By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime incumbent President of Belarus, is in trouble. The post-election protests against his less-than-honorable reelection have maintained their momentum despite the violence from Belarusian security forces.
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Protests against the President have persisted for months after the popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski issued a call for Belarusians to take up their slippers to squash Lukashenko, sparking a months-long demonstration of Belarusians calling for change. The demonstration appeared to have spooked Lukashenko somewhat, as the President fired his government and arrested several opposition figures, as dictators are wont to do.
Lukashenko Is Concerned about His Grasp on Belarus and Taking No Chances
It was an unprovoked claim by Lukashenko that a Euromaidan-style revolution cannot happen in Belarus, but this statement profoundly demonstrated the strongman’s concern. With the elections now over, Lukashenko is taking no chances that a popular uprising will challenge his 26-year rule.
He held the keys to the election committee and just like past elections under his tutelage, the president won reelection regardless of how many votes he actually received. Since these protests have sustained momentum over the past few months, their continuance after the elections poses a dire threat to Lukashenko. It’s difficult to defend skewed election results in your favor with a mass of people in opposition clogging the streets.
Lukashenko May Have to Call Upon Moscow for Assistance
Lukashenko may be able to rely on his security forces to keep him in power if these protests morph into a popular uprising, but that is not guaranteed. Failing that, the Belarusian strongman can call upon his overbearing ally in Moscow, along with the Russian forces already present in Belarus.
Despite the best intentions of Lukashenko’s opposition, grappling with Russia is an ever-present reality. Belarusians are aware of this fact, as they demonstrated in smaller numbers back in December 2019 on the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus.
This treaty created a political coupling where Russia and Belarus were to become one nation (similar in nature to the Soviet structure), but Belarus has delayed in finalizing the agreement. The most recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko over the union occurred in Sochi this past December, with Putin lamenting the slow progress Belarus has made in moving the union beyond paper.
Lukashenko’s Gambit to Remain in Power
Alexander Lukashenko may be Europe’s last dictator, but like all strongmen, he does not rule in a vacuum. The Belarusian president is in a precarious position because he must govern effectively within his nation to stay in power and convince others to support his regime, while also balancing Russia to the east.
An example of this challenging power balance is Lukashenko’s push to import energy from sources other than Russia to prevent Moscow from having an economic stranglehold over his nation. It is also why the president has been slow to enact the measures under the Union State treaty.
Lukashenko is doing everything he can to keep Russia at arm’s length, but not completely out of reach. It is a difficult balancing act for any ruler of Belarus as the nation has been occupied far more often than it has been independent. It is a dangerous game to play – courting the West, while keeping Russia just satisfied enough – but Belarus is merely playing the hand it has. Should Lukashenko fall, any opposition candidate who takes the helm would face the same situation.
Following the election, Lukashenko relied on the tried-and-true strongman’s playbook to silence any further dissent and relied on brutality to end any protests. But that tactic didn’t work; instead, the protests spread and have shown a degree of persistence.
President Lukashenko may have won reelection. However, he seems to have lost legitimacy amongst the people and, perhaps more troubling for the long-term ruler, the trust of Moscow.
Russia’s View of Belarus
Belarus is a flat, wide-open portion of real estate that sits on the North European plain, not even rising enough in elevation to constitute a speed bump to any potential invaders of the Russian homeland. Invaders of past European armies exploited this geography in their numerous invasions of Russia, and Moscow is keen to prevent any encroachment from the West.
Though Moscow has exploited the same geography in its European expansions, Russia does not like to leave such a border to chance. To further this view, Russia seeks to move westward and push any threat back towards the Atlantic, but failing that, Russia looks to keep a series of buffer states that can allow it some strategic depth.
It sounds strange to think that Russia needs more territory, but the loss of the former Soviet states moved the border with NATO members to less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. Losing Ukraine and Belarus shrinks that distance further still, and Russia has already shown what it is willing to do when a border state tries to align with the West. Ukraine may have had a pro-West revolution, but Russia moved in to split the nation and annex Crimea.
The West has not made any move militarily to support the West-leaning government in Kiev for fear that Russia will make the situation worse. The Ukrainian government has also demonstrated its corruption and incoherence. A frozen conflict in Ukraine may not be the ideal situation for Russia, but it does serve the purpose of keeping Western encroachment at bay.
Belarus would like to avoid a similar fate, but it won’t be easy to continue walking the tightrope between Western engagement or Russian domination. Regardless of who rules Belarus – Lukashenko or an opposition figure – Belarus’ location does not forgive easily or provide many alternatives. For now, Belarusians will march and bang their slippers demanding change, but that will not change the fate of their cursed geographic location.
Russia May Choose to Intervene
The disarray in Minsk poses a problem for Russia in several ways. Though Russia has intervened directly in affairs in former Soviet states over the better part of the past decade, that may not be the best option to exercise at the moment.
The protesters in Belarus are not necessarily pro-West or anti-Russia; instead, they seem generally opposed to Lukashenko. Intervening with a heavy hand may tip the anti-Lukashenko sentiment into something more anti-Russian.
Nevertheless, Russia cannot abide by fate and simply allow matters in Belarus to continue unchecked. Lukashenko may fall and bring forth a new leader, but the possibility exists that a new leader will tip Belarus towards the West – a situation that is unacceptable to Russia.
Though Russia has its own problems, the issue of Belarus cannot be left to fester. There may be protests in the streets of Belarus, but the decision of the government will likely come down to a decision in Moscow.