Is Putin ready to enter Belarus without people’s support? Interview with Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov

Vladimir Milov, one of the leaders of the Russian democratic forces, believes that Alyaksandr Lukashenka failed to suppress the Belarusian movement and its leaders, failed to turn the page. This is a huge achievement. The situation between the Belarusian dictator and Vladimir Putin is difficult. Is there an integration plan? What did the head of the Kremlin like about Lukashenka’s tactics? Why should Russians learn from Belarusians? Interview with Vladimir Milov, former Deputy Energy Minister of Russia, and now one of the leaders of the Russian Democrats. Alina Koushyk talked to a close associate of Alexei Navalny for Belsat TV news show Prasviet (World and Us).

About a month ago, you left Russia and settled in Vilnius. Have you already had a chance to meet Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya?

We know each other in absentia, but there is a lot of work on Russian affairs, I understand that she is also very busy. She travels and meets with European leaders. We have postponed our meeting for now, but we will do it.

What does the situation in Belarus look like for Russia? We understand approximately the strategy of the democratic forces, what people want: people want changes, new elections. How is the situation in Belarus seen from Russia?

First, it was very unexpected. Before the presidential elections last year, for many months we discussed it in Russia and even with our European colleagues, but everyone thought it would be a usual story: none of the oppositionists would be allowed in, Lukashenka would have the results faked, the opposition would make some noise, and that’s all. It turned out that everything is more serious. We were encouraged that the people came out and said that they were not ready to endure the dictatorship, despite the violence and repression. I commented on all this live on the Navalny Live channel. I saw the responses of the Russian audience. Many of us were inspired by this to continue the struggle in order to repeat something similar in Russia. We have our own elections in September, so I think there will be a lot of interesting things.

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Is it true that Lukashenka wants to outlive Putin at least physically? For example, that Putin feels very bad. Solovey said that Lukashenka doesn’t let go of the idea to compete with Putin.

I have no information that Putin has health problems. I was an official, I know people who are now working in power. These are all rumours that are specially launched by the presidential administration in order to somehow reassure people that he will die himself.

He is as healthy as a bull. The only thing is that he is getting old. But in terms of threats to Putin’s health, there is nothing. I can’t name it other than rumours.

As for Lukashenka, he is faced with an unprecedented situation. He has not had such a crisis of legitimacy in 27 years of power. I think the main thing for him now is not long-term planning, but somehow passing through this difficult period. Yes, he has so far crushed the protest movement by force, but the crisis of legitimacy has not vanished. And everyone in Belarus, even his security officials, knows that people no longer support him. Putin knows this too, and he wants to use it to swallow him and to annex Belarus somehow. Therefore, I would not talk about Lukashenka in the long-term perspective. He would have to go through this difficult period. I still think that he will leave under pressure. For him now the main task is survival.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin is pressing. Lukashenka puts pressure on signing integration roadmaps. What can we talk about? Can an illegitimate president sign something so that later these documents will be valid?

I am sure that if he signs something with Putin, and Putin then uses this to enter Belarus and somehow establish Russian order, this will cause a new wave of indignation, a new serious crisis.

It seems to me that Moscow understands this too. This situation was unexpected for them. They, too, were overwhelmed by the scale of the protests last year. This, of course, undermines the prospect of looking at Lukashenka as a partner. By the way, you see that he received a lot of money from Moscow. Relatively little, though, because to stabilize the financial situation much more is needed. One of the reasons why they do not give it is because they do not believe in his political perspective.

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There was an experience with Viktor Yanukovych, when they literally wasted threw three billion dollars. They gave it to him before the Maidan, and Ukraine said: we don’t know anything, we won’t give it back. In any case, Lukashenka has a crisis of legitimacy not only inside, but also outside. And even Putin is a big problem for him now. To rely on the signature that Lukashenka will put under something … It is clear that the Belarusian people most likely will not accept this.

But Lukashenka does not want to sign anything, he is also dragging this situation out.

He manoeuvres because he perfectly understands Putin’s weakness. If Putin now comes in as such an occupying force, it would cause enormous rejection. The Belarusian people have always been very well disposed towards Russia, but you see, after Putin supported Lukashenka during these protests, this began to change a lot.

We saw very tough anti-Putin posters on the streets of Belarusian cities. Imagine that Putin now puts pressure and forcibly tries to integrate Belarus — this will cause even greater rejection.

I think that Putin is not ready to go somewhere without the support of the local population. This has not happened before.

Our analysts are more likely to talk about a different scenario. That Putin relies on the creation of pro-Russian parties who will slowly take seats, and then there is no need to go anywhere with the army, this will all happen by itself.

This is a clever scenario. In the Russian nomenklatura (as political scientists say, the elite) completely different sentiments prevail. They are used to resolving issues under Putin’s protection in such a rude way with impunity: seizing, imprisoning, and so on. In general, they are very angry, because they have been wasting a lot of money on Lukashenka for many years, but he never made any concessions, did not surrender the country. And there grows anger that since he is weakened, everything must be taken from him.

This is a very difficult situation between Putin and Lukashenka.

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Lukashenka understands all these problems and tries to manoeuvre. I see that because of this they have a dead end in the negotiations. They don’t announce anything after hours of chatter.

There is no specific integration plan.

And what is the attitude of the Russian democratic opposition to these plans? Does Russia need this integration?

The attitude is negative, the integration is not needed. We need to create a common European democratic open space. We need harmonization of relations, laws, rules with the European Union. We must all look at each other as equal partners and build a common European home. I have always perceived these integration post-Soviet projects as an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union at the expense of Russian taxpayers. All these Eurasian Economic Communities, the Union with Belarus. How does it always end like? The Russian budget pays everyone to portray integration. I’m tired of it already. We don’t need it, it doesn’t work, and it costs us dearly. There exists a better way to do it.

There is a stereotype in Belarus that even Russian liberals are pro-imperial.This stereotype is magnified on purpose. There is nothing imperial about us.

We have stressed many times that our foreign policy should be based on absolutely equal relations. We do not want zones of influence. We have 17 million square kilometres of our territory, and we would like to restore order there. This is our main task. We want to live in peace with everyone. We want to open borders and remove trade barriers, we want a common European space. These zones of influence bring pain, suffering and enormous economic costs.

It seems to us that at the moment there is a little more freedom in Russia than in Belarus. You have fewer political prisoners; you have local government officials. There is nothing like that in Belarus. Is it true or not?

This is partly true. We have a large number of regions. Russia is a huge territory with a different political culture. The Urals, Siberia, the Far East — there are many regions where there is no tradition of falsifying elections. Because of this, you saw that the opposition there can win. Even United Russia party can be expelled from entire regions, like the Khabarovsk Territory. It sounds a little soothing, but I would not reassure myself that in our country things are still a little better than in Belarus.

The trend is very dangerous. Putin clearly liked Lukashenka’s outrageous tactics of driving everyone underground.

Since this January, he began to do the same in Russia. The police come to tens of thousands of Russians; they were identified by video cameras. We have never had this. We have fewer political prisoners than you, but twice as many as there were in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Then there were 200 people, and now 400. In general, there is such a massive police brutality. I lived at the time of Brezhnev and Andropov. There were no such things. We were told on TV that it happens in some Latin American dictatorships. The dynamics are terrible.

Putin is clearly copying everything from Lukashenka. He likes the strategy of suppressing disagreement.

We still have a large degree of freedom, but we definitely should not calm down here.

It seems to me that Russia is too big and not so easy to keep a tight rein on. You need to have a lot of riot police.

I agree with you. This is exactly what we expect: that in such compact dictatorial regimes such a total police system can be temporarily used. For Lukashenka and his security officials, this is also a huge stress. You cannot hold the power like that for a long time. Moreover, in such a huge Federation as Russia, it is difficult. We are counting on this. In particular, at the elections in September, people will show their negative attitude towards the fact that the economy is down and out, that unprecedented repression has begun, which has not happened since the 1950s. I am sure that there is a certain space of freedom in Russia, which we have not fully conquered and did not allow to be destroyed.

I am sure that in the next elections we will give Putin a serious answer.

Aren’t you anxious that people will even be afraid to just become candidate in such a system of total fear and total repression? Just the same as now in Belarus.

Nobody can become candidates anymore. Putin practically forces laws that prohibit anyone he does not like from running. They will be declared extremists or employees of an undesirable organization. They will not be able to run for the elections.

Here, the smart voting strategy proposed by Navalny comes to the fore. This is actually a referendum on confidence in the party in power.

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It doesn’t matter who you vote for. The main thing is to fail to elect the candidate from the United Russia party. And it will work, because in Russia elections are of such a plebiscite type – are you for power or not. No means no. We want to achieve this. This will have enormous political implications. Therefore, the issue of registration becomes irrelevant. And you are right. People are very afraid. But to go and vote is another matter entirely. There are no such signs that Putin will be able to crush everything like that. The country will still be able to show what it thinks in the elections.

We all understand that Navalny is the leader of the Russian opposition. A man who can lift Russians from their knees, to inspire them. But he is now in prison, his condition is critical. What do you know about him?

There was an unpleasant pause. Putin announced 10 days off. This means that all institutions such as the colony are closed to receive visitors. There was a dangerous pause when we knew that everything was bad with Navalny’s health and did not know what was happening to him. On Wednesday, his spokeswoman told everyone that lawyers had come to him, that at least the situation had not worsened. There are big health problems and this is a threat to his life. We will still try to get independent doctors allowed to see him. We have only a part of the analyses so far. Everything is very disturbing.

Both we in Belarus and democratic Russians are fighting, in principle, with the same enemy. This is a totalitarian system that we inherited from the Soviet system. But now people no longer want to live like this. Maybe it makes sense for you and the Russian democratic opposition to interact with the Belarusian one?

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We really want to do this. I managed to hold several meetings. Not with Tsikhanouskaya, but with other colleagues. We will talk about it later. There are certain ideas on how we can combine efforts, if possible.

We are very sympathetic to the struggle of Belarusians for freedom. There is also a counter sympathy.

We will try, we will act. We think this is important.

Will you slightly open the veil of secrecy, in which direction will you act?

I would open up a little, but the situation is more complicated for our Belarusian colleagues. They asked to take a certain break. They will tell everything themselves. Let’s agree to it. You will soon find out.

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How do you assess the activities of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya? This is a global phenomenon, what happened in Belarus.

I highly appreciate the fact that Lukashenka wanted the page to be closed. I.e., to defeat the protest regime – and that’s all. You managed to prevent this. This electoral victory lives on. Tsikhanouskaya, who is recognized by many in the world as the elected president, continues to work in plain sight, meets with many international leaders, she does a lot to continue organizing resistance within Belarus. It’s great that soon there will be a year since the elections.

Lukashenka failed to crush the movement and its leaders, to turn the page. This is a huge achievement.

There is a lot to be done, but they are great fellows. Given that no one expected this. Tsikhanouskaya had no political experience, as many other people who took part in this opposition movement. There is a lot that we should learn from them.

Why do Putin and Lukashenka need a fake coup attempt?

For example?

In Russia, the opposition was initially built as a political structure. Here you managed to achieve mass civil mobilization, in general, without the participation of political activists. The percentage of society that took part in all this (in the Belarusian revolution, to put it bluntly) is huge. And this was not connected with the professional activities of political structures.

We should create and develop such a civic nationwide network – in this regard, it is worth learning from the Belarusians. Here they were in many ways ahead of us.

We have symptoms of fatigue from more than twenty years of dictatorship, but there is a barrier that people could not overcome: apathy, lack of self-confidence, fear. The Belarusians did it. We need it too, and we will pull ourselves up.

The interview was recorded on May 13, 2021 for Prasviet/World and Us