Belarus: The uprising has begun and is not going to stop soon

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People attend a rally in support of the Belarusian Opposition to demonstrate against police brutality and the presidential election results on the Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, 18 August 2020. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

The protesters in Belarus are pawns in a geopolitical tectonic battle between East and West, although they don’t realise it, write Noé Morin and Bryan Bille.

Noé Morin is an independent consultant and former journalist specialised on the Eurasian region. Bryan Bille is a policy adviser and international relations expert.

The landslide victory of Alexander Lukashenko in the fraudulent presidential elections sparked a wave of protests in Minsk and across the country, which were brutally crushed by the security apparatus (approximately 120,000 staff).

The unprecedented protests, both in nature and scope, are aimed at rallying enough support for democratic regime change and fair elections in a country, where Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

Large parts of the Belarussian population had already shown their dissatisfaction with the current handling of the COVID-19 crisis and with the falling economy. After been woken up from its long winter sleep of 26 years, will the Belarussian civil society succeed in removing the last dictator of Europe and in finding a valid alternative? Or will Batka hold on to power?

As Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, seen as the real winner of the presidential elections and supported by the US, called on senior members of the highly repressive security apparatus to switch sides, further support of the country’s security apparatus will be crucial in determining the country’s fate.

Euromaidan 2.0?

Unlike the public protests in 2013 in Kyiv and the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, sparked by the decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, instead choosing closer ties to Russia which led to the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the ongoing protests in Belarus are not against Russian influence and demonstrators are not waving European flags but red-and-white flags.

The Belarussian civil society just wants fair elections and is fed up with the current authoritarian regime. In addition, Lukashenko conveyed hostile messages towards the Kremlin during his presidential election campaign and has simultaneously locked-up pro-Russian opposition candidates.

A Russian intervention, like in Ukraine, is therefore not likely, at least for now (more info below).

Sandwiched between the West and the East.

Given the strategic position of Belarus on the central axis between the European Union and Russia, both the West and the East are closely following the latest developments and are concerned about the country’s fate.

Russia is Belarus’ most important economic partner and Minsk is extremely reliant on cheap oil and gas supplies from Moscow. It has inherited the security apparatus (the secret service is still named KGB) and an inefficient economic system from the Soviet Union. Both countries are members of a union state set up in 1999 to harmonize the political and economic differences and to foster military cooperation between the two countries.

Over the past few years, president Lukashenko has rejected several proposals from president Putin for closer integration, including a single currency. Consequently, Russia blocked Belarussian imports and cut cheap oil and gas supplies. In response to this, Lukashenko has made efforts to improve Belarus’ economic relations with the West and has tried to diversify the country’s energy supplies.

Following the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2020 (the first US state visit since Lukashenko came to power in 1994), Belarus has received in May its first American oil delivery.

Recently, China emerged as a new global player on the Belarussian economic scene, being Belarus’ third trade partner. By way of illustration: the Great Stone Belarus-China industrial park is located in a special economic zone just outside Minsk and is a key element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Eurasia.

In order to preserve a stable investment climate, it is believed that China has delivered its surveillance systems and know-how to the autocratic regime. Per Memoria: a few hours after the announcement of the election results, the internet in Belarus was brought to a standstill across the country, fearing massive protests following the fraudulent elections.

As the EU considers its next steps on Belarus, it will likely take targeted sanctions against individuals, part of the inner circle of Lukashenko and closely involved both in the falsification of the election results and the brutal repression. While broader economic sanctions make no sense and would hit large parts of the Belarussian population, targeted sanctions against individuals already proved to be useless in the past and have more a symbolic value.

The EU is in favour of peaceful transition of power via a national dialogue, for instance under the supervision of the OSCE. Recurrent human rights violations and deeply embedded corruption have always been impediments to developing closer trade ties between the EU and Belarus.

As a result, the EU-Belarus trade relations are still based on a deal concluded in 1989 with the Soviet Union.

Against this geopolitical background, Lukashenko is sandwiched between several players and has isolated himself because of the choices he made and the diversification of the country’s trade alliances. Various EU political leaders have denounced the use of violence during the recent peaceful mass protests across the country. Belarus has alienated itself even more from the Kremlin after accepting oil supplies from the US while, at the same time, being part of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Possible ways out of the crisis

As things currently stand, Russia has no interest in ousting Lukashenko from power. Russia’s doctrine could be described as: “Lukashenko is our best man, in the absence of anyone better”. Overthrowing him would cause political turmoil, out of which a pro-Western candidate could emerge.

Therefore, Russia has an important role to play in Minsk in order to get Lukashenko either to step down – he appeared to suggest he was open to leaving the presidency under certain conditions – and to lead the country to the needed democratic change or to transfer some of his executive powers as part of constitutional reforms approved by a referendum.

If Lukashenko were to step down, he would need to have guarantees for his own and his family’s safety. However, there is no doubt that finding a Russia- or EU/US-compatible successor, with support of the country’s majority, will prove to be difficult.

Let us not forget that in Lithuania, at the time of writing, US-backed opposition is being formed around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with the objective of imposing itself as the legitimate government in exile. Tikhanovskaya’s allies have recently formed a coordination council to facilitate a transfer of power.

If, on the contrary, Lukashenko insisted to stay in command, he would likely keep using violence and he could impose a martial law trying to get rid of those in the state apparatus who secretly are working on a putsch. That would entail major risks: as stated before, the President is rather isolated. The uprising has begun and is not going to stop soon.

If Lukashenko is overthrown by the protests, Russia could be tempted to intervene in one way or another.

Recent developments in Belarus do not only reflect a country in crisis and a possible awakening of a new nation at the boundaries of the European Union and Russia. They also illustrate the ongoing reconfiguration of great powers’ spheres of influence in the Eurasian region. Belarusian protesters are – in an unconscious manner – subjects of a geopolitical tectonic battle between the East and the West. That is why their revolution is both precious and fragile.

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