No one knows what will happen in Belarus on August 9 and later. We can assume that the results of the presidential election, which Alyaksandr Lukashenka has no chance of winning, will be falsified. We can also assume that protesters contesting fraudulent elections will be dispersed by force. All this has happened before, but this time things are different in many ways. First, public protests are much more intense than ever before. Even more importantly, the protests are far more widespread and attended by much greater numbers of people than before. Secondly, the president of Belarus has more to fear, as he senses that his base of support is eroding. Countries neighbouring Belarus are also more concerned.
It is difficult to imagine the Kremlin being willing to let go of the country which Moscow treats as an important part of its sphere of influence. For years Russia has sustained the inefficient, withering economy of Belarus by providing limited amounts of financial aid and admitting Belarusian products onto Russia’s domestic markets. In return, Lukashenka has allowed Russia to take over elements of the Belarusian economy, one by one.
In recent times, Vladimir Putin has become even more insistent about granting Russia greater sovereignty over Belarus, as a form of compensation for his country’s ‘courtesy’ support for Belarus. This time, however, Lukashenka started acting up, proving to be a stubborn ‘brother’ for Moscow, as he wishes to prevent having his position diminished from the president of a country to the governor of a province. His negotiating position toward Russia has become more entrenched; he is trying to bargain for more subsidies from Russia. Consequently, there has been a flurry of gossips according to which the Kremlin is now interested in flaring up tensions surrounding the Belarusian presidential election to weaken the Belarusian president. Should the government of Belarus choose to apply harsh repressions against the opposition and use brute force to disperse peaceful demonstrators, and especially in the event of, God forbid, any bloodshed, Belarus would see its road to the West shut down permanently.
Tensions have intensified even more after Belarus detained 33 members of Russian mercenary forces in mysterious circumstances. Many people speculate that the mercenaries had arrived in Belarus as part of possible wider on-going preparations for a large-scale Russian provocation, perhaps even causing intentional bloodshed on the election day or soon afterward. Even Lukashenka seems to be promoting this narrative and pointing his finger at Russia, although he is not communicating it in a straightforward way.
On the other hand, Belsat TV has received an unconfirmed report from a source close to the Belarusian law enforcement and military agencies alleging that the Belarusian president’s security service was involved in bringing the Russian mercenaries to Belarus with the objective of escalating public protests by initiating violent clashes with the OMON Belarusian special police units and even using firearms against them. Such events would give the president free hand in using the harshest measures while dealing with the opposition. In addition, as part of this ploy, Western observers would be fed with misinformation alleging that Russia secretly backed the opposition..
Other analysts believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle and that the whole affair amounts to nothing but theatrics meant for domestic and international audiences. Arguably, the operation in question must have been tacitly agreed upon with the Russian government, at least in part, because it is inconceivable that the hiring of such a large group of Russian ‘dogs of war’ (reports from Belarus refer to a force of 100 – 200 mercenaries) could have escaped the attention of Russian intelligence agencies.
This interpretation of events seems to be supported by Saturday’s telephone conversation between Putin and Lukashenka, which appears to be a warning for the Belarusian president not to go too far in telling stories about the Russian threat. Public signals to the same effect have also been sent by several major figures from the Russian establishment as well as several stars of the Russian world of entertainment, who have canceled their appearances at events hosted by the Belarusian president. All these developments may seem deceivingly insignificant to outside observers, but are, in fact, quite telling. Meanwhile, these warning signals from Russia are counterbalanced by Putin’s continued offers of Russia’s ‘brotherly assistance’ to Belarus…
Indeed, it seems that an electoral victory for Lukashenka would constitute the optimal turn of events for Russia because major unrest in Belarus would weaken the president severely and make him even more pliable to the Kremlin’s manipulations. A more or less overt Russian military intervention in Belarus is rather out of the question, due to Russia’s international situation. Therefore, Russia is unlikely to make another move similar to its takeover of the Crimea or incursion into the Donbas region, especially because it would disrupt the international order in the very heart of Europe and so close to the borders of the European Union and NATO member countries. Russia knows that its military intervention in Belarus would have to lead to very serious retaliatory steps on the part of the European countries and the United States.
On the other hand, hypothetically, should any candidate other than Lukashenka win the presidency of Belarus in democratic elections, any such new Belarusian president would enjoy incomparably greater public support domestically, at least at first, even if he or she came from within the incumbent’s ruling party circles or had pro-Moscow ties. Based on such strong standing, the new president would gain much more space for political maneuvering in relations to Russia. This does not mean, of course, that the Kremlin would suddenly stop meddling in internal politics of Belarus.
Nevertheless, it does seem that, at this point, the Kremlin bets mainly on Lukashenka, despite all its reservations about him. The Kremlin has never placed too much confidence in any ‘colour revolutions’, even those bearing white ribbons, due to their unpredictability and the fact that they show a ‘bad example’ to the Russians themselves.
As we evaluate all potential scenarios and consider various factors and conflicting interests – including complicated games being played by different governmental services and intelligence agencies, disinformation campaigns running wild and the determination of the dictator himself – we should not forget about one more primary actor, who also will play an important role, perhaps even a decisive role in shaping the events of the next few days and the years to follow. That role is played by the Belarusian society, the people who are expressing their will today through peaceful protests on a mass scale. An enormous part of the overall outcome of current developments will depend on the Belarusian public’s maturity, determination, and calm.
No matter how the events unfold, Lukashenka’s rule will come to an end, sooner or later. When that happens, Belarus will still lie between Russia, on one side, and Poland and the European Union, on the other. Certainly, history will not end on that day. However, it is crucial to prevent another tragic episode from being added to the history of Belarus and allow the Belarusian people to decide their own fate on their own.
Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, belsat.eu