President Alyaksandr Lukashenka naturally wants to extend his rule as long as possible, while Belarusians protesting in the streets want to bring it to an end as soon as they can. But Moscow, which has more than a little say in the matter (see EDM, September 8, 10), is divided as to whether and when Lukashenka’s departure would help the Kremlin and how Russia could achieve its goals without hurting itself. As a result, in Moscow at least, time appears to be working both for and against the Belarusian dictator.
Obviously, the longer Lukashenka can resist the protesters, the greater the chance he will be able to ride out the current challenges from the streets. At the same time, the longer the protesters remain in the streets, the greater is the chance that he will ultimately have to give way or be forced to. But Moscow’s interest on the timing of his departure depends on what it decides to do next. If Russia annexes Belarus, the answer could be entirely different than if it instead seeks to run that country as a controlled satellite that maintains a legal veneer of independence. Consequently, the debate in the Russian capital about Lukashenka’s exit is, in fact, a debate about what the Russian government can and should do.
This discussion matters in particular because it is increasingly obvious that Moscow, not the Belarusians in the streets, will determine Lukashenka’s fate. As London-based Russian analyst Vladimir Pastukhov observes, even as protests continue, those streets are likely to be quieted by a pitiless counterrevolution. In that scenario, Moscow would be reprising its role as the head of a new Holy Alliance to protect authoritarianism, he writes; or alternatively, Russia would seek to spark a real and violent revolution there. In either case, Pastukhov implies, the Kremlin will not want to oust Lukashenka anytime soon lest it appear that his departure was caused by the protests. It may be quite ready to remove him eventually—Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka are hardly friends—but Moscow’s broader geopolitical calculations as well as its domestic worries will help the embattled Belarusian leader remain in place for longer than many expect (Novaya Gazeta, September 14).
That holds regardless of whether Moscow pursues transforming Belarus into a Russian-controlled satellite or works to absorb it, as some would like. Were Moscow to work to oust Lukashenka in the former case, it would create precisely the kind of uncertainty about its commitment to authoritarian leaders in the face of protests that Putin cannot afford to cultivate. But even if Moscow works to absorb Belarus, concerns about what Belarusians might do within the borders of Russia are a strong argument for retaining Lukashenka in some capacity, either in Minsk or Moscow, lest newly minted Russian citizens of Belarusian origin draw the wrong conclusions from their new status (see EDM, August 13, September 10; Krizis-Kopilka, September 9; Sovershenno Sekretno, August 30).
Other Russian analysts suggest that the situation in Belarus has already evolved beyond the one that Moscow had calculated on. They further argue that although time is now working against Lukashenka, a Russian move against him could backfire on Moscow, leading to a new anti-Russian nationalism there; and that the Russian government must recalibrate its approach, possibly sacrificing its quondam partner before failing to do so harms Russian interests. Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Vladimir Putin, is among those making that claim. He contends that the Belarusian people have already won an important victory, that Lukashenka will ultimately be defeated by them, and as a result, that jettisoning him sooner rather than later makes sense regardless of the broader strategy the Kremlin adopts (Russkiy Monitor, September 12).
Citing both 19th century German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and Soviet General Georgy Zhukov, Gallyamov suggests that the only limiting factor is that Moscow must ensure it has sufficient forces at its disposal to shift from defense to offense. Otherwise, Russia may discover it had started something that spiraled out of its control. If Moscow tries to oust Lukashenka and fails, that could create an even greater danger. That is especially true because, the former Kremlin speechwriter continues, the revolution that has begun in Belarus is not simply going to disappear. Revolutions come in waves and, even if the first of these is stopped, new ones will follow and inevitably spread.
Gallyamov does not outright say this, but his argument certainly suggests Moscow cannot afford to stick with Lukashenka much longer. Rather, Russia needs to try to find allies among his opponents if it is to be effective there and if it is to prevent the spread of Belarus-type movements inside the Russian Federation itself. Ever more Russians are now discussing that very danger, including, most recently, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant but sometimes insightful “opposition” leader (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 14), and Moscow analyst Pavel Salin (Nakanune.ru, September 15). That would require a fundamental change in Putin’s approach. But the fact that some in Russia’s capital are calling for it shows how serious the Belarusian case has become for Moscow.
Other commentators are joining this debate as well, with Andrey Illarionov asking whether Lukashenka’s wider regime will also be replaced if the sitting Belarusian president himself is forced out, or whether a Lukashenka-style dictatorship might continue, as Putin clearly hopes (Kasparov.ru, September 16). In turn, Ruslan Grinberg openly wonders if Moscow’s concerns about the influence of Belarusian events on Russia are driving its decision on whether to push Belarus’s president beyond what is politically possible and sensible (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 16).
Putin, of course, will make the decision. For now, he seems committed to staying with Lukashenka; but even the Kremlin leader’s patience may be running out, according to Russian commentators like Valery Solovey. According to him, Putin has given his Minsk counterpart two months to calm the situation—an implicit warning that if Lukashenka fails, Moscow will do so itself or install someone in Minsk who can (Belaruspartisan.by, September 16).