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Belarus between freedom and conflict

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Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, is accused of using massive fraud to steal his 2020 re-election and of the violent mistreatment of protesters in a democracy movement.

After the euphoria of national emancipation, Belarus now faces uncertainty about its future. A dangerous scenario can unfold even if President Alexander Lukashenko resigns with promises of new elections. A country that was once considered one of the most passive in the former Soviet empire has exploded with mass protests against election fraud and police brutality. The popular rebellion has encompassed every sector of society and all parts of the country and even the loyalty of internal security units to Lukashenko is in doubt.

A peaceful resolution of the Belarusian uprising would necessitate new internationally mediated elections that are accepted as legitimate by the majority of citizens. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country holds the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a multi-national body with unmatched experience in monitoring elections, has already offered to mediate talks between government and opposition. Such a political transition needs to involve Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the real victor of the August nine elections, who was forced to flee to Lithuania.

For the time being, Lukashenko seems intent on clinging to power, even while sending contradictory signals as protests escalate. He can appeal for Moscow’s direct assistance, claiming that the Belarus revolution also threatens Russia. But for President Vladimir Putin, each option carries serious risks. If he does not act and Lukashenko is forced to step down, then the message for Russian citizens will be clear — that peaceful mass protests can dislodge even the most oppressive regime. Belarus, Russia’s closest ally with long-standing cultural links, can serve as an example to mobilize Russian citizens. And with frustration mounting over dire economic conditions, anti-Putin protests could ignite throughout the Russian Federation.

A direct intervention in Belarus could prove even riskier for Putin. Propping up Lukashenko would necessitate mass repression and the infiltration of Russia’s security forces. Anti-Lukashenko demonstrations could turn against Putin if he tries to unilaterally orchestrate any leadership transition. On the other hand, allowing opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya to assume the presidency or arranging new democratic elections could also prove damaging for Moscow. If Putin cannot control the new government in Minsk, then Belarus is likely to pursue closer links with the West.

Although Belarusians may not see any contradiction between developing closer ties with Europe and America and maintaining good relations with Russia, the Kremlin depicts the EU and the U.S. as expansionist threats. There is little opportunity to territorially partition the country and try to hold it hostage, as with Ukraine or Georgia. But other scenarios to block Belarus’s independent foreign policy can be manufactured. Putin may seek to fracture the political scene and corrupt the elites, as in Moldova, or ensure compliance through economic dependence and the presence of Russian military bases, as in Armenia. But buying presidential candidates and splitting the vote remains risky if a relative independent such as Tsikhanouskaya wins again and seeks closer relations with the West.  

The Kremlin may conclude that a more direct intervention in Belarus is necessary to maintain Russia’s empire building and preserve the Putin regime. This is likely to be preceded by two key elements. First, a concerted propaganda and disinformation campaign would claim that Western agents are staging a “colored revolution” in Belarus to tear the country away from Russia. Poland and Lithuania would be portrayed as the major aggressors. Second, a provocation may be required as a pretext for military or paramilitary intervention. This could be a staged terrorist attack on a government facility that will be blamed on Western saboteurs or a military provocation along Belarus’s border with NATO.

Russia’s intervention can be couched as “brotherly assistance” to protect the country from NATO infiltration. Moscow may even decide to replace Lukashenko by depicting its intervention as a humanitarian gesture to help Belarusians remove “the last dictator in Europe” while establishing a more Russia-friendly regime and staging fresh elections under Moscow’s supervision. However, Putin can no longer take for granted the passivity of the Belarusian people who have already protested against one fraudulent election. If protests in Belarus become anti-Putin rallies, the fervor could spill over the eastern border, where Russians could also discard their stereotype of political passivity. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Belarus Belarusian presidential election Minsk Opposition to Vladimir Putin in Russia Politics of Russia Russia Russia under Vladimir Putin Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Vladimir Putin

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