Belarus has changed: Will Europe? Will Russia?

Opposition supporters wave the historical flag of Belarus during a protest rally in Minsk.

PHOTO: YAUHEN YERCHAK / EPA / Scanpix

On August 9, Belarusians ceased to be the people that its neighbors imagined them to be: stolid, conservative, contemptuous of politics and resigned to a hard but predictable life.

Pre-election commentary in Europe focused mainly on the fact that Lukashenko was losing the ability to fulfill his end of his own bargain:  good wages, full employment and rudimentary but comprehensive welfare. The events since August 9 demonstrate that Belarusians have lost interest in this bargain and that they will not accept it again.

The point is that Belarusians are demonstrating this, not just those we have grown accustomed to call “civil society.”  It is not the metropolitan elite of Minsk that has brought half a million people onto the squares of the capital, tens of thousands more onto the streets of provincial cities and the workforce of some of the largest factories in the country out on strike.  

Belarus is 70 percent urban, heavily industrial and, in its outlook and way of life, overwhelmingly ordinary. There can be no revolution until the cause of intellectuals, their “values” and principles, converge with the elemental demands and aspirations of industrial workers. And that will not happen until barriers of incomprehension and distrust, natural and contrived, come down.

First, Lukashenko’s opponents are not anti-Russian. For 20 years, Viktar Babaryko was Chairman of the Board of Belgazprombank; Valery Tsepkalo reportedly has Russian intelligence connections and is funded by Russian oligarchs; Syarhei Tsikhanousky (husband of Sviatlana) is known as a supporter of Donbas separatists and reportedly visited Crimea in 2017.

It took Poland 12 years and four waves of protest, from the first student demonstrations of 1968 to the emergence of Solidarity in 1980, to reach that point. Only then was a revolutionary dynamic established. Still it took a further nine years before it was consummated.

Where does Belarus now stand on the trajectory from 1980 to 1989? Even at the purely domestic level, there are perilous unknowns. 

Will the dreaded OMON dissolve like Ukraine’s Berkut, and will they use lethal force first? Will the army choose, or be impelled, to enter this fray, on whose side and with what degree of cohesion?

Moreover, there are differences between Belarus today and its western and northern neighbors in 1989. The latter possessed significant counter-elites. Today’s counter-elite in Belarus is only emerging. When and if Lukashenko goes, those who still comprise the state and security elite will remain what they are: cynical, devious, manipulative and tenacious. For all of these reasons, we have every reason to be impressed. But we have no right to be euphoric.

The international dimension is unlikely to make the future brighter. Russia has good reason not to intervene militarily in the present dispute.

First, Lukashenko’s opponents are not anti-Russian. For 20 years, Viktar Babaryko was chairman of the board of Belgazprombank; Valery Tsepkalo reportedly has Russian intelligence connections and is funded by Russian oligarchs; Syarhei Tsikhanousky (husband of Sviatlana) is known as a supporter of Donbas separatists and reportedly visited Crimea in 2017.

Second, even by the standards of Ukraine in the 1990s, Russia’s dominance of Belarus’ economy is an overarching reality. The latter’s dependency provides Russia with an enviable toolkit of leverage over Belarusian elites.

Third, for these reasons, and in marked contrast to Ukraine, there is neither a demand, let alone a plausible risk that Belarus will withdraw from the CSTO (which Ukraine never joined), let alone the Union State. Indeed, even a moderately pro-Russian successor to Lukashenko could prove malleable on many of the points where Lukashenko was obdurate, notably the establishment of a Russian air base, and might well find such “good-neighborliness” an acceptable price to pay for peace and quiet.

Yet none of this might matter. The Kremlin’s decision to intervene is most unlikely to be decided by an accounting exercise.  It is more likely to be guided by categorical imperatives. The principal imperative today is to ensure that there be no more “color revolutions” in “former Soviet space.” There is also a geopolitical imperative, to ensure that Russia remains a great power in the heart of Europe. For Putin, these are matters of principle, legitimacy and survival. His entire political career has been a response to trauma, the collapse of the USSR. He is most unlikely to allow history to repeat itself.  Unless he already has secured an “understanding” with Lukashenko’s likely successor, then the odds of “fraternal” intervention are strong.

Given this context, one can be forgiven for perceiving that the EU is operating on autopilot. It has condemned Belarus’ authorities and, in its deliberate and methodical way, is drawing up a package of sanctions. The problem is that these actions are most unlikely to matter.

The only way to alter this calculus is to raise our game. For this to happen, Chancellor Angela Merkel should inform President Putin in no uncertain terms that intervention will destroy all residues of “business as usual” with Russia, beginning but not ending with Nord Stream 2. That this course is far from likely does not make it less than necessary. Second, if there is any credibility left in Washington, there will be a public démarche to secure either a reversal of the president’s recent troop withdrawals or an impressive package in compensation.

Such steps might give the Kremlin pause.  But the unpalatable fact is that this drama will be decided in Belarus and Russia, not in the West.

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