Hopes for Solution to Belarus’s Political Crisis Derailed Again

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 151

(Source: CNN)

On September 30, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka gave an hour-and-seven-minutes-long interview to CNN (President.gov.by, September 30). He agreed to speak under the condition that the cable news channel publish a full recording of the interview, which it did. It is difficult to judge how those viewers not deeply immersed in issues related to Belarus perceived the interview; but it seems that Matthew Chance, CNN’s senior international correspondent based in Moscow, fell into the all-too-familiar trap of underrating Lukashenka. This impression does not pass any moral judgment on Lukashenka himself; rather, it reflects the Belarusian leader’s mental agility and communication skills. At the same time, on online social networks, opposition-minded Belarusians set off an avalanche of harsh criticism of Chance, caused by the mere fact that he referred to Lukashenka as “president” (Svaboda.org, October 1).

Two days prior to Lukashenka sitting down with CNN, a “black swan” event derailed any hopes for a normalization of the Belarusian political crisis—hopes that had been aroused last month (September) by an offer of international mediation (see EDM, September 29). But on September 28, the Belarusian KGB attempted to enter the apartment of Andrei Zeltzer, an associate of EPAM, Belarus’s largest IT company, and a dual citizen of Belarus and the United States. Belarusian officials suspected him of terrorism, an accusation that came across as absurd to those opposition-minded but entirely justifiable to Lukashenka’s supporters. The latter have, indeed, been primed to believe such charges by previously exposed incidents: like when Molotov cocktails were thrown into the windows of Oleg Gaidukevich’s apartment (Gaidukevich is the leader of a pro-regime political party and a vociferous Lukashenka supporter); the alleged perpetrators were subsequently apprehended by the authorities. Zeltser owned a registered hunting rifle and was apparently ready to use it. The whole episode was videorecorded from two positions inside the apartment, including by Zeltser’s wife. After Zeltser declined to open the apartment door, the KGB team stormed it; once they entered, Zeltser shot Dmitry Fedosyuk of the KGB, who subsequently died of his wounds. Zeltser himself was killed by return fire (Mediazona, September 29).

The reaction to the accident showcased the extent of the chasm between two portions of Belarusian society. Whereas one part shared in patriotic grieving for a conscientious law enforcement operative, the other part glorified the slain IT specialist; practically nobody bemoans both deaths. By now, it is almost certain that, numerically, these two slices of Belarusian society are at least on a par with each other. The latest internet-based survey by Chatham House estimated the pro-Lukashenka part at 28 percent and the protest-movement-sympathizers at 36 percent (Gazetaby, September 29). As noted multiple times, any internet-based survey is highly likely to underestimate Lukashenka’s actual support base. The death of a KGB agent provoked harsh declarations of retribution by the authorities (Nasha Niva, September 29) and spurred arrests of dozens of people who, reportedly, shared only one-sided sympathy for Zeltser and anathemized the regime online (Focus.ua, September 30). The authorities also launched (additional) criminal investigation into Valery Tsepkalo, the former presidential hopeful, for his videorecorded glorification of Zeltser as a man who took up arms against the regime. Tsepkalo declared that other Belarusians ought to emulate the killed computer programmer’s actions because there is no other choice (Svaboda.org, YouTube, September 29).

This is now the second time that real hopes for normalization have been derailed: The Western decision to impose further economic sanctions in July stopped the campaign to convince the de facto political prisoners to write applications for clemency that began in late June. By no means did those sanctions beget additional repressions, but Lukashenka did not want to show weakness in the face of the West’s renewed punitive measures (Facebook.com/pavelmatsukevich, September 28), so he suspended the clemency effort. Following the second derailment in a row, an end to the political crisis now again looks as distant as ever. In his CNN interview, Lukashenka made multiple statements that point in that direction.

Thus, to Chance’s suggestion that Lukashenka ask the Belarusian people for forgiveness, Lukashenka replied that he has nothing to apologize for but, if need be, he would do this via Belarusian media. Lukashenka insisted that the conditions in Belarusian prisons are no worse than in the United Kingdom or the United States and that human rights watchdog agencies often furnish unsubstantiated information, like they did in Syria when, he asserted, the use of biological weapons proved to be “fake.” According to Lukashenka, there are no international human rights standards, only those that the West wants to impose on the rest of the world. He claimed that the killing of Ashley Babbit, a US army veteran, on January 6, 2021, during the Capitol riot in Washington, was a violation of human rights. Lukashenka also invoked the scenes at the Kabul airport, with people clinging to chassis of a US aircraft. To the observation by Chance that the passersby on the streets of Minsk repeatedly declined being interviewed by him, supposedly out of fear, Lukashenka contended that the poor credibility of CNN was at fault in the eyes of “our enlightened people.”

Lukashenka repeated his earlier statement that Svetlana Tikhanovsksya, the former presidential hopeful, did not flee but rather asked that Lukashenka deliver her to the Lithuanian border. In Lukashenka’s opinion, those who made up their mind to engage in a revolution inside Belarus for Western money should have been ready for any retaliation whatsoever; and if they subsequently fled, it is only because they are swindlers. To Chance’s question about whether Lukashenka is ready to recognize that downing a passenger plane on May 26 was an operation executed by the Belarusian KGB, Lukashenka retorted that he was not going to admit to anything as he is not under investigation. Moreover, Lukashenka suggested to his interviewer that he watch his language and question the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose representatives finally visited Belarus in June but have not yet shared the results of their investigation. The Belarusian president also denied organizing illegal migration streams into the European Union and pointed to the fact that illegal migrants from the countries pillaged by the West are using many travel itineraries, Belarus being just one of the transit countries. And finally, in perhaps the most telling statement from which to draw conclusions about where the Belarusian political crisis is headed, Lukashenka connected the end of his presidential tenure to the restoration of a sense of security after the West’s alleged attempt to introduce chaos.