The Russian scenario for Belarus. Playing the long game11.12.2020
The massive protests in Belarus turned out to be unexpected not only for the Belarusian political elites, but also for Russian Federation which found them as a serious challenge to face.
Being in the sphere of Russian interests Minsk was the one considered by the Kremlin as the greatest ally and stronghold of security and stability on the western borders. Moreover, concurrently with the events in Belarus, there is an increase of the protest activity in Russian regions. Therefore, if the Belarusian opposition succeeds, there will be a danger of the revolutionary reaction spreading in Russia too.
The dynamics and nature of the Belarusian protest prove that the political crisis in Belarus is likely to be protracted, and that Belarusian society expects not a revolutionary course of events, but the evolutionary one. A characteristic feature of the Belarusian protest is its internal orientation and the absence of the geopolitical slogans. While the similar events in Ukraine have had a clear anti-Russian orientation, the Belarusian opposition considers Russia, rather, as a partner for the peaceful transit of power. This can be confirmed, in particular, by the statements of the oppositionist Svetlana Tikhanovskaya1 and the Nobel Prize winner, the writer Svetlana Alekseevich2.
Traditionally, a third party is of great significance in the course of resolving such disputes, as it plays a role of mediator and offers the ways to resolve the crisis. After the West refused to recognize the official election results in Belarus, and statements of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba concerning the time off in relations with official Minsk, as well as anti-Polish and anti-Lithuanian statements of Alexander Lukashenko, it became clear that the further political transformations will happen in Belarus with the involvement of Russian Federation.
Taking into account the difficult relations between Moscow and Minsk in recent years and the fact that the election rhetoric of the Belarusian president was based on the image of Russia as the main threat to Belarusian statehood, Alexander Lukashenko having found himself in a critical situation still decided to make a bet on the Kremlin3.
Such a move demonstrates the weakness of the central government and is a kind of signal that Lukashenko is ready to sacrifice even the sovereignty of the state in order to preserve the power. Moreover, the weakening of the Belarusian government and the most possible control over the situation in Belarus are the main goals pursued by Russia in recent years. The idea of integration of the two countries into the Union State, revived by Russia, became an important tool of pressure in this process.
Demonstrating his loyalty to the Russian government, having lost the opportunity to maneuver between the East and the West, having no legitimacy within the country, Alexander Lukashenko is becoming increasingly vulnerable and dependent on Russia. And this state of affairs definitely plays into the hands of the Kremlin. Therefore, suggesting its “extensive assistance”4, Russia does not support Lukashenko personally. While supporting him, Russian government strengthens its own presence in Belarus and at the same time uses this support as a tool to achieve its own long-term goals in the republic.
Thus, there is a window of opportunities for the Russian leadership to influence the internal political processes in Belarus. Supporting the Belarusian authorities, Moscow has sent its media specialists to Minsk5, who are already providing information and propaganda support for the pro-Russian narratives within Belarus. It is worth noting the activities aimed at discrediting and splitting the protest movement in Belarus, promoting the messages about the “West’s work” in organizing rallies, the threat from the NATO, justifying the use of force to counter the protests, and more.
Another one and perhaps the key task is to promote the formation of the new pro-Russian political projects in the Belarusian political field that will be in opposition to the current government. At the moment, there are no Russian-oriented political forces in the Belarusian political field, and the main pro-Russian politician has long been the Belarusian president himself. Later, such projects will be considered as an alternative to Alexander Lukashenko’s government, which will allow Russia to influence the political life in Belarus.
As a result, the Kremlin retains various scenarios of events taking place in Belarus. Recognizing Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate president and increasing his dependence and being under control6, Russia will support him until the alternative pro-Russian figure emerges. Whether it will happen sooner or later, this is an open-ended question.
The scenario of violent Russian intervention mentioned by Vladimir Putin7, is currently unlikely and it could lead to a rise of the anti-Russian attitude in Belarus and escalation of the confrontation with the West in he future. Therefore, while the “extremist elements” mentioned by the Russian president do not go beyond certain limits, the possibility of such scenario can be considered as relatively small.
To crown it all, Russia’s interest in Belarus is much more ambitious and strategic than the traditional support of another authoritarian leader. It is important for Russia to keep Belarus in its sphere of influence, and to prevent the change of government through peaceful protest, which would be an unpleasant precedent for the Russian government.
In view of this, the best and at the same time, unfortunately, the least probable scenario for Belarusians could be a national consensus and dialogue between the authorities and the people. This would help to protect the country from the external interference and avoid the political turbulence in the future.
One way or another, whatever the Russian scenario for Belarus is, it may not coincide with the interests and plans of Belarusian society for its country.
TARAS POLIOVYI, PhD in Political Science, Chair of International Information, Lviv Polytechnic National University
This publication is part to the partnership between Newssky Media Group and the Institute for Democratization and Development/Ця публікація здійснюється у партнерстві Newssky Media Group та Інституту демократизації та розвитку