“Remember, I said a year ago […] that perhaps a time will come when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and I will have to stand next to each other and shoot back. And you took it for a joke. But you now see how life has turned around,” Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka observed in an interview with four representatives of Russia’s leading media outlets in September 2020 (President.gov, September 8, 2020). He repeated these same remarks nearly two months later, during his meeting with Belarusian police bosses (President.gov, October 30, 2020). In his latest interview to Channel One of Russian TV, in response to a question about his relationship with his Russian colleague presumably in contrast with the West, he reiterated those sentiments but in different terms: “They have now driven us together firmly into one team” (YouTube, January 11, 2021).
Notably, the Channel One interview took place one week before the International Ice Hockey Federation canceled Minsk’s hosting of the world championship, scheduled for May–June 2021 (see EDM, January 20). Arguably, this latest sanction may prove to be one step too far in punishing and isolating the Belarusian regime—not because Lukashenka’s treatment of the domestic protest movement has improved, but because of wider strategic considerations. At some point, conflicts and showdowns end, and having at least a modicum of international leverage over Minsk thereafter would be helpful at that point. It seems that Western policymakers had those strategic considerations in mind earlier, when they showed caution in formulating new economic sanctions against Belarus (see EDM, January 13). But the planned hockey championship games were a highly emotional issue for Lukashenka personally. As he acknowledged in his latest interview, he plays hockey almost every day. Besides, withholding the championship hosting rights penalized regular Belarusian hockey fans.
If the Belarusian leader had been teetering on the verge of resignation, such a symbolic penalty might have changed the calculus in Minsk; but with each passing day, Lukashenka’s quick passing from the pinnacle of power looks less and less believable. Moscow sees this reality and, evidently, has decided to bet on Lukashenka for the near future, likely even until 2025, when the next presidential elections are due. This possibility comes through in the musings of Piotr Akopov (a journalist of the so-called Kremlin pool): “Whether Lukashenka won or lost in 2020 will become clear by the mid-2020s; if integration with Russia within the framework of the Union State succeeds, then not only Batka [“Father”—Lukashenka’s nickname] but the entire Russian people, from Great Russians to Belarusians, will become the winners” (Putin.ru, December 31, 2020). Some commentators, notably Vitaly Tsygankov of Radio Liberty, even mocked the “eternally recurring” idea that Moscow is somehow plotting against Lukashenka—a theory that, since 1996, has reemerged every time there was a domestic disturbance in Belarus. Tsygankov discounts this notion as a “mirage”—one propelled by some individuals who implicitly want to see Moscow engender a regime change in Minsk that the Belarusian opposition has been unable to bring about itself (Svobodnyye Novosti, January 20).
Another major opposition-minded commentator, Alexander Klaskovsky, refers to a different, though also oft-extended explanation. In his opinion, Lukashenka is “tactically outplaying the Kremlin.” Most illustrative of Klaskovsky’s thesis is the fact that Russia’s Gazprom recently endorsed the appointment of Lukashenka loyalist Nadezhda Yermakova, a former Central Bank head, to the position of chairperson of Belgazprombank, Gazprom’s daughter company. On June 11, 2020, fifty masked agents of the Belarusian State Control Committee showed up at the head office of Belgazprombank (which last year’s presidential hopeful Victor Babariko had headed for two decades), and the Central Bank of Belarus replaced its entire leadership team. It is worth recalling that, at that time, Gazprom declared those actions illegal (see EDM, June 16, 2020). But now the same acting chairperson has been permanently endorsed in her position without Gazprom batting an eyelid. That can only mean that the Kremlin ordered state-owned Gazprom to keep mum. Even the Alexei Navalny scandal (see EDM, January 19, 25, 2021) works in Lukashenka’s favor, Klaskovsky asserts, by worsening Russia’s relations with the West, thus allowing Minsk to further exploit Moscow’s “existential phobias.” Those have to do with the West potentially capturing the “Belarusian protrusion” that separates the Baltic States from Ukraine. Klaskovsky sees this phobia as analogous to that of the Baltic States themselves, which are leery of the Russians potentially capturing the Suwałki Corridor by operating from Belarusian territory (Naviny, January 19, 2021).
On Navalny’s case, one more peculiar observation belongs to Kirill Ozimko, a popular blogger based in Brest. According to him, the Minsk-based opposition responded to Navalny’s arrest earlier than even protesters in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Khabarovsk. In the evening of the same day (January 18), small groups of demonstrators waving white-red-white flags chanted “Freedom to Navalny”; and in the wee hours of the night, a giant projection of the Russian opposition leader’s face showed up on the wall of one of residential high-rises in Minsk. To Ozimko, this means that “in Belarus, even protesters do not separate themselves from the cultural-and-informational space shared with Russia. And this means more for [the future prospects of] the Union State than formalities like bilateral agreements” (Telescope, January 19, 2021).
Against this backdrop, the “diplomacy of protest” by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—who has already met with 17 Western dignitaries (heads of state and foreign ministers) and delivered 10 speeches at prestigious international forums like the European Parliament or the Congress of Germany’s Christian Democrats (Svaboda.org, January 22, 2021)—is at risk of losing traction. Namely, although the West continues to support Belarus’s protest movement, it is busily depriving itself of any remaining leverage over Minsk. And Tikhanovskaya’s request to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to ensure her safe return to Minsk so she can negotiate the scheduling of new elections, smacks of outright fantasy (Svaboda.org, January 19). After all, Belarus’s Office of General Prosecutor filed a case against Tikhanovskaya and the entire opposition Coordination Council for alleged “extremist” activities (Tut.by, December 21, 2020).
The present situation reflects the wider interplay between pursuing one’s geostrategic interests and promoting democracy. In that regard, the title of a recent (December 2020) Polish-language book about Belarus, authored by Marek Budzisz, is particularly illuminating: The Illusion of Free Belarus: How One May Lose One’s Homeland While Fighting for Democracy. No, Lukashenka is not forever. But to help make free Belarus real, not illusory, policymakers will need to carefully examine the facts on the ground and think at least two steps ahead.