Five weeks of peaceful mass protests in Belarus after the falsified elections on August 9, have profoundly changed this formerly rather stable and conservative country, impressed its European neighbors, and set a sharp challenge for Russia, which is tied to this partner in a peculiar “Union State” arrangement undergirded by strong historical, cultural and economic ties. Belarus’s embattled head of state, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has been clinging to power by combining intermittent brutal suppressions of street rallies with selective punishment of the leaders of the uprising; but so far, he has been unable to achieve the desired passive acceptance of his right to rule. In Lukashenka’s apparent calculation, his best hope for restoring habitual stability is support from Russia, and the Belarusian president’s visit to Sochi on Monday, September 14, is supposed to secure a decisive increase of this “brotherly help” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 10).
The Kremlin has sought to downplay the significance of the “working” meeting, assuring that no documents were prepared for signing. But this could be the usual denial of the obvious because several Russian high-level officials, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, had already traveled to Minsk to prepare the deal (RBC, September 11). The Sochi summit, however, could also be a sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s indecisiveness in managing the fateful crisis next door. His personal feelings toward the charismatic though maverick Belarusian leader is known to be close to loathing; and yet, Putin still found it opportune to congratulate Lukashenka on the latter’s declared victory in the elections, immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his own message of congratulations (Novaya Gazeta, September 4). Humiliating Lukashenka, who had shaped his electoral campaign around claims of defending Belarusian sovereignty against pressure from Moscow, would be satisfying for Putin, but Russia’s president nonetheless finds himself compelled to come to the rescue of a fellow autocrat threatened by public protests (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 10).
The most straightforward means of Russian assistance would be additional financial aid, which, at a minimum, would allow Lukashenka to keep paying his police, special services and the army (Republic.ru, August 30). It would be out of character for Putin to give something for nothing, particularly with Russia’s own economy hit by a recession. But trying to use Lukashenka’s current weakness as leverage to enforce the Kremlin’s plan for closer economic integration and opening the state-controlled Belarusian companies to “privatization” by Russian oligarchs would only deepen the public discontent (Snob.ru, September 7). Strikes at major enterprises, like the Minsk Tractor Plant, have sharply undermined Lukashenka’s capacity to suppress the unrest (Svoboda.org, September 6). In fact, most Russian business leaders expect his imminent departure and are clamoring to exploit opportunities for expansion likely to open after a political transition in Minsk (Forbes.ru, September 9). The lively IT sector in Belarus, which Lukashenka had once cultivated, is now among the drivers of protests; but the young entrepreneurs are worried about the influx of Russian money (The Bell, August 28).
As noted above, exploiting Lukashenka’s weakness in order to extract concessions that he had, for years, managed to dodge—such as accepting the Russian ruble as the common currency for the Union State—might feel natural for Putin at this time. However, making deals with an autocrat who has become so hugely unpopular with his own people is hardly a sound strategy (Moscow Echo, September 11). Putin is obsessed with perceived geopolitical maneuvering around Belarus, looking for signs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) involvement and convincing himself that the arrest of a group of “Wagner” mercenaries in Minsk in early August was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation. Yet, he misses far clearer signs of change within Belarusian society (Interfax, September 9). Lukashenka imagined himself to be the “father” of his nation; but for younger generations, this old-fashioned paternalism looks ridiculous, and a great many women are offended by his machismo (Kommersant, September 10). As the populist autocracy tries to reassert and harden its grip, Belarusian society finds dignity and courage to stand against it. Meanwhile, Putin is compelled to take this “disturbing” trend into consideration when calibrating the measures of support he can offer to the increasingly bankrupt regime in Minsk (Russiancouncil.ru, September 11).
Compared to Belarus, Russian society differs in many important ways: it has experienced the trauma of the Chechen wars and terrorism as well as undergone jingoistic mobilization following the annexation of Crimea. Yet, Lukashenka was right in warning that Russia would face the same problems. That said, he is mistaken that a strong show of force can be the solution—to the contrary, crackdowns simply awaken dormant energies in the populace (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 10). Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel laureate in literature and a strong voice in the Belarusian opposition, called for the Russian intelligentsia to show solidarity with her country and instantly received tens of thousands of messages of personal support (Novaya Gazeta, September 10). Sunday’s (September 13) local and regional elections in Russia occurred under the shadow of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny (see EDM, September 10), an opposition leader who has worked tirelessly to connect the protests in Moscow with various local grievances. This crime added heavily to the public disappointment in and disgust with Putin’s rule (Meduza.io, September 9).
Lukashenka’s crackdowns on protesters as well as Putin’s fierce denials of the poisonings of Navalny and other political opponents have created a serious quandary for European states as to how to respond. Even traditionally Russia-friendly Serbia—apparently under pressure from Brussels—recently announced it was pulling out of joint military exercises in Belarus (RBC, September 9). The EU is bedeviled by bitter disagreements, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot avoid taking a stance. And she is now flirting with the idea of terminating the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline project, which is, in any case, already hampered by United States sanctions (Obozrevatel, September 10).
The courage showcased by Belarusian women, like Maria Kolesnikova and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, gives heart to marginalized Russian liberals and to the stubborn protesters in Khabarovsk. At the same time, it alarms the two authoritarian leaders, who cannot comprehend the power of a peaceful social movement. They invest in and rely upon riot police, secret services and armed forces; but the two are now discovering how unreliable and irrelevant these instruments are for managing modern states and halting societal change. Putin likes to think in terms of “great powers,” but it is Belarus that has emerged as a great protest power, and he cannot hope to reproduce the Chinese example in Hong Kong. Every move to uphold Lukashenka discredits and erodes Putin’s seemingly solid pyramid of power. Nevertheless, he keeps going, driven by the fear of a people who have discovered the strength and joy of togetherness.