Lukashenko’s Talk Offers Could Trap Him or Protesters
The besieged autocrat is stuck between Russia and a hard place.
It has now been two months since the outbreak of massive street demonstrations in Belarus in the wake of the massively falsified Aug. 9 presidential election. The initial government strategy of simply waiting out the protests has failed. The democratic opposition has the support of a majority of the population and demonstrates a tireless capacity to put at least 100,000 protesters onto the streets of Minsk every single Sunday.
The long stalemate between the government and the opposition concluded, however, as the long-standing autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenko shifted tactics over the weekend. After arranging a secret inauguration for his sixth term as president, Lukashenko appeared in person at a KGB prison to engage in roundtable negotiations along with a group of political prisoners who included his rival, the banker Viktar Babaryka. It’s a scene that’s familiar from 1989, when wrong-footed communist leaders found themselves at the negotiating table with people they’d arrested in the past. It may be the start of a transition process that allows a new start for the country—or it may be merely a case of divide and rule.
Lukashenko has found himself boxed into a particularly difficult situation. The longer the stalemate with the opposition continues the more likely he is to lose control of his security forces, to face a possible collapse of the economy, or to be forced into taking further unpalatable positions by the Kremlin. Responding with overwhelming, deadly force against protesters could culminate in a full-scale revolution as the very patient Belarusian people run out of patience.
A Russian invasion still remains unlikely, but if it did happen, Lukashenko would certainly not be kept in place even as a puppet. The yearslong balance between the Russians and the West over Belarus has been mostly abandoned, but he still hopes to weather the storm with some slight amount of independence at the end of it. Lukashenko certainly does not want to follow former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych into Russian exile.
Lukashenko and the prisoners spent four hours discussing constitutional reform, in what both Belarusian state TV and opposition telegram channels reported as “emotional but constructive arguments.” The detained Belarusian American political analyst Vitali Shkliarov, who had been an aide to both the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns and whose release U.S. authorities have demanded, was seated at the table along with other prominent political prisoners.
On Sunday, Belarusian media reported that at least two of the participants of the Saturday meeting in the prison were to be released under house arrest, seemingly having agreed to take part in drafting the new constitution. That helped elevate Lukashenko’s meeting with the political prisoners from presidential whimsy or manipulation to a serious concession. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now widely acknowledged as the legitimate president of the country by most European states, underlined that Lukashenko had de facto “acknowledged the existence of political prisoners whom he used to call criminals.” She was also allowed to speak by phone with her imprisoned husband for the first time in four months.
But the protesters need to be careful in this situation. A redrafting of the flawed Belarusian Constitution, established in 1996, was always on the table. It was later amended to radically expand the president’s powers and is seen by most all parties involved, including by Lukashenko, as not allowing for a proper balance of power in the country. But it has also been Lukashenko’s preferred strategy for diffusing and subduing the protest movement. Russian President Vladimir Putin also backed the initiative during his and Lukashenko’s one-on-one meeting in Sochi last month. At the time, the Belarusian opposition roundly and unitedly rejected the overtures as meaningless stalling.
Lukashenko has never allowed Belarus to establish any semblance of authentic parliamentarianism, instead concentrating all power in an authoritarian executive and control over the security apparatus. The Belarusian parliament does not exist as an independent institution, with all Belarusian political parties exiting as completely hollow structures. This was always part of Lukashenko’s strategy to minimize the Russian influence on the nation’s internal politics, as the robust representation of the pro-Russian position within parliament by local proxy parties is a central mechanism of Moscow’s influence and a major internal problem for the Moldovans, Georgians, and Ukrainians. For the most part, Lukashenko simply did not allow pro-Russian or Russian nationalist parties and organizations that would further extend Russian influence within the country to develop.
For its part, the Kremlin likewise favors a rewritten and rebooted constitution as its preferred mechanism for increasing Russian influence over the country. That would allow for the inception of useful articles into the new constitutional structure. From the standpoint of the Kremlin, any transition process would require reformatting the power structures as well as bringing in its favored elites to govern the country.
But even as Lukashenko reached out one hand to the protesters, the other held a truncheon. The regime engaged in a renewed bout of intense violence during the next day’s demonstrations. Social media and Telegram channels filled up ideas of indiscriminate beatings of protesters by interior ministry troops and plainclothes security agents.
As many as 400 protesters and 40 journalists were arrested by riot police who deployed rubber bullets and pepper spray. The security service’s violence against peaceful protesters was ratcheted back up to the levels previously only seen on Aug. 9-11, immediately after the presidential election.
The simultaneous gestures toward opening up dialogue along with increased repression and brutality on the streets of Minsk make a perverse sort of sense. The beatings underlined the regime’s leverage on political opponents and signaled that Lukashenko would not tolerate being seen as offering political concessions out of weakness.
Tikhanovskaya had spent the previous week publicly meeting with seemingly every leader across the continent as European Union support for her and the democratic opposition has continued to solidify. The government’s strategy now is to try to split the cohesion of the opposition and to cut off those who are currently outside the country from those members of the opposition who are sitting in detention cells. The choice that this presents to the opposition is a difficult one, as it might lose credibility with the electorate and legitimacy with the international community if it seems to reject Lukashenko’s proposals outright. On the other hand, accepting his offer of partnership in what is very likely a false promise of serious dialogue might lead to losing momentum or even the chance of victory outright. The decision is not an enviable one.