The news of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei’s sudden death has, for now, overshadowed all other news coming from Belarus. Exactly two years ago, Makei’s deputy Oleg Kravchenko also died from a sudden heart attack. Both Makei and Kravchenko used to be the major champions of rapprochement between official Minsk and the West. As a result, conspiracy theories have proliferated regarding Makei’s death, which does not necessarily mean anything as the work environment for both officials was indeed stressful. Just on November 22, Makei flew to Yerevan, Armenia, aboard a military transport aircraft. The next day, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka joined him at the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which did not go smoothly due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
The thrust of Lukashenka’s speech at the summit was devoted to Minsk’s upcoming (in January 2023) chairmanship of the CSTO. The Belarusian president underscored the importance of the CSTO’s strategic dialogue with China and heralded two prospective Minsk-based conferences (President.gov.by, November 23). The first will be devoted to Eurasian security and involve officials from the CSTO, Commonwealth of Independent States, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the United Nations. And the second will devise strategies for confronting “disinformation” emanating from the West and is expected to involve the CSTO members and their national institutions that deal with strategic studies.
Lukashenka has a habit of deviating from his official script, thus regularly offering tidbits that the media subsequently pounce on. This time, he chose to react to the ongoing informal discussions on how the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine will affect the CSTO’s future. Reportedly, the talk of the town is that Russia’s defeat would lead to the CSTO’s demise. “I feel,” acknowledged Lukashenka, “that we have come to a common opinion that, if, God forbid, Russia collapses, then we will all be buried under the rubble. … So, such discussions should not even take place. … The CSTO will exist, and nothing will collapse it” (President.gov.by, November 23). Those reading between the lines will extract from this pronouncement whatever fits their agenda, with a palpable uncertainty about the war’s outcome being the most obvious takeaway.
In the meantime, the leader of the Belarusian “democrats-in-exile,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, declared in a recent article that she is the true president-elect of Belarus (Svaboda, November 15). While allusions to Tikhanovskaya’s victory in the August 2020 elections have abounded ever since, she has yet to make such public pronouncements herself. As such, commentators rushed to interpret the significance behind her statement. According to Artyom Shraibman, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tikhanovskaya launched a trial balloon intended exclusively for Western audiences, whose attention the opposition leader and her entourage have successfully claimed thus far. The new declaration seeks to boost that attention to a potential severance of Western ties with the “regime” in Minsk and treating Tikhanovskaya as the sole representative of Belarus.
Yet, will the opposition leader’s “tenure” last beyond 2025, when new elections are scheduled to be held in Belarus? Shraibman believes that, if the present-day situation, whereby the Belarusian army will not become directly involved in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, survives until 2025, Tikhanovskaya’s presidential claim may not be sustained in the minds of influential Western audiences. If, however, the Belarusian army joins the Russian forces in Ukraine, then her presidential ambitions may be taken more seriously by Western sponsors (YouTube, November 18).
According to Pavel Matsukevich, the former Belarusian chargé d’affaires in Switzerland, now a foreign policy analyst-in-exile, the only areas in which Tikhanovskaya and her “cabinet” prove useful is in soliciting a favorable visa regime for Belarusians willing to visit the West as well as favorable treatment for Belarusian émigrés by their Western hosts. “Numerous international visits and meetings of Tikhanovskaya and her team are pleasing to those eyes accustomed to the isolation of Belarus,” writes Matsukevich. “But so far they have not affected the solution of a single significant problem, be that new elections, repressions, political prisoners or complicity in aggression against Ukraine” (NewBelarus, November 18).
The former Belarusian diplomat also criticizes Tikhanovskaya for her nonstop appeals to the West in hopes of boosting economic sanctions against official Minsk. Matsukevich believes that such appeals flagrantly contradict the opposition’s own mantra that we must distinguish between Lukashenka and the Belarusian people. Because Belaruskali (Belarusian potash producer that, at one time, satisfied 15 percent of global demand) is subject to sanctions, “it sells potash at a 30–50 percent discount and sends fertilizers to China by train rather than by sea, thus sacrificing its financial bottom line, so the income of the enterprise and of the people working for it is falling,” explains Matsukevich. “In addition, economic sanctions expand the hole through which Belarus’s sovereignty leaks out to Russia. By the end of the year, Russia’s share of Belarus’s exports may reach at least 70 percent. It turns out that Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet recognizes that Lukashenka is propped up by the Kremlin, speaks of the need to knock that prop out and strengthen independence, but at the same time insists on measures that only exacerbate the problem, pushing Belarus into Russia” to the point of no return (NewBelarus, November 18).
In another interview, Shraibman observes that Tikhanovskaya has noticeably divorced her messages for Belarusians at home from those she sends to Western policymakers. Thus, in her recent speech at the European Parliament, she asked the Europeans to close the existing loopholes in economic sanctions imposed on Minsk (Europarl.europa.eu, November 24). Whereas on her Telegram channel intended for the domestic audience, she did not say a word on that—as sanctions are quite unpopular among Belarusians (YouTube, November 24).
Thus, it appears that Belarusian officialdom and the opposition-in-exile have mutual similarities and differences. Their pivotal similarity is a common political culture that puts a premium on self-preservation at the expense of the Belarusians’s genuine needs. Their differences here are equally apparent. By way of being in control, official Minsk must take care of the people’s needs in the end, whereas, for the opposition-in-exile, this issue does not seem to be the top priority.