Lukashenko Doesn’t Want to Be Putin’s Deputy Tsar

Russia will do just enough to prop up Belarus’s tottering regime.

People holding placards with images of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko
People holding placards with images of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko support striking workers in Minsk on Aug. 18. Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

The uprising in Belarus is unprecedented, and it doesn’t just matter for the country itself. The future of this small state will have serious global consequences, not least in the choices that Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to make.

No one anticipated such resounding success for the opposition and such failure for President Aleksandr Lukashenko in the presidential elections. The exact results are not known, but polling places that have reported undistorted results recorded 60 to 90 percent of the vote for the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and no more than 17 percent for Lukashenko—more often around 10 percent.

If Lukashenko’s results were actually anywhere near the officially announced ones—more than 80 percent of the vote—his supporters would have taken to the streets to show that the elections were fair. Instead, he was only able to gather several thousand people a week later, and they were reportedly bussed in by assignment from state enterprises throughout Belarus. Some of them joined the protest marches after the official rally was over. The elections showed that there is no standoff between Lukashenko’s supporters and his opponents. There is only a standoff between Lukashenko and his remaining forces on the one hand and a society that wants change on the other.

When the preliminary results came in, Lukashenko had a choice. Not so long ago he was a national leader, not an international criminal. Lukashenko’s crimes of recent years—falsification of elections and repression of the opposition—were still in line with the usual behavior of authoritarian regimes. Had he started negotiations, he might have received guarantees of personal security.

However, he chose a different path. He announced absolutely unrealistic results and began to suppress protests by force. Now there is no level of violence that he will stop at in an effort to maintain power.

At first glance, this seems like a winning strategy. Unarmed citizens are going up against well-armed brutes acting with deliberate cruelty. Sooner or later, once enough people are killed and maimed, once enough people are arrested and jailed, the protests should begin to die down.

But the people aren’t scared. Lukashenko is being met with open chants of “Resign!” at events. The protests are only growing, strikes are beginning, and women are linking arms in solidarity. Then there is the problem of loyalty among the siloviki, the military and special forces. So far, there have been only occasional incidents of the siloviki refusing to follow orders; for the most part, the special forces have remained loyal to top-down command structure. But that’s only the case for now, when the deaths of only two protesters have been officially recognized.

Yet Belarus is a small and relatively homogeneous country, with only two or three degrees of separation between a police officer and the protester he’s beating. Once the casualties are high enough, police officers will refuse to follow orders or start sabotaging them. What will the commanding officers do if the standoff continues? Lukashenko doesn’t have an ideology; he is only fighting to keep a hold on power. He will be obeyed while he remains in control, but a drawn-out protest will demonstrate his weakness.

Whatever happens over the next few days and weeks, Lukashenko will not survive in the long term without support from abroad. He has no diamonds or oil to provide him with revenues that he could use to pay the security forces while ignoring the rest of the population. Someone must supply him with the cash to sustain the infrastructure of his autocracy.

Technically, either China or Russia could do this. But the Kremlin will not agree to the emergence of a Chinese protectorate in its backyard. China appears to have no strong interest in Belarus, although it issued statements of support for Lukashenko. So, Russia will give Lukashenko money, but only the bare minimum needed. The best scenario for the Kremlin is a weak Lukashenko who is in conflict with the people, isolated from the West, and fully dependent on Moscow. That paves the way for the Kremlin’s long-awaited “unification,” i.e., absorption, of Belarus.

But Lukashenko understands this as well; he wants to be a tsar, not a deputy tsar for Belarus, so he is willing to escalate the situation, hoping to win the conflict.

Judging from the first few days, a quick victory is not in the cards. The protests continue; the banishment from Belarus of Tikhanovskaya—who had clearly won the election—is unlikely to bring success. (It appears that the authorities forced her to call for an end to the protests and leave the country by leveraging the lives of her children and her husband, who is in prison.)

Tikhanovskaya put it best when she said that she isn’t a leader but rather a symbol, that people are taking to the streets against Lukashenko and not for her. It’s not Tikhanovskaya and her campaign that are going up against Lukashenko, it’s the tens of thousands of Belarusians who do not need a leader. Instead, Lukashenko let the special forces loose against them. Dictators don’t really see people; they see the entire world as clans—financial, military, or criminal bosses that they need to negotiate with. Dictators think that people take to the streets because they are paid to, because they are manipulated, or because they are ordered to from abroad. Dictators think that as long as they don’t show weakness, then the people will get tired of protesting or will be intimidated. History shows that dictators are wrong, but only realize this when it’s too late.

However, the Kremlin will not hand Belarus over to the opposition. Putin seems to dislike Lukashenko and would likely be happy to have someone else in power in Belarus, but he cannot allow Lukashenko to be removed by the will of the people. Russia and Belarus are too close in culture and mentality: The ouster of the Belarusian dictator as a result of the elections could energize the democratic movement in Russia, where the authoritarian regime is already barely hanging on. So, if Lukashenko can’t handle the situation himself, Russia might help him.

The Kremlin could use the tactics it tested in Ukraine to justify invading Belarus: cite an impending NATO intervention; contend that nationalists are trying to prohibit the use of the Russian language or persecute ethnic Russians; or—on the contrary—claim that it is saving the Belarusians, rescuing them from the repressions of the bankrupt Lukashenko regime. In the last scenario, Putin would play the role of the protector of the fraternal Belarusian people from tyranny.

In fact, Lukashenko has already asked Putin for help, decrying the threat of a NATO invasion. Lukashenko said that he has received a promise of assistance, but the Kremlin has not made any comment on the subject.

Whatever slogans are used, a Russian intervention would allow Putin to do more than just finally annex Belarus. Facing a rapid loss of popularity, sweeping disillusionment with the regime and with him personally, and mass protests throughout Russia, Putin seems to think that he can count on the same kind of public enthusiasm that accompanied the annexation of Crimea.

This would be another mistake for Putin. The Russian people are tired of being in a face-off with the entire world, and an intervention in Belarus would result in the loss of many lives. Nevertheless, the Russian leadership, which has no plan for bringing the country out of the systemic crisis it is in, could take this gamble.

Here, much depends on the West’s willingness to take strong and coordinated action. The West must not only apply serious sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime, but also formally recognize Tikhanovskaya as the president-elect. This would not only extend moral support to the anti-Lukashenko forces, but also promote the emergence of an alternative political player that the Russian leadership would have to contend with—and possibly forestall a stronger Russian intervention.

Leonid Gozman is a Russian commentator and politician.