Time Is Running Out in Belarus
Putin is signaling he wants a clear resolution—but he may not mind which side wins.
The authoritarian government of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has escalated its crackdowns against the opposition as protests continue to flare across the country in the wake of a falsified presidential election. Foreign journalists have been expelled en masse, and the embattled strongman president looks increasingly to be looking to Russia—where President Vladimir Putin is signaling stronger support for his fellow autocrat, emboldening Lukashenko to harsher actions even as tens of thousands of protests chant “Tribunal! Tribunal!” outside his residence. But Lukashenko may be misreading how far Putin is willing to go—and who his message was aimed at.
For the third Sunday in a row, Minsk was overflowing with protesters hoisting the red and white national flag. Their sheer weight of numbers deterred the deployment of wide-scale violence against them and sent a message that Lukashenko could not simply wait them out. But likewise, for the second week in a row, Lukashenko could be seen cavorting in a special forces uniform with a machine gun in hand.
When they have the numbers, the security forces have been confident in using force. On Wednesday night, when a hundred protesters sought sanctuary from the arrests in the iconic red-bricked neo-Romanesque Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena, security forces promptly barricaded the doors and trapped them inside. Earlier Monday, immediately after the weekend protests, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the archbishop of Minsk, was banned from reentering the nation after a trip to neighboring Poland. The banning of the leader of the Catholic Church in Belarus (also a Belarusian citizen, making his expulsion patently unconstitutional) summons memories of the organized repression of religion by communist authorities. It also inevitably dashes all hopes of the Belarusian churches, one of precious few existing forces independent of the state, acting as potential intermediaries between the government and the opposition.
Earlier in the week, leaders from the opposition Transition Council, such as factory strike leader Sergei Dylevsky and opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign aide Olga Kovalkova, were detained. 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich, the moral conscience of the council, was demonstratively called into the Investigative Committee for a deposition that lasted only 15 minutes.
The fate of Belarus, which has fully open borders and residency with Russia, is a core interest for Moscow. How far the Kremlin would be willing to go to intervene on behalf of Lukashenko, with whom Putin has an acrimonious personal relationship, was an open question during the first two weeks of the political crisis.
But Putin’s announcement of the creation of a reserve police force that would be on call if authorities in Minsk ever requested assistance was a decisive, if also somewhat ambiguous, declaration of Moscow’s position. Putin underlined that it was not yet time for such assistance to be sent and that it would only be done if “extremist elements”—an unmistakable nod to the Ukrainian Maidan protests of 2014—began to disrupt order. Moscow has already demonstrated its public willingness to lend assistance by sending media specialists to take over the running of Belarusian propaganda channels after some workers defected to the opposition and walked out of their studios. Perhaps the statement was meant to publicly telegraph that Lukashenko had acquiesced to the totality of Moscow’s demands and had agreed to be more pliable in the future.
Yet the relative ambiguity of Putin’s comments left Russia watchers divided on what his actual intentions were—which may have been the point. The Lukashenko regime’s deep unpopularity makes the prospect of propping it up against the will of a recalcitrant majority a potentially risk-laden and expensive venture—I have observed affection for Russia dissipate by the day among protesters in Minsk—with the Kremlin perhaps settling on the calculation that Lukashenko needs it far more than it needs him.
Was this an open declaration of Moscow’s willingness to shore up Lukashenko, or was it an implicit guarantee to the Belarusian protesters that intervention would not take place if the protests remained peaceful and manageable? The Russian population, which might not be thrilled with their children being ordered to shoot fellow Russian-speaking Orthodox Slavs in Belarus, would need to be adequately prepared by the Kremlin for an incursion that consisted of more than a few battalions of anti-riot police and OMON paramilitary specialized forces.
The European Union and the United States have taken a low-key approach to the Belarusian political crisis (with the exception of the vigorous efforts of neighboring Lithuania), and the paucity of pro-European slogans and EU flags in the streets of Minsk indicate a low risk of any successor to Lukashenko pivoting the country toward a clear anti-Moscow position. The mass of the Belarusian population is more exhausted by the indignities of 26 years’ worth of autocracy and, implicitly, a lack of progress in developing the nation in whatever direction than they are concerned with geopolitical positioning. The general Russian population will be even less enthused at the prospect of direct intervention in Belarus than it has been in Ukraine, where the long war has worn the public down despite the enthusiasm for the seizure of Crimea, and the Kremlin may have been gauging the predisposition of the Russian population with Putin’s comments.
Moscow’s resources have also been stretched thin in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, coupled with a catastrophic drop in international gas and oil prices, along with the latest round of European sanctions and the uncertainty of the U.S. presidential elections, does not make this ideal timing. Squandering resources on the unpopular Lukashenko and incurring the reputational costs of doing so is definitely not a first-order priority for Russia.
Enforcing an orderly managed transition in Minsk toward a pragmatic and acceptable opposition figure who would not radically alter existing arrangements would be the best possible outcome for Moscow. As the Belarusian economy has begun to unravel, with the Belarusian ruble in an inexorable decline on currency markets and tech companies announcing their imminent departure from Minsk, the Russian and Belarusian prime ministers announced late last week the opening of talks to refinance Minsk’s debt. The disciplined nonviolence of the Belarusian protesters represents their widely held understanding that these tactics are necessary for assuaging the Kremlin’s worries. The workers will come to their side any day now, they insist, and the regime will quickly collapse.
In any case, it is becoming increasingly obvious that time is clearly not on the side of the Belarusian protesters. Time-saving measures are Lukashenko’s main argument. The longer the standoff continues between Lukashenko and the opposition who hold the streets all across the cities and towns of Belarus, the more likely it is that the nation’s future will be decided in Moscow rather than in Minsk.