Arriving at some clarity regarding the situation in Belarus has become harder than ever before. An unstable equilibrium begets a cacophony of opinions that do not lend themselves to generalization or to teasing out a common idea. Alexander Klaskovsky of Belapan writes, “[Presidents Alyaksandr] Lukashenka [of Belarus] and [Vladimir] Putin [of Russia] are sitting in the same anti-Western trench” (Naviny, September 29). Arseny Sivitsky of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic Studies argues, “[French President] Emmanuel Macron’s statement that Lukashenka has to go and Macron’s meeting with [Lukashenka’s chief rival in the August presidential elections] Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius not only derive from Minsk’s reluctance to communicate with the West but also constitute a position Macron reconciled during his phone talk with Vladimir Putin; this position reflects attitudes in the Kremlin” (Forstrategy, September 29). Finally, in an interview with Current Time TV, Arkady Dubnov, a liberal Moscow-based political analyst, posited, “Moscow may turn out to be late installing its creature that would replace Lukashenka, and in that case, it would have to negotiate with Tikhanovskaya, too” (Current Time, September 28).
What nobody calls into question is that the Belarusian political regime has survived the street protests and, despite a few widely publicized acts of disobedience, the entire power vertical, especially law enforcement, retained the appearance of a monolith. It is also becoming exceedingly clear that although the social base of the protest movement may be fairly wide, President Lukashenka’s base of support is not that narrow either and extends beyond the habitual formula of “country and small-town folks, retirees and the less educated.”
Opinions about Lukashenka’s legitimacy vary. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba put it, “Lukashenka does not have legitimacy anymore, but the opposition does not enjoy enough of it yet” (Tut.by, September 30). However, according to philosopher Viacheslav Bobrovich of Belarusian State University, if Lukashenka has lost legitimacy in the eyes of a critical mass of the Belarusian public, it is only in a narrowly defined political sense. His administration remains orderly and performs its functions vital for everyday life reasonably well, and it is not awash in corruption (Facebook.com/vbobrovich, September 26). Kirill Koktysh, a Minsk-born professor at Russia’s MGiMO university, observes that Belarus witnessed the third recent failed color revolution, following those in Venezuela and Hong Kong (Author’s interview, October 2).
Arguably, a tentative consensus has developed suggesting that the “unstable equilibrium” in Belarus is not so much because of continuing protests but due to the uncertain actions of the Kremlin. Actors on all sides of the Belarusian political divide seem to stress the necessity of reaching out to Russia. “We do have contacts with Moscow,” acknowledged Pavel Latushko, one of the exiled leaders of the protest movement, in an interview with Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, September 29). Against this backdrop, the European Union’s sanctions imposed on Minsk do not elicit a serious reaction. About 40 Belarusian officials and security service authorities—but not Lukashenka himself—are now personae non gratae in the EU (BBC News—Russian service, October 1). The reputable Minsk-based analyst Artyom Shraibman describes Western sanctions as pro forma a demonstration of Europe’s self-respect but thoroughly impotent in terms of exerting any influence. Yet he suggests that a miniature Marshall Plan for Belarus could eventually begin to matter in the eyes of the Belarusian nomenklatura, if Moscow does not depose Lukashenka but the economy sharply declines (T.me/shraibman, October 2).
In contrast to the EU sanctions, Minsk’s responses prove more important, as these actions will further reduce Belarus’s exposure to Western influence. For example, Minsk demanded that the Lithuanian embassy to Belarus reduce its personnel from 25 to 14 diplomats and the Polish embassy from 50 to 18. The Belarusian government claims this order was prompted by “destructive activity” carried out by these countries inside Belarus (Svaboda.org, October 2). Since the Baltic States’ travel sanctions on Belarus target many more people than the EU’s and include Lukashenka, Belarus announced symmetrical restrictions (Tut.by, September 29). On October 2, Minsk annulled the accreditation of all foreign media correspondents. Reaccreditation commenced three days later, prioritizing journalists who are citizens of the countries that their respective media outlets represent. This strategy may let down quite a few Belarusian citizens representing these foreign media outlets (Svaboda.org, October 2).
Concerning the Vilnius meeting between Macron and Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian foreign ministry caustically called the exiled opposition leader an “attraction” in the Lithuanian capital that foreign visitors are now mandated to visit (BelTA, September 29). Whereas Lukashenka, as a “politician with experience,” issued advice to the “immature” Macron to stay away from Belarus and preoccupy himself with his own country’s problems. The Belarusian leader even crudely counseled his French counterpart against paying too much attention to the former presidential candidate in Vilnius lest Macron wind up with personal problems simply because that candidate, Ms. Tikhanovskaya, happens to be a woman (Tut.by, September 29).
Multiple publications have declared the ultimate failure of Belarus’s multi-vector foreign policy; some have fatalistically entertained the idea of shutting down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would hardly be needed if Minsk is not allowed to maintain relations with any foreign powers besides Moscow (Naviny, September 22). Andrei Savinykh, a former diplomat who chairs the Foreign Affairs Commission of Belarus’s House of Representative (lower chamber of parliament), has been particularly vocal in repudiating Minsk’s multi-vectoralism: in the current geopolitical situation, the West has demonstrated its irrelevance and hostility toward Belarus, whereas Russia embodies all hope (BelTA, September 29).
Clearly, however, not all inside Belarus or in the West agree. Thus, in their article aimed at the Western audience, Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogue Council and Thomas Graham of the United States Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that contacts with Minsk should be retained at all costs and a US ambassador should quickly be sent to Minsk. After all, talking about Belarus only with Moscow over Minsk’s head will show Belarusian society that it does not matter in the eyes of the West. “A post-Lukashenko Belarus, with close ties to Moscow but an improved relationship with the West, remains a possible medium-term outcome of the current crisis. It might not be the one many in the West had hoped for, but it is still a good alternative and perhaps the best option in the current climate. Well-crafted policy could make it a reality,” the two analysts conclude (Foreign Affairs, October 2).