Going Over the Top in and Around Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 76

(Source: Belsat)

Belarus’s political crisis involves four principal actors. Two of them are domestic: the political regime, headed by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the protest movement, whose leaders are currently in Lithuanian, Polish and Latvian exile. Two more actors are external: Russia and the collective West. At least three actors out of those four evince a high level of anxiety, to the point of losing self-control and engaging in behaviors counterproductive to their own goals.

Notably, the political regime’s public relations activity is still focusing on the uncovered attempted coup d’etat and on its consequences. Additionally, citizens who showed utmost “disloyalty” to the regime on social media continue to be detained—with the arrest of maxillofacial surgeon Andrei Lunetsky as a case in point (Tut.by, May 4). Lastly, the regime is concentrating on the recent presidential decree elucidating the succession of power in case the president is assassinated, as the alleged coup organizers planned. Signed into law on May 9, the decree postulates that should the head of state be murdered, his powers will be transferred to the Security Council mostly consisting of siloviki, i.e., ranking law enforcement officials, not to the prime minister alone, as per the current constitution (Belta, May 9). In the opinion of political commentator Artyom Shraibman, that creates a junta-in-expectation, whose members may actually decide to subvert the political regime on their own or in coordination with the Kremlin (Euroradio, April 25).

The veteran of opposition journalism Alexander Klaskovsky believes the succession decree betrays utmost anxiety at the helm of power and it implies that, even after 27 years, the regime is in urgent need of additional security. As for the allegedly uncovered coup, Klaskovsky observes that the government’s efforts to stoke passions about it elicit more sarcasm than trepidation in the general public (Naviny, May 4). This is because the conspiracy in question was grown, like a crystal from a solution, in a test tube of the Belarusian KGB. After all, from the movie To Kill the President (see EDM, May 5), aired in late April on Belarusian television, it follows that the KGB has long been ghost-steering the defendants (Yuri Zenkovich, for example, at least since August 2020), keeping them under surveillance, and provoking certain statements on their part. The interview with the alleged mastermind of the coup, Dmitry Shchigelsky, adds to this impression. However jokingly, he twice refers to himself as Professor Moriarty, a fictional character in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is more than likely that the entire group was a pot of unrealized ambition and pent-up imagination, which is what made these people supremely susceptible to a professional KGB trap (Svaboda.org, April 30).

On the side of the collective West, the name of the game is sanctions. Pavel Matsukevich, until recently Belarus’s charge d’affaires in Switzerland and part of a cohort of Belarusian diplomats who resigned in protest against the authorities’ brutal crackdown on rallies between August 9 and 11, is extremely skeptical about sanctions. “For 26 years, Belarus has experienced sanctions of varying severity. Nevertheless, Lukashenka stayed in power, and I think he will outlive [United States President Joseph] Biden. In some cases, sanctions were really tough, like on Yugoslavia. There, however, sanctions backfired: they made [then–Serbian president Slobodan] Milošević even more popular. He was overthrown by a protest movement unrelated to sanctions. Yes, the sanctions currently imposed on Belarus are sensitive. But what would be the effect of Naftan [an oil refinery] not being able to buy oil anywhere but Russia? By and large, none. It is necessary to ask the question, what harm do the sanctions do to the regime as opposed to people? An old Soviet joke comes to mind. An alcoholic father tells his son that his salary has been cut. ‘So now, Dad, you will drink less?’ ‘No, son, now you will eat less.’ That is the effect of sanctions. This government has a unique experience of circumventing sanctions. Sanctions do not reduce the scale of repression” (Svaboda.org, April 30).

In a talk show aired on Radio Liberty, Matsukevich debates the above views with Valery Kovalevsky, a former Belarusian diplomat, now serving as exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s “head of cabinet.” Kovalevsky represents a less reflective school of thought; according to him, if sanctions or any other external pressure, like military intervention, do not work, it is because there is not enough of them (Svaboda.org, April 30).

As for the protest movement, two types of over-the-top developments come to mind. First, Tikhanovskaya has begun making “official visits” to foreign countries—so far to Austria and Italy—which effectively makes her and her cabinet the second simultaneously existing Belarusian government in exile (the first one being the Rada of the Belarusian People’s Republic, currently headed by Ivonka Survila, a citizen of Canada who emigrated in 1944). The second development is the opposition’s inflammatory exploitation of World War II imagery. Initially, backers of the protest movement likened what was going on in Belarus to the Holocaust (see EDM, November 25, 2020). Now, Belarus is being described as in need of its own “Nuremberg trial” after democracy is installed (Svaboda.org, May 7). Also, an application has been filed to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Germany to look into the cases of ten people tortured while in law enforcement custody in Belarus as potential crimes against humanity committed by the Lukashenka regime (Tut.by, May 10). While there is not a shred of doubt that those ten were in fact tortured, making Germany the venue of the respective grievance filed specifically on May 9, enthusiastically celebrated in Belarus as Victory Day, was either tone deaf or deliberately provocative. Needless to say, Lukashenka willingly took the bait. “They will judge me… Who are you [Germany] to judge me? Because I protect my country… If it were Great Britain, America, France, well, at least they were in the coalition. But not the heirs of fascism,” he said, recalling the crimes of Nazism and the numbers of Belarusian victims during World War II (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 7).

Out of the four actors playing a role in the slow-rolling Belarusian crisis, only Russia does not seem to be overreacting at the moment. It is waiting. And that alone says a lot about the developments in question.