A Year On: The International Dimension of Belarus’s Political Crisis

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 126

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus. (Source: belsat.eu)

The international situation both triggered the ongoing crisis in Belarus—at least in the minds of some observers—and continues to have implications for its evolution. According to Belarusian KGB head Ivan Tertel, the August–September 2020 rallies protesting the official presidential election results were expressly sparked from the outside. Purportedly, former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter, who is close to US President Joseph Biden, was the commander-in-chief of the entire soft power operation that also involved Polish and Lithuanian intermediaries and agents of influences inside Belarus (Belnovosti, August 4). The Belarusian opposition, naturally, largely disagrees; and their view is even shared by Russia’s premier political commentator, Feodor Lukyanov (Globalaffairs.ru, August 10, 2020).

A third line of thought—unpopular but arguably closest to the truth—suggests that domestic triggers and Western soft power were real although blown out of proportion to boost the self-image of those involved. Belarus is perched on a socioeconomic slope sustained by a lasting, six-centuries-old West-East gradient in land-use intensity and quality of life, with the slope increasing westward (Olga Gritsai, Grigory Ioffe and Andrei Treivish, “Tsentr i periferiya v regionalnom razvitii,” Moscow, Nauka, 1991). For at least the previous ten years, Belarusians had secured the highest number of Schengen visas per 1,000 people of any nation in the world. And those Belarusians visiting the European Union, socio-economically “up the slope” from Belarus, became imbued with the desire to become part of the collective West. The up-the-slope travelers largely represented the Belarusian creative class (Svaboda.org, July 24), whereas those less resourceful and/or more dependent on the public sector either stayed home or looked at the West as at an alien universe. Thus, in the wake of the official electoral outcome—which was, indeed, difficult to trust and which poured cold water on the creative class’s desires—the long-brewing societal divide inside Belarus became explosive.

Today, the international dimensions of the Belarusian crisis are looked at through a more focused lens—to parse the crisis’s implications rather than its triggers. Here, three cases in particular command attention.

On August 3, 2021, Vitaly Shishov, who headed the Belaruskii Dom in Kyiv, an organization that helps exiled Belarusians, was found dead in a manner being investigated as a possible staged suicide. Because of the peculiar “presumption of guilt” (Zerkalo, August 6) earned by the Belarusian authorities, Minsk became the first suspect in the eyes of many. Soon, however, Shishov’s ties with veterans of the far-right Ukrainian Azov battalion as well as with veterans of Russian National Unity, a crypto-Nazi organization, caught the attention of the Ukrainian investigators (Svoboda, August 3).

Days earlier, Kristina Timanovskaya, a Belarusian sprinter, refused to follow orders from her two coaches to perform a 4×400-meter relay, which she never specialized in, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. She was then commanded to come back to Belarus, which she rejected on August 1, pleading for help from the International Olympic Committee. She was subsequently granted a humanitarian visa by Poland and left the Olympiad; in turn, both of her coaches lost their accreditation at the Olympics and themselves had to leave Japan (Zerkalo, August 6). Unlike the previous episode, this one is definitely a product of the Soviet-style bureaucratic culture encapsulated by the Russian maxim “ya nachalnik, ty durak,” i.e., “I am the boss, while you are a fool.” But the contribution of the political crisis inside Belarus is seen in how swiftly a seemingly innocuous tension can become an international scandal. This is because those feeling mistreated by one side of the bitter domestic conflict are immediately protected by the other side—whether they asked for such cover or not. Incidentally, Timanovskaya never had any connection to the Belarusian opposition until after the fallout from her dispute with her coaches and subsequent escape to Poland (Lenta.ru, August 3).

The third major issue to grab international attention is the continued illegal migration of Middle Easterners across the Belarusian border to Lithuania. Throughout 2020, Lithuanians apprehended 81 illegal migrants crossing from Belarus. The flow intensified in 2021 (see EDM, June 17). Already by the end of June, the count was at 636; and now it has reached 4,112. Most migrants are Iraqis. Only after Lithuania adopted a law disallowing migrants to question court decision qualifying their legal status (Novaya Gazeta, July 21) did that flow begin to drop. Thus, on August 6, Lithuania expelled 321 migrants, 44 were forced to cross back to Belarus, and only 19 were admitted (Svaboda.org, August 5). Moreover, Brussels helped stem the inflow by making Baghdad suspend flights to Minsk for at least ten days (Lrt.lt, August 5). Meticulous research undertaken by the opposition-minded research site Reform.by did not find traces of Minsk directly steering this migration flow; however, Lukashenka’s statement that Belarus would no longer be guarding the entrance to the European Union was aired on Iraqi TV for several days and proved tempting enough for tourism operators to start filling Baghdad–Minsk passenger planes with hundreds of individuals hoping to escape Iraq (Reform.by, July 27). Some commentators suggested that Lukashenka had found a weak spot against the European Union (Vzglyad, July 30); others argued that, in its months-long inaction to the current illegal migration flow, the EU was supposedly attempting to punish Lithuania for its grandstanding and reluctance to accept immigrants during the 2015–2016 migration crisis (Globalaffairs.ru, August 3); finally, some experts specifically posited that the Belarusian president was engineering this illegal migration flow in a bid to force the EU to negotiate (Svaboda.org, August 6).

These international dimensions notwithstanding, the only way the Belarusian political crisis can be resolved will come from within—by bridging the gap between the two intransigent rival groups in Belarus (i.e., a step toward national consolidation). Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty has invited 21 Belarusian intellectuals to opine about the nature of the crisis triggered by the August 9, 2020, presidential election. More than half responded to his call, to date. Recently, the narratives by three authors in a row—sociologist Andrei Lavrukhin (Svaboda.org, July 29), philosopher Vladimir Matskevich (Svaboda.org, August 1) and political commentator Arseny Sivitsky (Svaboda.org, August 6), all harsh critics of the political regime—contained statements about the necessity for a national dialogue. That one of those authors, Matskevich, was actually arrested after the publication of his piece does not bode well for the prospects of such a dialogue; but the resilience of the idea itself is truly notable.