The turbulent stalemate in Minsk continues, despite the fact that street protests have been subsiding and their full-scale resumption is not expected before March, as noted by, among others, Belarusian political commentator Artyom Shraibman (Current Time TV, November 20). By then, not only will the weather warm up but traditional dates marked by the opposition, like Liberty Day (March 25) and the Chernobyl Path (April 26), may themselves produce large protest crowds. Nevertheless, the government has noticeably retaken the initiative in the streets, and its repressive measures have continued to fuel anger and discontent.
One force-majeure event begets a parade of side effects that reinforce other public mood irritants. As if the tragic death of Minsk artist Roman Bondarenko (see EDM, November 18) was not enough of a disturbance, the incident led to the arrest of a Tut.by reporter who publicly disclosed, contradicting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Bondarenko’s blood test revealed no traces of alcohol (Tut.by, November 19). The hospital physician who shared this information with the journalist was arrested as well (Media Zona, November 19). Both are now sitting in a KGB detention center.
Meanwhile, an inexplicable audio file is making the rounds in the Belarusian capital, allegedly of two people discussing by phone the circumstances of Bondarenko’s death and confirming their physical presence at the scene of his arrest. One of the two recorded voices resembles that of Natalya Eismont, Lukashenka’s unusually influential press secretary, and the other is apparently that of Dmitry Baskov, the chairperson of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation (Tut.by, November 18). Multiple theories have been circulating as to who might have leaked this recording (Svaboda.org, November 20). Lukashenka himself was asked about it during his meeting with workers of the agricultural machinery plant in Gomel, and he promised an “interesting” disclosure in a week (Tut.by, November 19).
On November 16, Baskov had notably been declared persona non grata in Latvia, quite an event considering that the May 21–June 6, 2021, ice hockey World Cup was supposed to take place jointly in Minsk and Riga. No final decision has been taken by the International Ice Hockey Federation about whether the championship games will take place as planned in light of the political situation inside Belarus: a persistent rumor suggests that, due to the political instability, Minsk’s portion of the 2021 World Cup will be transferred to Moscow (Tut.by, November 20).
These and other developments have been accompanied by sharply more radicalized rhetoric on all sides. The protest movement’s backers increasingly acknowledge the impossibility of negotiating anything at all with the regime. Moreover, they view the escalating European sanctions and, especially, the next iteration of the United States’ Belarus Democracy Act as the tipping point for Lukashenka (Telegraf.by, November 20). Of course, earlier versions of the sanctions law had failed to uncover the whereabouts of any of Lukashenka’s suspected offshore financial assets; while the recent visit of the US chargé d’affaires, Jeffrey Giauque, to the High-Tech Center in Minsk and his talks with its director, Vsevolod Yanchevsky, illustrated that preexisting contracts involving US firms were still being honored by both sides (Tut.by, November 16). Nonetheless, at least on two occasions, the regime’s commitment to crush the protest movement was likened to the Holocaust (Gazeta.by, November 16; Facebook.com/andrei.a.litvin, November 18), a parallel that surely goes too far.
The government side has reciprocated and sometimes even initiated such verbal clashes. Apparently responding to riot police and the regime in general being labeled “fascist,” Lukashenka pledged to “rid our society of fascist symbols” (Naviny, November 20). To him, those include, first and foremost, the white-red-white flags that have come to symbolize the protests. Though used by Belarusian collaborationists with Nazi Germany during World War II, this flag was, in fact, first designed by civil engineer Claudy Duzh-Dushevsky back in 1918 as a symbol of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic; in 1992–1995, it became newly independent Belarus’s official state flag. Whereas, after the Catholic bishop Yury Kosobutsky and the press secretary of the Belarusian Orthodox Church Sergei Lepin described the removal of pictures, memorial candles and flowers from the spot where Bondarenko was apprehended as “satanic trampling on lamps and [religious] icons,” the Office of the General Prosecutor rebuked both priests for allegedly fomenting hatred against the authorities (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 19). At least on two occasions, the country’s leadership suggested that Belarus could devolve into civil war (Tut.by, November 19; RIA Novosti, November 17).
Rhetoric in the international relations sphere has hardened, too. Thus, the European Union’s top diplomat, High Representative Josep Borrell, pledged that, from now on, “not a single euro” will be allotted to Minsk (Naviny, November 19). For his part, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei declared that his country was suspending its human rights dialogue with the EU and lowering its level of participation in the Eastern Partnership (Naviny, November 17). Lukashenka expressed certainty that two US intelligence outposts—one near Warsaw and the other in Kyiv—were directing subversive activities against Belarus. “Only Americans work for those entities—all smart, talented and able people” (Belta, November 20).
Whereas the United States has now been assigned the role of the arch-enemy, how are Belarusian-Russian relations evolving? Gevorg Mirzoyan, a political commentator and frequent guest on Russian TV, calls Lukashenka a hopeless leader, even more so than Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, although for the same reason: infidelity. “Having just fought off the West with Moscow’s help, he [Lukashenka] is already talking about the resumption of a multi-vector policy and claims that the Russians ‘must understand us.’ ” In reality, however, no post-Soviet country, with the possible exception of Kazakhstan, enjoys full-fledged independence, according to Mirzoyan. “All the talk of the post-Soviet elites about ‘national sovereignty’ ends the very moment when they begin to feel the need for something that they have no stamina to deliver themselves” (Gazeta.ru, November 18).
Will Moscow “deliver” what Mirzoyan sees as a rescue effort? Arseny Sivitsky and Yury Tsarik of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies believe that it will—and fairly soon. According to these experts, Russia will seek to replay the Kyrgyzstan 2010 scenario, when Moscow and Washington reportedly agreed on the change at the helm of power in that country (Forstrategy, November 20). Based on the conversations occurring on online social networks, this hypothesis seems to be endorsed as frequently as it is rejected. Whether the same pertains to the general public’s view of the Belarusian protest movement itself, however, remains to be seen.