BELARUS: NOW IT GETS DICEY

Alyaksandr Lukeshenko file photo, adapted from image at usembassy.gov

Subject: BELARUS: NOW IT GETS DICEY
Date: Sat, 26 Sep 2020
From: Kirk Bennett <kirkbennett7@yahoo.com>

BELARUS: NOW IT GETS DICEY
By Kirk Bennett
Kirk Bennett is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who worked most of his career on issues related to the post-Soviet space.

Moscow faces a number of unpleasant scenarios in Belarus. At the same time, stepping up the pressure against Lukashenka, paradoxically, risks playing into the Kremlin’s hands.

Map of Belarus and Environs, adapted from images at cia.govI can readily envision my ideal outcome for Belarus.

Savoring my morning latté, I turn on my computer and abruptly spray coffee all over the screen upon reading the sensational news that Lukashenka, at some point in the dead of night, has abruptly vanished from the presidential palace. Scrolling excitedly through the headlines, I see from one account that he was spirited out of Minsk in a Russian APC; another report maintains that, like Kerensky in 1917, he fled on foot disguised, rather improbably, as a woman. One purported eyewitness has already spotted him playing tennis with his son Kolya on the grounds of a dacha outside Moscow; another account has him boarding a commercial flight bound for Pyongyang. In the streets of Minsk, demonstrators and uniformed security personnel tearfully embrace as Batka’s political prisoners – bruised, wobbly, and squinting in the bright sun – are led out from their dungeons with broken chains still dangling from their wrists and ankles. Yesterday’s opposition leadership is today’s provisional government, proclaiming the holding of new elections just as quickly as they can be organized. Meanwhile, a pale, drawn Vladimir Putin announces that Moscow is withdrawing the Russian political technologists – aptly dubbed “little gray men” – so recently dispatched to help prop up Lukashenka. Conveying obliquely but unmistakably that there will be no “little green men” dispatched to Belarus in their stead, Putin professes his profound respect for the manifest will of the free and sovereign Belarusian people. Russian bureaucrats somberly prepare to toss the Union State concept onto the scrap heap of history. In Brussels the EU expeditiously assembles a robust aid package for Belarus, while a high-powered IMF delegation is already in the air en route to Minsk. The great arc of history bends ineluctably once more in the direction of truth, justice, and liberal democracy.

Of course, this is pure fantasy. The actual denouement of the Belarusian political crisis is likely to be messy and unsatisfactory. For the various interested parties there will probably be no unalloyed triumph, and “victory” will almost certainly be a relative concept – not so much achievement of the best as avoidance of the worst.

Initially wrong-footed by the sheer scale of the popular rejection of his electoral fraud, Lukashenka has subsequently regained the initiative. Beholden to their president and lacking any independent political base, Belarusian officialdom has largely kept ranks, and the security services have remained loyal. Although it continues to mobilize impressive numbers of protesters, the opposition does not control anything – not one town, village, or neighborhood, no economic asset of any importance, and not one influential civic or professional organization. It might hold the moral high ground, but that’s the only “ground” it’s got, and it’s only metaphorical. The opposition therefore lacks any institutional or territorial base on which to construct an alternative Belarusian reality to the current regime. Yet Lukashenka, having survived the initial shock, is saddled with a long-term crisis of legitimacy that undermines his authority both at home and abroad, and will certainly complicate any machinations to pass the throne presidency in the future to his teenage son.

As many analysts have observed, the standoff between Lukashenka and the mass of Belarusians opposing him has seemingly placed Moscow in a favorable position. Having quickly recognized the implausible election results, Putin nevertheless waited for several days to proffer any real support to his embattled Belarusian colleague. Was Putin waiting to see if Lukashenka would cut and run, or whether a critical mass of the Belarusian elites and security forces would abandon him? Whatever the reason, it is difficult to believe that the Kremlin felt any sympathy whatsoever toward the demonstrators, even though the latter are chanting no anti-Russian slogans and have insisted – no doubt in complete sincerity – that their cause is democracy not geopolitics, and their fight is against Lukashenka not Russia.

All very well and nice. There is, however, the screamingly obvious problem of the Belarusian citizenry setting a horrendous example for the Kremlin’s own subjects to emulate. Moscow might hold its nose and grudgingly accept such behavior in a small, non-Slavic client state like Armenia, but the danger of infection from a country as physically and psychologically close as Belarus is unacceptable. And unlike COVID-19, once the bug is out, there is no vaccine against the virus.

Beyond this self-evident problem, the Belarusian opposition is noxious to Moscow for a more subtle reason whose physical manifestation is the white-red-white Belarusian flag embraced by the opposition. The flag of the short-lived Belarusian state of 1918, it was resurrected after the collapse of the Soviet Union until Lukashenka restored the old Soviet Belarusian flag after his election as president in 1994. On one level, the white-red-white flag simply symbolizes a rejection of Lukashenka and his turn to the authoritarian Soviet past. On another level, however, the Soviet Belarusian flag at least harkens back to a Belarus in union with Russia, while the white-red-white flag is the banner of Belarusian independence and separation from Russia.

This is what sticks in Moscow’s collective throat. It is often difficult for Russians even to process the idea that people such as the Belarusians or Ukrainians might have interests of their own different from those of Russia, let alone to comprehend what those interests might be or where they might lead. A Belarus ruled by Lukashenka’s democratic opponents would undoubtedly follow a policy of comity toward Russia – but it would not pursue integration. Finlandization – a deferential, even circumscribed independence – is fine for a peripheral border country that was not part of the historic core of Rus; it is inadequate for a territory that most Russians perceive as part of their patrimony. Finlandization is OK for Finland; it’s not an acceptable outcome for Belarus.

Russia’s conundrum long predates the current Belarusian political crisis. In Belarus the Kremlin faces not a color revolution, but a color evolution – a slow, imperceptible centrifugal drift with no clear temporal starting point, no sudden lurches or upheavals, no particular ideological underpinning, and no identifiable leadership. Its trajectory is so gentle as to be invisible over the course of any given year or so, but it is alarmingly discernible when viewed over the span of Belarus’ three decades of post-Soviet independence.

In this context, the crisis in Belarus presents the Kremlin with both opportunities and risks. Lukashenka has become toxic to the West, probably permanently, and he can anticipate no succor from that quarter. Moscow has a long list of potential desiderata for a harried and illegitimate Lukashenka who has nowhere else to turn – recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a more pro-Moscow orientation on Ukraine more generally; diplomatic recognition of Russia’s client entities Abkhazia and South Ossetia; agreement to one or more Russian military bases in Belarus; the sale of Belarusian companies and economic infrastructure to Russian interests; the redirection of Belarusian exports to Russian (vice Baltic State) ports; and concrete steps toward the integration of Belarus with Russia, such as harmonization of regulations and preparation for a single currency (de facto, the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus).

The problem is that even a weakened leopard doesn’t change his spots. Lukashenka is a past master at fobbing off the Kremlin with agreements in principle that somehow prove impossible to implement. Even now Lukashenka curries the Kremlin’s favor rhetorically by blaming the current crisis on Western perfidy, but he has yet to accommodate Russia on any of the myriad issues where the two notional allies have been at odds – not even in return for the $1.5 billion loan Putin announced at their September 14 meeting in Sochi. (Of course, it’s another matter that much of that loan will apparently go toward refinancing existing debt, so Lukashenka might not actually see much real cash.)

Quite apart from the thankless task of dealing with the man himself, there are serious hazards for Russia from embracing Lukashenka. In Belarus, as in Syria, the Kremlin is liable to find itself trapped in open-ended political and financial support for a regime that it can neither control nor jettison. The body blows to the Belarusian economy in 2020 – the global economic downturn, the decline in hydrocarbon prices, the country’s political crisis, and the presumptive evaporation of Western trade, investment, and financing – suggest that the Sochi loan is a mere stopgap, a first installment in a never-ending flow of cash to keep Batka in power, coming on top of the billions Russia already spends every year for the exquisite privilege of having Lukashenka as an obstreperous, unruly client. Not only is Belarus likely to be a bottomless money pit for Moscow, but there is also scant likelihood that Russia would ever see any return on its “investment.” If Lukashenka should regain full control, he would simply pocket Moscow’s largesse, thumb his nose at Russian expectations, and resume running Belarus as his personal fiefdom. If on the other hand the opposition topples him, the new popular government would potentially not only repudiate any debts Lukashenka had rung up, but also view the dictator’s erstwhile benefactors as accomplices in his crimes.

This point underscores another enormous gamble Putin is taking. The vast reservoir of Belarusian goodwill toward Russia is not inexhaustible, and sentiment could turn slowly against a Russia perceived as enabling a tyrant. Alternatively, Belarusian attitudes toward Russia could even turn suddenly and categorically to outrage and resentment in the event of some atrocity by Lukashenka’s security forces. In the 1990s one analyst observed that post-Soviet Russia could largely safeguard its extensive land borders by securing four neighboring countries – Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. Having ruined relations with two of those neighbors over the subsequent decades, is Russia now in danger of estranging a third?

Hence, Lukashenka might be the lesser of two evils, but he’s hardly the ideal solution from the Russian perspective – which is why one should expect the Kremlin to cast about for some third option. This is where things begin to get dicey.

Lukashenka’s way forward in the current situation is fairly clear and straightforward, if not necessarily easy or problem-free – maintain loyalty and discipline in his own camp, attempt to win over wavering segments of the population, most likely with material concessions (e.g., targeted wage and pension increases), and, while yielding nothing of substance to the Kremlin, induce Moscow to bankroll his regime merely by proclaiming himself Russia’s faithful and indispensible brother-in-arms against the West. It’s not an elaborate or particularly cunning strategy, and the notion of Lukashenka as Russia’s best friend is downright comical at this point, but the overall approach just might succeed.
The protesters are in a much harder place. They can turn out 100,000+ marchers in the streets of Minsk every Sunday from now until Kingdom come without ever dislodging – or even seriously discomfiting – their nemesis. Fatigue and inclement weather will inevitably work against them. What can Lukashenka’s opponents do to change the calculus? Do they attempt to crash the economy through a general strike? Do they proclaim “Batka-free zones” under opposition control in various places throughout the country, ostensibly the first green shoots of a democratic Belarus, and dare Lukashenka’s security forces to disperse them? Does the Belarusian opposition step up confrontation with the security services in the hope of getting them to back down, but at the risk of precipitating bloodshed? What if a general strike flops? What if the security services do not flinch even at mass repressions, and central Minsk becomes Tiananmen redux rather than a second Maidan?

The demonstrators’ situation is bleaker by virtue of the fact that they stand, for all intents and purposes, alone. Their well-wishers in the West – and even in Russia – are not in a position to render any significant material assistance. The threat of Western sanctions will not dissuade Lukashenka from doing whatever he believes necessary to stay in power. Moreover, the effect of serious post-repression sanctions would be to increase the expense to Moscow of either propping up or replacing Lukashenka; they would not greatly affect the long odds against street demonstrations toppling the Belarusian dictator.

The degeneration of demonstrations into violent clashes would have one other highly negative consequence – they would increase the Kremlin’s room for maneuver to secure its preferred outcome, moving Belarus toward absorption by Russia at the expense of both Lukashenka and the Belarusian opposition. Bloodshed could open up cracks in the Lukashenka camp that would be exploited not so much by the opposition as by Moscow. A Belarusian descent into chaos and carnage would lend credibility – and probably even a certain measure of support on both sides of the current Belarusian barricades – to a fraternal intervention from the east with the express intention of restoring order and preempting Western interference. High on the agenda of any post-Lukashenka “government of national unity” would be implementation of the long-delayed unification with Russia, which we could expect to move forward with alacrity.

It is ironic that Lukashenka, the Soviet-retro, ostensibly pro-Russian dictator, has inadvertently created the material and psychological conditions for the emergence of a Belarusian national identity, on a civic if not necessarily a strong ethnolinguistic basis. It would be a further irony if the struggle to end his dictatorship, waged by an increasingly self-cognizant and self-assertive Belarusian people, occasioned instead the loss of the country’s independence.