Unpalatable Truths About Belarus’s Political Crisis

Map of Belarus and Environs, adapted from images at cia.gov

(Jamestown Foundation – jamestown.org – Eurasia Daily Monitor: Volume 18, Issue 99 – Grigory Ioffe – June 22, 2021)

On June 14, Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) organized a 74-minute briefing to the press (YouTube, June 14). Two out of the three major topics touched upon were 1) the alleged deportation to Poland of three activists of the Polish minority in Belarus and 2) what amounts to a sequel of NEXTA opposition Telegram channel founder Roman Protasevich’s June 3 interview on Belarusian TV (see EDM, June 7).

Regarding the first topic, five activists of the unregistered Union of Poles were arrested in late March (Polskie Radio, March 31) and accused of inciting inter-ethnic animosities. In late May, three of them, Irena Biernacka, Maria Tiszkowska and Anna Paniszewa, were, in the words of the Polish media, “forcibly removed from Belarus,” that is, released from jail and transported across the Polish border after they allegedly agreed to never again return to Belarus (Belsat, June 2). Reportedly, the release of the three activists was the consequence of “diplomatic and consular” efforts (Rzeczpospolita, June 2).

Dmitry Gora, the chairperson of the Investigative Committee of Belarus participated in the foreign ministry briefing, where he attempted to disavow this description presented in the Polish media. His account, accompanied by two videos, pursued three goals. Goals one and two were to prove that the activists’ release was due to the goodwill of the Belarusian government and that their leaving for Poland was voluntary. Goal three was to assert that, contrary to information spread by the Polish MFA, the entire communication with the Polish side happened between the intelligence agencies of two countries, not between their diplomats. Gora also averred that the Polish side acted contrary to its own confidentiality request.

An integral part of the MFA’s briefing was an impromptu press conference involving Roman Protasevich. It began with a question from Tatyana Korovyonkova of Belorusskie Novosti, a well-informed and balanced opposition-minded outlet. Korovenkova invoked a rumor that Protasevich had been beaten by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself, which Protasevich interpreted as a joke not worthy of discussing. In fact, he was more relaxed and jovial than during his initial interview on TV a week and a half earlier. Illustratively, at the briefing’s conclusion, he even put forth a riddle for the audience to solve: “Who is the woman that, in 2019, received a 14-year prison sentence in a European country for calling for the formation of an alternative government and alternative embassies of her country abroad?” (YouTube, June 14). It turned out Protasevich meant Monika Unger of Austria, who, in fact, also asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to militarily intervene (The Local, January 26, 2019). But the unspoken allusion to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was unmistakable.

According to Protasevich, whom most in the Belarusian opposition and in the West call a hostage, the true hostages are his parents Natalya and Dmitry Protasevich. Now in Poland and, as Roman put it, under conditions of an information vacuum, they are reportedly used by their handlers to beg national leaders (e.g., German Chancellor Angela Merkel) for help in their son’s release from jail and to disseminate rumors about him being tortured. However, in Roman’s words, no one has ever touched him (YouTube, June 14).

Protasevich observed that Poland and Lithuania compete for the primary leadership role in supervising the Belarusian opposition. And whereas Tikhanovskaya, stationed in Lithuania, is treated like a head of state, Pavel Latushko does not have much to boast of. The latter recently organized a modest rally blocking one of the Belarusian-Polish border crossings and demanded “serious sanctions” against the Lukashenka regime (YouTube, June 8).

The Belarusian MFA briefing in question was undoubtedly part and parcel of Minsk’s propaganda campaign to counter international indignation over the regime’s actions vis-à-vis the protest movement and the media. Roman Protasevich is clearly now playing—or has been compelled to play—an active role in that campaign. At the same time, however, the Belarusian authorities’ information offensive is helping to expose some realities that not everybody is willing to face quite yet. First, although the dominant media and opposition narrative still holds that Protasevich is the Belarusian regime’s hostage, the associated belief in his physical mistreatment is becoming ever more difficult to sustain. Even some of his former colleagues—although ones preferring to remain anonymous—observe that the young NEXTA founder is a man without core values, longing for public attention. How many people like that are there on both sides of the political divide is difficult to say, but it is important to understand that the societal divide itself is real and that Lukashenka’s base of support has not, in fact, evaporated. According to polling by Chatham House, his backers account for about one-quarter of adult Belarusians (Regnum, February 2). This, survey, however, relied on computer-based responses, and the very nature of this technique generally downplays the number of Lukashenka loyalists (see EDM, March 2). It is a widespread and tenacious error to claim that only repressions keep an authoritarian regime in place and to talk down its social base.

Consequently, if international efforts to boost pro-democracy activism across the border, in this case especially by Lithuania and Poland, exceed domestic demand for this sort of activism inside Belarus, they become counterproductive. Arguably, Western influence over Minsk has now declined to the lowest point throughout the entire post-Soviet period, and Russia is more in control of Belarus’s destiny than it has ever been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That Lukashenka bears responsibility for that is a truism, whose recognition does not require mature and nuanced foreign policy thinking. Yet such deliberative introspection is needed to formulate policies that, at a minimum, do not exacerbate this adverse geopolitical effect and, by doing so, undermine democracy promotion by default.

Disposing of illusions is often hard; and yet it may have already begun. A recent blog entry by Yury Drakakhrust of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty bears the title “What Can (and Should) One Agree About With Lukashenka Supporters?” Drakakhrust explains that despite its acute personalization, the current political regime in Minsk cannot be reduced to Lukashenka alone, that his loyalists have interests and values of their own, and that it is possible to compromise with those, provided that Belarusian statehood is retained (Svaboda.org, June 14). Whereas the pervasive view of the Belarusian crisis is “Lukashenka versus the Belarusian people,” a more realistic interpretation would recognize two parts of Belarusian society dead set against the other. These contrary perspectives naturally lead to different foreign policy implications.

[article also appeared at jamestown.org/program/unpalatable-truths-about-belaruss-political-crisis/]