Protest meeting in Minsk on July 30.
The images of massive protests coming in from Belarus on the eve of their Presidential elections on August 9, in which Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected to rubber stamp himself another term, have provoked talk of a new color revolution/Maidan. The original social contract offered by Lukashenko since he came to power in 1994 – authoritarian rule coupled with retro-Soviet economic guarantees and rising prosperity – has derailed in the past decade, as the Russian oil and gas subsidies that sustained them have sharply contracted. Whereas more Russians migrated into Belarus than Belorussians into Russia through most of the 2000s, that flow has since reversed, and Belorussian provincial towns are now noticeably poorer than their Russian counterparts. Meanwhile, Poland has in recent years started attracting significant numbers of Belorussian Gastarbeiters – nowhere near on the scale of the Ukraine, but enough to exert cultural influence and stimulate more Belorussians into dreaming of a “European Choice.”
The problem, from Russia’s perspective, is that this “European Choice” often goes hand in hand with cultural Russophobia, such as restrictions on the Russian language, as well as the abrogation of Eurasian integration initiatives and a reversal of geopolitical orientation towards the West. In the Ukraine, the historical narrative taught in schools shifted to one of colonial oppression by Russians, who – it is claimed – are Finno-Mongol interlopers, who had actually stolen Russian culture from Ukrainians who had created it (such, at least, is the schizophrenic basis of the “Ukraina-Rus” concept). Consequently, it is not surprising that Western discussions on the events in Belarus revolve around the standard binary of American-sponsored colored revolution vs. Bel arusians finally standing up to their unpopular Russian stooge dictator.
There are elements of truth to this narrative. That the West would want to topple “Europe’s last dictator”, and that a multitude of NGOs are working towards that goal, is hardly a big secret. Elections in Belarus are completely falsified, having long ceased to have any correlation to actual vote tallies (in Russia, most electoral fraud consists of adding pro-regime votes to the total, not inventing the result out of thin air; that only generally happens in some ethnic minority republics). Lukashenko’s approval rating had fallen to 30% by summer 2016, after which independent polling was banned. Considering the economic situation hasn’t gotten any better in the past four years, and Lukashenko’s dismissal of the coronavirus crisis as a “psychosis”, it is highly unlikely that his rating will be any better today. (For comparison, Putin – though at a relatively low ebb – is currently at ~60%, according to both state-owned and independent pollsters). There are unambiguous political prisoners – the current protests were, in significant part, spurred by the imprisonment of Presidential candidates Viktor Babiriko and Sergey Tikhanovsky, both of whom would have been strong contenders under a free and fair contest. The third, Valery Tsepkalo, fled to Russia with his children before the KGB could its hands on him.
… Wait, something doesn’t sound right there. Fleeing the KGB… to Russia!? This is where this narrative breaks down: the Belorussian opposition is just not all that anti-Russian. Tikhanovsky has made several social media posts portraying Putin in a positive context, visited Crimea in 2018 to meet up with some pro-Russian Orthodox activists, and even made a video in which he claims that the “Russian world” is much larger than what is contained within Russia’s borders, and that Belarus was part of it. This has not gone unnoticed by the Ukrainian authorities, who have put him on the “Peacekeeper” no-entry list of Ukraine’s enemies. Since Tikhanovskaya has been disqualified, his place was taken by his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who until recently refused to commit to a position on Crimea (though she did, a couple of days ago, came out with “de jure Ukrainian, and de facto Russian”).
Anti-Lukashenko protests features the BSSR flag, the original independence flag, and the Russian flag. Certainly not a sight one would have seen during the Euromaidan in Ukraine with its UPA flags and Bandera iconography.
Meanwhile, it is mistaken to view Lukashenko as an unambiguously pro-Russian politician. To be sure, at the beginning of his career, he pursued a pro-Russian line – including pushing the idea of the Union State. During the late 1990s, when Yeltsin’s popularity was in the doldrums, the idea of Lukashenko becoming President of a 155 million population Union State of Russia and Belarus was not entirely far-fetched. Since then, his cachet in Russia has eroded, so it is no longer so much the Presidency of a quasi-superpower he has to look forwards to as some executive position within the Belorussian Federal District. That is obviously much less appetizing, hence his increasing penchant to make overtures to Belarusian nationalists (“zmagars”) and dalliances with the West – arrests of pro-Russian journalists and activists, the promotion of the “Litvinist” ideology that portrays Belarus as a spiritual successor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the refusal to recognize Crimea as Russian, joint exercises with the British military while refusing to host proposed Russian air bases, undermining the Russian food sanctions regime against the EU, and the steady replacement of Russian language signs by Belarusian (if with Chinese translations – Xi Jinping being a third prospective sugar daddy).
A few days ago, almost three dozen Russian mercenaries passing through Belarus en route to Sudan were arrested in a provocation that Lukashenko portrayed as a Russian plot against him. Unfortunately for him, nobody found that convincing, and latest signs point to him starting to backpedal.
The kremlins are not entirely blind to these developments, and this has resulted in them distancing from Lukashenko in recent years – after all, if he is not interested in deepening the Union State, why should Russia massively subsidize the Belarusian economy, allowing it to rake in the equivalent of ~10% of its GDP from re-exporting oil and gas sold at domestic Russian prices? This has created a vicious spiral, in which Lukashenko retaliates by further concessions to cultural zmagarists and Western outreach in order to shore up his legitimacy, which is crumbling in tandem with Belarus’ stagnant economy. Even so, the kremlins are hard-bitten realists who also recognize that, for all his faults, Lukashenko as the “last dictator in Europe” can, at least, be relied upon to not outright drift into the West’s orbit. Doing so would mean the near certain end of his regime.
One may summarize these positions in the following “Belarus Horseshoe” (as inspired by Fluctuarius Argenteus):
- “Lukashenko is a Russian stooge & that’s bad” – the Western MSM & the more zealous zmagars.
- “Lukashenko is a Russian stooge & that’s good” – Western Russophiles.
- “Lukashenko isn’t a Russian stooge & that’s bad” – Russian nationalists and the Kremlin.
- “Lukashenko isn’t a Russian stooge – but the opposition are!” – Lukashenko himself.
In the next two posts before the Belarusian elections, I will discuss in more detail why Belarus is not Ukraine in terms of anti-Russian sentiment, and will follow it up with a brief look at future prospects for the Lukashenko regime and Russian-Belorussian relations.
But before we go, I want to clarify that I am not saying that the a successful Maidan couldn’t potentially turn out very badly for Russia – while Lukashenko may not be a Russian stooge, certainly neither are the opposition. Tsepkalo seems to be a classic Westernizing technocrat, who has just moved on from Russia to Kiev. Babiriko, despite his position as chairman of a bank owned by Gazprom, has consistently been an open supporter of Western integration and distancing from Russia; as one of Belarus’ richest men, he is also perhaps best placed to fill a post-Lukashenko power vacuum. And despite her husband’s crypto-Russophilia, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said that she would seek Belarus’ withdrawal from the Union State. That said, it remains an open question to what extent this reflects true sentiments, as opposed to the practical exigencies of keeping together a diverse coalition of Soviet nostalgics, pro-Western liberals, and even a few Russophiles/Russian nationalists.
Besides, expressions of political sentiment before coming to power should be treated with a grain of salt. Few remember this, but Saakashvili also made positive noises about Russia prior to the Rose Revolution. Poroshenko was one of the co-founders of the Party of Regions, and was photographed at BBQs with hardline Russian TV presenter Dmitry Kiselev (he of the turning the US into radioactive ash fame) and Russian nationalist Chalenko. Zelensky’s involvement in Russian showbiz has not stopped the Ukraine from ensuring that all Ukrainian schools without exception will eliminate teaching in the Russian language by September 2020. To the contrary, despite some limited anti-Russian rhetoric, the color revolution in Armenia hasn’t resulted in that country turning against its one critical ally. Geopolitics and strategic culture trump personal ideology and that is always well worth keeping in mind.