Following an official event in Minsk, on June 26, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gave an interview to opposition-minded journalists (Tut.by, June 26). Their questions repeatedly raised the theme of foreign interference in Belarus’s domestic affairs, which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka explicitly mentioned one day earlier, blaming alleged meddling on Russia and Poland (Interfax, June 25).
In his interview, Makei was restrained as to the exact sources of interference: “If the president said what he did, he is in possession of respective information.” The country’s top diplomat did, however, refer to some specific purported examples, including payments to independent media and Telegram channels to post fake news. Among these was a widely circulated rumor of the existence of an $840 million Swiss bank account linked to Victor Lukashenka, the president’s son and security advisor, subsequently denied by Swiss banking authorities. According to Makei, such fabrications reflect the reality in countries where political power breeds wealth—but not in Belarus, where this has never been the case. He referred journalists to President Lukashenka’s press service, which identifies fake news stories. Many of these, the Presidential Office contends, were associated with former Russian ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich and the Nezygar Telegram channel, which enjoys access to the highest echelons of the Russian government (Tut.by, June 26).
The closest Makei himself came to confirming Russia as the source of the nefarious influence was when he approvingly referenced Zianon Pazniak’s opinion on the matter. Pazniak is the former leader of the Belarusian Popular Front and a 1994 presidential hopeful (he earned 12.8 percent of the vote), residing since 1996 in self-imposed exile in Poland and the United States. On June 24, Pazniak declared, “[T]oday, [current presidential contender Victor] Babariko is potentially a more harmful enemy of the Belarusian nation than Lukashenka, because the latter is an embodiment of the anti-Belarusian virus that has already led to 97 percent immunity on the part of Belarusians… In contrast, Babariko is a novel virus against which the organism has not yet developed immunity, and he […] would complete the ominous Muscovite mission of destroying the Belarusian state and nation” (Euroradio, June 24). Pazniak is notorious for haughty rhetoric and for labeling many of his former comrades-in-arms, Belarusian Westernizing nationalists, as Moscow’s spies. One peculiarity of the current situation is that most of those nationalists called his opinion on Babariko “crazy” (online posts to this effect on social networks are numerous), whereas Lukashenka’s minister apparently found them accurate enough to call out by name (Tut.by, June 26).
According to a calmer and perhaps more realistic (compared to that of Pazniak) observation by Piotr Rudkowski, the director of the Western-funded and Minsk-based Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the sad truth is that “a pro-independence pragmatist with a Russian background,” which is how Rudkowski describes Babariko, “fits well into the value system of the [Belarusian] population and really has great potential both electorally and reputationally.” But it would have been much worse if “a charismatic supporter of the Russian World” had unluckily emerged instead (Facebook.com/piotr.rudkouski, June 24).
One more suggestive observation shared by Minister Makei concerned false expectations on the part of those interfering in Belarus’s electoral process. “Everyone recalls 2010, when they also thought that the regime was weak; and now, even more so. I assure you that the regime is strong, calm, and we are confident that the situation will be under control.” Makei, nonetheless, warned that if undesirable events occur that would throw us back to 2010, “there will be no third thaw.” Indeed, after the government dispersed the post-election protest rallies in 2006 and 2010, it took quite some time for Belarus to restore normal relations with the West. Now, it will certainly take even longer, which, Makei opined, neither the state nor civil society should be interested in, since such an outcome “would definitely jeopardize our statehood” (Tut.by, June 26).
To be sure, reasons for concern are plentiful. As of now, Minsk has 17 people that human rights watchdogs like Viasna qualify as political prisoners; altogether, 320 persons have been arrested, with most sentenced to 1–15 days behind bars for violations of public order (Svaboda.org, June 26). Recently, three popular bloggers were also apprehended. Belarusians who find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide invoke the possibility of introducing a state of emergency. Both the markedly anti-regime writer Uladzimir Arlou (Svaboda.org, June 23) and the dedicated pro-government commentator Aleksei Dzermant (Facebook.com/alaksiej.dziermant, June 25) made such predictions. The aforementioned divide has long been a fixture in Belarus. But today, it has fully acquired the characteristics of what the philosopher Viacheslav Bobrovich calls a “cold civil war” (Nashe Mnenie, November 13, 2017), with two sides entirely abandoning civilized debate. It is hard to say whether or not online media outlets exaggerate the tensions in Belarusian society: some, including the aforementioned Bobrovich, think so, while others disagree.
To a significant extent, tensions have been stoked by the imprisonment of Sergei Tikhanovsky and Victor Babariko (see EDM, June 23). The nature of the accusations filed against the latter remain unclear, although the government has circulated two relevant pieces of information. According to one, Babariko allegedly was about to move the collection of paintings he earlier acquired at Western auctions out of Belarus (Belta, June 22). According to the other piece, Babariko laundered money through the Latvian ABLV bank (Express.by, June 19). That financial institution was compromised as early as 2018, following an investigation by the US Treasury Department (Fincen.gov, February 13, 2018), leading a Russian source to call what has now happened to Babariko and his Belgazprombank “routine raiding in legal packaging” (EADaily, June 22). Meanwhile, Maxim Shevchenko, a popular Russian World ideologue, accuses the Kremlin of repeating its mistakes from Kyiv, in 2013. The Ukrainian EuroMaidan, he claims, was initially driven by one Russia-backed oligarch settling scores with then-president Viktor Yanukovych, before they both lost control over the situation, allowing the West to seize control. According to Shevchenko, the Kremlin’s idea to punish Lukashenka for his intransigence over integration by backing Babariko will end in the same way (YouTube, June 22).
Tensions are clearly rising, but the Belarusian elections drama still has six weeks to go. Notably, on June 30, the Central Electoral Commission announced that Babariko, though jailed, can continue as a presidential hopeful along with five other candidates, including Lukashenka. Tsepkalo, however, was excluded because too many signatures submitted in support of his candidacy were found to be invalid (Tut.by, June 30).