Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

Opinion

Will Belarusian dictator hold on to power?

  • Loyalty of Aleksander Lukashenko's (c) security apparatus will be crucial (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The landslide victory of Alexander Lukashenko in fraudulent presidential elections sparked a wave of protests in Minsk and across the country, which were brutally crushed.

The unprecedented protests, both in nature and scope, are aimed at rallying enough support for democratic regime change and fair elections in a country, where Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

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Large parts of the Belarusian population had already shown their dissatisfaction with the current handling of the Covid-19 crisis and with the falling economy.

After waking up from its long winter sleep of 26 years, will Belarusian civil society succeed in removing the last dictator of Europe and in finding a valid alternative?

Or will 'Batka', as he is known informally, hold on to power?

As Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, seen as the real winner of the presidential elections and supported by the US, called on senior members of the highly repressive security apparatus to switch sides, further support of the country's security apparatus - amok 120,000 people - will be crucial in determining the country's fate.

Euromaidan 2.0?

Unlike the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, sparked by the decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, the ongoing protests in Belarus are not against Russian influence and demonstrators are not waving European flags but red-and-white flags.

The Belarusian civil society just wants fair elections and is fed up with the current authoritarian regime.

In addition, Lukashenko conveyed hostile messages towards the Kremlin during his presidential election campaign and has simultaneously locked-up pro-Russian opposition candidates.

A Russian intervention, like in Ukraine, is therefore not likely, at least not now.

Given the strategic position of Belarus on the central axis between the European Union and Russia, both the West and the east are closely following the latest developments.

Russia is Belarus' most important economic partner and Minsk is extremely reliant on cheap oil and gas supplies from Moscow.

It has inherited the security apparatus (the secret service is still named KGB) and an inefficient economic system from the Soviet Union.

Both countries are also members of a union state set up in 1999 to harmonise political and economic differences and to foster military cooperation.

Over the past few years, president Lukashenko has rejected several proposals from Russian president Vladimir Putin for closer

integration, including a single currency.

Consequently, Russia blocked Belarusian imports and cut cheap oil and gas supplies. In response to this, Lukashenko has made efforts to improve Belarus' economic relations with the West and has tried to diversify the country's energy supplies.

Following the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2020 (the first US state visit since Lukashenko came to power in 1994), Belarus received its first American oil delivery in May.

Recently, China also emerged as a new global player on the Belarusian economic scene, becoming Belarus' third trade partner.

By way of illustration: the Great Stone Belarus-China industrial park is located in a special economic zone just outside Minsk and is a key element of China's Belt and Road Initiative in Eurasia.

In order to preserve a stable investment climate, it is believed that China has delivered its surveillance systems and know-how to the autocratic regime.

A few hours after the announcement of the election results, the internet in Belarus was brought to a standstill across the country.

As the EU considers its next steps on Belarus, it is preparing targeted sanctions (such as visa bans) against individuals - part of the inner circle of Lukashenko and those closely involved both in the falsification of the election results and the brutal repression.

While broader economic sanctions make no sense and would hit the Belarusian population, targeted sanctions already proved to be useless in the past and have more of a symbolic value.

The EU is in favour of peaceful transition of power via a national dialogue.

Recurrent human rights violations and deeply embedded corruption have always been impediments to developing closer trade ties between the EU and Belarus.

As a result, the EU-Belarus trade relations are still based on a deal concluded in 1989 with the Soviet Union.

Against this geopolitical background, Lukashenko has isolated himself because of the choices he made and the diversification of the country's trade alliances.

Various EU political leaders have denounced the use of violence during the recent peaceful protests.

Belarus has alienated itself even more from the Kremlin after accepting oil supplies from the US while, at the same time, becoming part of China's Belt and Road scheme.

Possible ways out of the crisis

As things stand, Russia has no interest in ousting Lukashenko from power. Russia's doctrine could be described as: "Lukashenko is our best man, in the absence of anyone better".

Overthrowing him would cause political turmoil, out of which a pro-Western candidate could emerge.

Therefore, Russia has an important role to play in Minsk in order to get Lukashenko either to step down - he appeared to suggest he was open to leaving the presidency under certain conditions - and to lead the country to the needed democratic change or to transfer some of his executive powers as part of constitutional reforms approved by a referendum.

If Lukashenko were to step down, he would need to have guarantees for his own and his family's safety.

However, there is no doubt that finding a Russia-compatible - or EU/US-compatible - successor, with support of the country's majority, will prove to be difficult.

Let us not forget that in Lithuania, at the time of writing, US-backed opposition is being formed around Tikhanovskaya with the objective of imposing itself as the legitimate government in exile.

Tikhanovskaya's allies have formed a coordination council to facilitate a transfer of power.

If, on the contrary, Lukashenko insisted to stay in command, he would likely keep using violence and could impose martial law trying to get rid of those in the state apparatus who are secretly working on a putsch.

That would entail major risks: the president is rather isolated; the uprising has begun and is not going to stop soon.

If Lukashenko is overthrown by the protests, Russia could be tempted to intervene in one way or another.

Recent developments in Belarus do not only reflect a country in crisis and a possible awakening of a new nation at the boundaries of the European Union and Russia.

They also illustrate the ongoing reconfiguration of great powers' spheres of influence in the Eurasian region.

Belarusian protesters are - unconsciously - subjects of a geopolitical tectonic battle between the east and the West.

That is why their revolution is both precious and fragile.

Author bio

Noé Morin is a freelance Eurasia expert in Brussels. Bryan Bille is an international relations expert with a background in the Belgian foreign ministry.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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