The Belorysy i Rynok newspaper asked three prominent Belarusian analysts to predict the country’s near future. But two out of three only shared observations, not forecasts. Thus, Piotr Rudkovsky, head of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, observed that for any political regime, creating an enemy out of half of the population is irrational. According to Yauheni Preiherman, head of Minsk Dialogue, pressure from the West always makes the Belarusian regime toughen its stand vis-à-vis domestic opposition. Besides, this pressure limits President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s ability to say no to Moscow, whose new push to boost the level of integration with Belarus is a sure bet. Only Andrei Yeliseyev, director of Warsaw-based EAST center, predicted that the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly to be convened February 11–12 will elect a presidium with Lukashenka as its chairman, which will allow him to delegate his current post to a loyalist like Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko or the chairwoman of the upper chamber of the parliament, Natalya Kachanova (Belorusy i Rynok, January 6).
As multiple commentators suggested, conducting a constitutional referendum under a stark societal division is a risky proposition (Naviny, January 4). This risk is magnified by a state bureaucracy that may not be as consolidated as it seems. Thus, according to Alyaksandr Plaskavitsky, who from 1994 to 2000 was the presidential administration’s chief lawyer, officials at various levels are ready to declare their loyalty to any replacement of the current president (Svaboda, January 16).
The level of stability in Lukashenka’s rule is difficult to assess given conflicting evidence. On the one hand, there are reliable signs of the protest movement’s drastic decline; the government has announced new punitive measures against the protesters; and Lukashenka appeared increasingly confident during an interview with the Russian state-owned television channel Russia-1, which displayed a favorable tone toward the Belarusian leader. On the other hand, the release of a recorded speech by the current deputy minister of internal affairs and the decision of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to move the ice-hockey world championship from Minsk (the tournament was supposed to be held simultaneously in Minsk and Riga, Latvia from May 21 to June 6, 2021) suggest the situation is wobbly.
Reflections on the decline of public protests range from utmost pessimism about Belarus’s political future (Nasha Niva, January 12) to discussions into historical periods of counter-revolution (Svaboda, January 12) and to soothing reassurances that “each new cycle of protests carries the system to a new level of turmoil” (SN, January 12), which is to say that when the protests eventually reoccur, they will gain power.
Lukashenka’s interview with Nailya Asker-Zadeh of Russia-1 television channel (Youtube, January 11) disposed of the typical condescending tone the Russian media has usually treated Lukashenka (NovayaGazeta, January 12). Instead, it showcased a composed, confident, jovial, and hospitable statesman. Besides the presidential office, the backdrop for the interview included the presidential Mercedes Benz with Lukashenka at the steering wheel, an ice hockey stadium with Lukashenka in full gear, and a dining room where Lukashenka, his youngest son, and the reporter eat pancakes. Verbal exchanges included spontaneous jokes, occasionally of the kind that would be taboo in the West.
Twice during the interview, the footage was played with Lukashenka confessing that he “no longer perceives it as acutely as before that the time to retire is coming.” To the question of why the West launched a crusade against Belarus, Lukashenka responded: “in order to creep closer to you [i.e., Russia].” Concerning relations with the US, Lukashenka announced he was committed to painstakingly building bilateral ties. When the reporter asked, “Do you think the Americans are interested in that?” Lukashenka answered: “I think they are not indifferent to Belarus. And if they are, they will get interested.” Lukashenka also displayed confidence that the ice hockey championship would take place in Minsk, saying “there is not an iota of justification for not conducting it here in Minsk.”
The justification, however, is easy to furnish: the outburst of all-European indignation over Lukashenka’s treatment of Belarus’s protest movement as well as security concerns. Latvia declined to cooperate with Minsk, and the January 11 visit of René Fasel, IIHF president, did not resolve the issue. It was clear that Fasel would have liked to keep the arrangements intact, but the international outcry has been too strong, so Fasel conditioned his support for the event with Lukashenka agreeing to a constructive dialogue with the opposition. By some accounts, Fasel’s visit was an embarrassment because he was pictured making friendly gestures to Lukashenka and also to Dmitry Baskov, who chairs the Belarusian Ice hockey Federation and who has been implicated in mistreating the protesters in Minsk (Naviny, January 13). Indeed, on January 18, IIHF said no to Minsk (Vzglyad, January 18), a further setback in the international legitimacy of the political regime in Belarus.
This announcement came on the heels of Minsk introducing fines for using banned opposition symbols. A white-red-white flag hung on a balcony will be punished with a fine of about $225 for individuals and $667 for legal entities (Tut.by, January 14).
Finally, leaking an audiotape with the voice of the current deputy interior minister confessing that using lethal weaponry against protesters was sanctioned at the very top and that setting up some kind of a concentration camp for the most intransigent protesters was planned, undermines whatever is left of the reputation of Belarusian law enforcement, although the ministry of the interior claimed the tape was a fake (Tut.by, January 15).
The situation in Belarus continues to defy predictions even for the near future.