A Dose of Hardcore Realism for Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 177

(Source: The Presidnet of Belarus)

Over three days, Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman presented what seems to be a realistic outlook for the country’s opposition-minded audience (Svaboda; Carnegie Politika, November 7; Zerkalo, November 9). Shraibman’s November 7 interview with the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty further illuminates this picture (Svaboda, November 7). He pushed back on the hopes of some in the Belarusian opposition that Russia may soon be defeated in the war against Ukraine, a precondition they believe will foment positive political change in Belarus. The Belarusian analyst points out that the war has reached a stalemate that may linger for quite some time. This scenario best suits Lukashenka’s hold on power, in his opinion, and will limit any chances for democratic change in the near future.

Belarusian politics and culture traditionally prize “the one.” For example, Marc Chagall is Belarus’s most well-known artist and Vasyl Bykov (Bykau), its most celebrated author. This trend is quite noticeable in Belarus’s fractured political landscape. In Minsk, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the nation’s most authoritative politician, who once called himself “Belarus’s only politician” (see EDM, January 18, 2018). Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is recognized by many as the leader of the opposition, though the opposition-in-exile is not entirely united (see EDM, December 14, 2022). Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, now in exile in Poland, grounds his analysis in this national tradition to tamp down the opposition’s expectations and to debunk conspiracy theories.

Shraibman warns that drawing definitive conclusions from the war is premature at this juncture. Several scenarios are still at play. Should Russia win the war, it is likely to absorb Belarus. Should Russia lose and switch its attention to the global confrontation with the West, hostilities would likely spill over into Belarus. Should the war end today, then Moscow’s interest in propping up Minsk would subside, the Belarusian expert contends (Svaboda, November 7).

Against this backdrop, Belarus is militarizing. The country’s military budget has grown by a whopping 40 percent this year and is planned to grow by another 30 percent in 2024 (Carnegie Politika, November 14). Still, Shraibman argues, this does not mean that Belarus’s participation in the war is imminent. If Russian President Vladimir Putin were to call for the Belarusian army’s participation, his request will be conveyed at a moment’s notice. Minsk, therefore, must stay prepared for any scenario, though it hopes to avoid participation altogether.

Shraibman maintains that Lukashenka’s overtures for peace with Poland appear to be genuine (Svaboda, November 7). He points out that this gives new hope for the eventual release of the political prisoner Andrzej Poczobut, a Belarusian journalist with Polish heritage, once the new government is formed in Warsaw. Polish law enforcement recently intercepted a group of illegal migrants with Russian visas on its border with Belarus. Shraibman does not believe that this is an indication of Putin’s hand in orchestrating the migrant crisis. Rather, it seems that low-level officials are involved who do not necessarily act on orders from the top.

The Belarusian commentator provides a sobering outlook for political change in Minsk. In a recent article in Zerkalo, Shraibman acknowledges that, with Putin and Lukashenko in power, it is difficult to imagine positive changes in Belarus without worsening relations between Minsk and Moscow. Democratization in Belarus is only possible if the Kremlin’s interest in maintaining a pro-Russian regime in Minsk significantly wanes. “Minsk and Moscow could end up in serious economic conflicts, like in the old days, for two reasons,” opines Shraibman, “if Putin demands something that Lukashenka is not willing to give or if Minsk begins to establish a dialogue with the West too defiantly” (Zerkalo, November 9). Such prospects may eventually push Western decision-makers to rebuild relations with Minsk.

Shraibman also elaborates on the realistic implications for Belarus’s upcoming electoral season (Carnegie Politika, November 7). Parliamentary and local elections are scheduled for February 2024. Between February and April, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA) will be installed. Shraibman likens the 1,200-member body to the Plenum of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and China’s National People’s Congress. The ABPA will have a 15-member presidium, similar to the Politburo. The Belarusian analyst believes that the country’s new leadership will be promoted from that assembly. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2025. Initially, Lukashenka wanted to name his presidential successor and serve as head of the ABPA to keep the new president under control. It remains to be seen if this plan will be implemented in the upcoming electoral cycle. It seems more likely that Lukashenka will remain president and lead the ABPA.

The upcoming elections are devoid of intrigue because the organized opposition is in exile and domestic opposition political parties have been disbanded. Shraibman observes that the four remaining parties look like Belarusian clones of the parties represented in the Russian State Duma. These are the “centrist” Belaya (White) Rus party; two left-wing parties, including the Communist Party; and the “center-right” party, Liberal Democratic (Carnegie Politika, November 7). In the upcoming elections, official Minsk looks to present a three-part ideological message to the masses: armed pacifism (i.e., “we do not want to fight but we are militarizing just in case”); wealth redistribution from the political elite to ordinary Belarusians (i.e., introducing new taxes on luxury items and controlling prices); and propaganda founded on pro-natalist and traditional family values.

From Shraibman’s perspective, the next couple of years will be crucial for determining Belarus’s future. His musings do not induce optimism for the opposition. Rather, they clamp down on unrealistic expectations and the spread of conspiracy theories, both recurring maladies for Belarusian democrats.