Ed. Note: The turmoil in Belarus, a strategically located post-Soviet state, has been under-reported in the American press – busy as it is with the pandemic and presidential politics. Bruce Jones is a security policy adviser who has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He carries out assessments for government departments internationally and writes for Jane’s Defence Publications and national newspapers, as well as inFOCUS Quarterly.
- Since the Belarus presidential election Aug. 9, 2020, in which Alexander Lukashenka claimed to have won more than 80 percent of the vote, mammoth demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands, a large proportion of them women, have been held each Sunday in the capital Minsk and nationwide.
- They have been met with Bolshevik NKVD methods of extensive brutality, detention, beatings, and alleged torture of thousands of protesters, intended presumably very much as a deterrent. Since then, there have been further targeted detentions, disappearances and expulsions or flight to other countries by opposition supporters. Foreign journalists and academic exchanges have been banned.
- Accompanying this has been the appearance of armed “Little Green Men” in military uniform, masked and without insignia, of the type Russia infiltrated into Crimea as a precursor to its occupation. There are also attacks against protesters by masked men in civilian clothes. The authorities have stepped up their posture and have turned to assaulting and detaining women on these demonstrations.
Billing Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenka as one of the world’s longest enduring heads of state and Europe’s “last dictator” affords him more kudos than he merits. In truth, he is a former senior Soviet regional official, a big fish in a small pond and an unreformed Leninist, with blinkered perspectives about the West and even perhaps about Moscow. He misunderstands how the West works and has believed that regardless of brutal repression and charges of election fraud, it could be bought off and appeased if approached in the right way.
Belarus: Moscow’s NATO Buffer Zone
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, believe as a cardinal principle, that they must control their western neighbor, ally, and “buffer” against NATO in the wider area that was referred to in early post-Soviet times as the “Near Abroad.”
Lukashenka Soviet Solutions
Lukashenka is unreformed in his outlook, retaining Soviet terminology and symbolism, and maintaining close links with Russia. Because of this, unsuccessful attempts were made in 1996, two years after becoming president, to impeach him for violating the constitution. In 1999, when he failed to get European Union support to balance his relationship with Russia, he had to turn to Russia for essential subsidies and economic backing, and the Union State of Russia and Belarus was created, which embraces a number of joint agreements on trade, defense, and other matters.
Belarus retains many nationalized industries and did not privatize them in the same way as the Kremlin did. So, in certain perspectives the Belarus capital Minsk looks and feels “more Soviet” than Moscow.
Equally, its armed forces have not been transformed as have those of Russia. They remain “large and heavy”, with many layers of command and dependent on conscript intakes. Russian forces in contrast are now “lighter”, more projectable and maneuverable, with smaller, integrated units, stream-lined command, and importantly a sizable proportion of professional contract soldiers.
- After education Lukashenka served in the Soviet KGB Border Guards and Soviet Army 1975-1982, becoming a military political officer or zampolit. In 1977-78, ensuring career progression, he was appointed district leader of the Young Communist League Komsomol.
- In 1979, at the young age of 25, because of his successful Komsomol record, he was invited to become a member of the Communist Party of the USSR (CPSU). In 1982 after leaving the military, he was appointed a collective farm or kolkhoz deputy chairman, rising in turn to the post of district director.
- Lukashenka was elected in 1990 as a People’s Deputy. He made his mark as chair of the parliamentary Anti-Corruption Committee. His task consisted largely of charging previous senior Soviet Belarus office holders with corruption and embezzlement which later proved to be untrue.
- Standing as an independent populist candidate Lukashenka was elected President of Belarus in 1994, with 80 percent of the final vote. In hindsight one might look twice at the 80 percent – he is now in his sixth term.
Minsk is not a Moscow Clone
It is a mistake to presume that Minsk is a Moscow clone. Lukashenka has been and remains totally committed to Belarus’ independence as long as he is in charge. This has been problematic for Russia as he has consistently and effectively neutralized all the opposition candidates that Russia has attempted to infiltrate into Belarus with the aim of replacing Lukashenka with someone more malleable. Now, the instability he is responsible for in Belarus risks spreading to Russia itself.
President Lukashenka delayed full involvement in the Moscow-based, UN-accredited, NATO analogue, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Other members include Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan; Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan earlier withdrew their membership. Lukashenka refused to endorse Russia’s conflict and annexation of parts of Georgia in August 2008.
In this constant struggle between Minsk and Moscow, Putin has played his cards better and gradually brought Lukashenka more to heel, for example by import blockades against Belarus goods, particularly dairy products which form a significant part of the nation’s economy. The country has also been forced to cede ownership of energy pipelines. But Putin’s success has not been complete, and the game is not over yet.
Previous Moscow-Belarus Encounters
Some of what happens between Moscow and Belarus seems counter-intuitive, contradictory, or a dislocation of expectations. Often, circumstances arise in which it seems that Lukashenka has a very limited “shelf-life” but nevertheless he goes on to fight another day.
Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev were earlier on a state visit to Alexander Lukashenka. Raising considerable concerns at the time however, they first met instead, at length with his upcoming deputy, before seeing him – nothing further transpired though – just “stirring” it and raising the temperature.
In another example, in the massive joint exercise “Zapad/West-2017” Minsk contributed considerable numbers of troops. Almost a year before, the Kremlin announced the advanced lease of a vast number of rail cars to transport Russian troops and equipment to Belarus. The only problem was that the numbers of soldiers that could be transported, seemed vastly to exceed the numbers involved in the exercise, causing fears that there might be some sort of coup.
In the end nothing happened.
Despite invitations by Putin to attend the “grand finale” near St. Petersburg, Lukashenka declined and instead stayed with close associates, in a large hunting lodge near the Polish border.
Over the years, Lukashenka has been penalized by the West and international organizations for his lack of reforms, human rights violations, election fraud, and his imposition of the death penalty for “political” crimes. There have also been numbers of murders, disappearances, and kidnapping of Belarus figures.
Minsk and EU
Other deviations from Moscow’s line have been efforts by Minsk to develop closer links with the EU. Whereas it would be impossible for Belarus to join the group without fundamental changes, the EU did not bring forward the matter or foster contacts. Had meaningful dialogue been established it might have encouraged more than cosmetic improvements and might have averted the severity of the current situation.
It was a failure of political communications at the highest level, dominated by the EU’s lofty sentiments rather than the practicalities of defining and confronting problems. Politics is the art of the possible “how matters could be, not how they should be.”
Belarus Election Trends and Condemnation
Presidential elections have come and gone, each more unpopular and deemed by international observers and the international community as increasingly failing to be fair or open, or meet international standards.
The recognized organization responsible for international election observation, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did not attend the 2020 Presidential Election.
ODIHR’s previous reports have described: limited compliance, lack of electoral safeguards, votes not genuinely counted; insufficient security of ballot boxes, ballots or voter lists; potential inflation of turnout, serious procedural deficiencies, inconsistencies and irregularities; observers not allowed to check voters’ lists; numbers of identical signatures and other indicators of “ballot stuffing”; counts behind closed doors, result tabulations interrupted overnight; lack of transparency and procedural irregularities.
2020 Election, Brutality and Subsequent Tactics
Since the Belarus presidential election this August, in which Lukashenka claimed to have won more than 80 percent of the vote, mammoth demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands, a large proportion of them women, have been held each Sunday in the capital Minsk and nationwide.
They have been met with Bolshevik NKVD methods of extensive brutality, detention, beatings, and alleged torture of thousands of protesters, intended presumably very much as a deterrent. Since then there have been further targeted detentions, disappearances and expulsions or flight to other countries by opposition supporters. Foreign journalists and academic exchanges have been banned.
Accompanying this has been the appearance of armed “Little Green Men” in military uniform, masked and without insignia, of the type Russia infiltrated into Crimea as a precursor to its occupation. There are also attacks against protesters by masked men in civilian clothes. The authorities have stepped up their posture and have turned to assaulting and detaining women on these demonstrations.
There is the question of where these forces can be generated from, and the need to rely on Moscow. Young conscripts are unsuitable for crowd control. This leaves military reservists, ordinary police, even criminals, or Russians of some description.
One could say that the situation has become for the moment almost institutionalized, achieving containment but with the overall aim of degrading and “attriting” the opposition.
Moscow is in a position in which it can buy Belarus out. That is to say, take over its debts and bolster its flailing currency. Although a liability, it would make Belarus a “captive economy” with Lukashenka’s undivided attention.
Belarus 2020 is Not Ukraine 2014
The aspirations of the people of Belarus are for regime change and patriotism, not nationalism. The situation is entirely different from that in Ukraine in 2014. Cast in the perspective of Lukashenka’s unreformed society, the population has no aspiration to join “the West” or develop wider democratic institutions and has shown no response to popular overtures of support from neighboring countries. Protesters simply want to get rid of Lukashenka. They have no established political structures, ideas about the EU, NATO, independence, democratization, or even about how to treat Moscow, and no ideas about next steps once Lukashenka is gone.
In Belarus, Putin is playing a long game at as low a risk as possible. He provides just enough forces to maintain order without provoking overreaction. He is using the opportunity to strengthen Kremlin influence in already infiltrated Belarus organizations: the Orthodox Church, volunteer Cossack armed militias, and the KGB and Army. Concurrently, he is keeping personal pressure on Lukashenka to ensure he “conforms” until a new ruler favorable to Russia can be put in place. Putin can get away with these moves because of the West’s loss of self-confidence, ability to think strategically, and inertia.
Connections to the Navalny Attack
Alexei Navalny, a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin and the subject of a poison attack while traveling in Russia on September 8, has long been a thorn in the side of what passes for Russia’s “body politic.” He has been subject to so many trials, jailings, and other attacks that one has felt that he was almost on borrowed time.
Putin’s reason for the attack now was a time-critical operational necessity. There were imminent regional elections; political risks in eastern Russia; and the turmoil in Belarus threatening to spread into Russia itself. It serves also as a further warning to domestic opponents; as a challenge and snub to the West, which has few means to respond; and a palpable token of support for Alexander Lukashenka, for whom Navalny could have made matters worse.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been the continued fear in Moscow, held elsewhere, that Russia’s Far East around Vladivostok and parts of Siberia could secede from the Russian Federation and “go it alone,” of which economically they are capable.
Putin is particularly concerned about the Russian concept that the “Will of the people is the unity of the nation.” He fears possibilities of Ukrainian and Georgian-style Orange and Rose revolutions and that beneath the Russian public’s tolerance of his policies may lurk deep unpopularity.
Khabarovsk in the Far East has seen strikes and protests since its governor was arrested on questionable charges and taken to Moscow, largely it is said for being too popular – an existential threat in itself to Kremlin control in what is referred to as the “Putin Power Vertical.”
Regional and city elections took place throughout much of Russia on September 13. Immediately before his fateful flight, Navalny was conducting political activities in cities in Siberia; which is separate in mindset from European Russia and more “go ahead.”
Add to that Navalny’s potential ability to expand the Belarus crisis into a Russian domestic issue, accompanied by unrest, and his fate was more or less sealed.
Navalny Poisoning Attack Details
Navalny’s airliner’s emergency landing does not appear to have been anticipated, nor that traces of the poison agent would have still been detectable in his metabolism, in Germany, more than 3 days after the attack. Even if however, it had not been detected, the world would have presumed that the Russian state was responsible.
Some experts have stated that a less powerful, soluble powder Novichok (variant A-242) was used to reduce the risk of wider contamination and to maim Navalny rather than kill him. Nevertheless, several of Navalny’s entourage were taken ill at the same time, but less seriously. Certainly, the Kremlin would not wish to risk creating a martyr or a rallying cause. The more powerful Novichok liquid variant A-234 was used in the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.
Lukashenka, Putin, and Exit Strategies
Putin understands Lukashenka, just as Lukashenka understands that Putin is in fact the only real threat to Belarus’ independent statehood. Putin has tested the West and through our reactions concluded that we can be intimidated and fooled into inaction. The lack of response is a useful weapon for Putin against Lukashenka.The lack of international responses to moves by Putin is a useful weapon for him against Lukashenka.
Lukashenka is not admitting that the “game is over.” He continues to try to twist under Putin’s control. He is in place and has cards to play, but he could run out of loyal security forces, hence his need for Moscow’s help.
He realizes he could end up executed like Romania’s Ceausescu; and must certainly be looking for a wide range of bolt holes other than Moscow – including possibly the “Stans” or even China or Southeast Asia. Serbia and Montenegro are too far under Putin’s control and he could potentially “hardly last the afternoon” there.
To save himself, Lukashenka has to appease the Belarus public. The only way possible seems to be by offering to leave power – but in an orderly way – and set the timing of a new presidential election without him and without the interference of Vladimir Putin. This buys time and would leave a transition period of around a year.
Putin will continue to help Lukashenka exercise power and the rule of law, because nothing would be more undermining than having a popular uprising overturning a leader almost on Moscow’s doorstep.
Putin must be careful in his disinformation operations in Belarus and the West that “the game is over” and all matters are almost resolved because they are not.
Lukashenka has for years successfully undermined opposition candidates sponsored by Moscow. Putin more recently has had to mobilize the people against Lukashenka and invoke Belarus patriotism. This is however a two-edged weapon, which could manifest itself in more pro-independence and anti-Russian sentiments.
Putin has learned from Ukraine to be very cautious about stirring nationalist feelings and forcing the pace of events. By pushing too hard he could, counterproductively over-charge these sentiments. Worse still, it could provoke widespread radicalism, the suppression of which could possibly result in a bloodbath. Each of these eventualities could drastically destabilize Russia itself. Lukashenka appreciates this, and it provides a lever with which he can ensure that there is a ceiling to Kremlin interference.
The Kremlin is quietly mobilizing opposition figures and assessing their uselessness. Belarus banker, philanthropist, and opposition figure Viktar Babaryka is the opposition leader who was not allowed to run in the presidential election. He and his son Eduard are currently in prison on remand, with bail refused, awaiting arraignment on finance charges. His team, however, has already announced that they will create a new political party, “Vmeste” (“Together”). Its main goal is to prepare a new constitution for fuller union with Russia. Their role will be to fill the political vacuum with ideas favored by the Kremlin. Lukashenka will continue to be encouraged by Putin to maintain the anti-Western rhetoric to avoid challenges to the Kremlin narrative.
September 13 Russian Regional Elections
The elections were overshadowed by the poison attack on opposition leader Navalny and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In summary – Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” Party was the overall winner. There were, however, sizable opposition votes and in some places gains, even for the Communist Party (PKRF). Navalny had urged the electorate to vote for any party or candidate other than “United Russia.”
The opposition did particularly well in Siberia, where Navalny had been active immediately prior to his poison attack and importantly in Moscow.
Some small new parties were registered at the last moment, but they were regarded as “Putin projects” intended to confuse the electorate and dilute opposition support.
The results could have been worse for Vladimir Putin, they were not reassuring, but much better than had Navalny still been in circulation.
September 14 Putin-Lukashenka Summit
Negotiations between Putin and Lukashenka took place in Sochi, in southern Russia on the Black Sea on September 14. Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov deemed that there would be no press conference or document signing.
Before the talks Vladimir Putin announced a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus and spoke approvingly of Lukashenka’s promises of constitutional reform.
The meeting though is understood to have covered economic cooperation, debts, energy, and Belarus’ integration within the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) common trade area, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which fosters cooperation between former Soviet states, and the further development of the established Russia-Belarus “Union State.”
On September 8, in a personal press conference, Lukashenka told Russian journalists: “Yes, maybe I have stayed on for a little while, but now only I can protect Belarus. I just won’t leave. I have been providing for Belarus for a quarter of a century. I will not just give it up.”
He went on to say: “Regarding the beatings, of course. The riot police cannot be blamed here because they defended the country from a blitzkrieg.”
Less Favorable Scenarios
Generating suspicions of the precursor to a coup, the Moscow-organized military exercise “Slavic Brotherhood – 2020,” with the Belarus 38th Guards’ Independent Air Assault Brigade, together with Russian and Serbian forces, was to have taken place in the Brest training area near the Polish border on September 10-15.
With disparaging remarks by Moscow about Serbia’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on September 4 and reported concerted pressure against its involvement by the EU, Belgrade pulled out of “Slavic Brotherhood – 2020” on the day before, September 9. Azerbaijan had withdrawn earlier.
The worst-case scenario should Belarus descend towards anarchy would be a modern-day version of “Operation Danube” in which Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces occupied Czechoslovakia and ended the reforms and transition of the “Prague Spring” of 1968. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some troops of other nations loyal to Moscow, for instance from Central Asia, could take part. Overall a show of overwhelming force, which negated possibilities of resistance would not do Vladimir Putin any harm.
Bruce Jones is a security policy adviser who has lived and worked in Russia and the ex-USSR. He carries out assessments for government departments internationally and writes for Jane’s Defence Publications and national newspapers.