable, the Belarusians are sober and reliable. Ultimately, Moscow’s limited options may well come down to whether they can rely on the Belarusian people and their next generation of leaders to be, as they see it, ‘sensible.’

If not, then the Kremlin will presumably have to decide which of a whole series of bad choices looks least dangerous and least objectionable. So far at least, we have no real sense of what they would choose – presumably because the Russian leadership themselves don’t know, and are desperately hoping that this is a discussion they will not have to have.