On August 9, 2021, exactly one year since the ill-fated last presidential election, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka conducted a press conference that lasted more than eight hours. On online social networks, the favorite though overused joke of his detractors has been: Did they all (meaning the audience) wear diapers? Whether or not they did, Lukashenka’s speeches are routinely marathon performances, and this one was no exception. Consequently, simple content analysis would not do justice to his pronouncements. Moreover, on official sites, his remarks are almost always heavily redacted. For example, Lukashenka used the word merzavets (scoundrel) about 20 times (Regnum, August 11) to describe foreign leaders and especially members of the opposition, but the official detailed summary of the speech contains only 3 mentions of this word (President.gov.by, August 9).
In a nutshell, Lukashenka’s message was about defeating the Western puppet masters who allegedly brought about the rebellion inside Belarus. According to Lukashenka, however, the largest crowd that ever gathered as part of the August 2020 post-election rallies consisted of just 46,700 people, and no more than 10 percent of the Belarusian electorate has consistently voted against him. News of police brutality was largely fake, he claimed, while incidents of protestors assaulting police were purportedly real. At the end of his speech, Lukashenka again called Belarusians and Russians the same people and pledged that Europe and the United States would never succeed in tearing Belarus away from Russia. And yet, during his eight-hour-long address, he again insisted on Belarusian sovereignty, criticized Russia’s reluctance to establish a level playing field when it comes to energy prices, and declined recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia—for now. “When the last oligarch in Russia recognizes Crimea […] only then will I do that for you [Moscow]. Though a lot keeps me from doing so. Like the Budapest Declaration. My signature is there. But I will close my eyes to it, too,” declared Lukashenka, which, naturally, elicited a riposte in the Russian Duma (Lenta.ru, August 11).
Notably, Lukashenka lashed out against Western economic sanctions and boasted how he would circumvent them with the help of Russia, including by exporting potash via Murmansk instead of Lithuanian Klaipeda. Some analysts described such statements as a sheer bluff (Facebook.com/artyom.shraibman, August 10), but there seems to be a fundamental misconception behind such descriptions. They resemble the once frequently expressed doubts that Russia would succeed in building a bridge to Crimea because doing so would allegedly prove too costly (Gazeta.ru, August 4, 2017). In reality, major geopolitical considerations always trump cost accounting. Bluffing or not, the fact that Western economic sanctions critically enhance Belarus’s dependency on Russia is so obvious (see EDM, August 10, 2021) that some analysts try to fill in the blanks by looking for some hidden stratagem in Western foreign policy thinking. For example, Arseny Sivitsky of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies is pushing the idea that the Joseph Biden administration has covertly consented to Russia presiding over regime change in Minsk (Forstrategy, August 10). This view harkens back to the thinking from the early 1990s, when policymakers concluded that relocating nuclear arms from Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to Russia would be preferable since dealing with one potentially toxic actor would arguably be more secure than having to contend with several. It is a big question, however, whether this mode of thinking—i.e., reducing the number of toxic actors from two to one—is actually the US administration’s strategy vis-à-vis Russia and Belarus.
Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia’s premier political commentator, admits that Western sanctions “solidify Belarus’s status as a subsidized subject of the Russian Federation.” He also suggests that “during the 30 post-Soviet years, the Kremlin hardly ever managed to bring its protégés to power anywhere in the former Soviet Union,” and, therefore, it is pointless even to try. Since Belarus is of utmost importance for Russia’s security, the only thing Moscow “should do to ensure Belarus’s attachment to Russia would not depend on Lukashenka” is to guarantee there are Russian “boots on the ground” in Belarus (Globalaffairs.ru, August 10).
Alongside Lukashenka, other interested parties also summed up the past year’s experiences. Thus, according to one of the leading Belarusian opposition-minded journalists, the government is unwilling to recognize the true cause of the political crisis, which “has been crushed by the concrete slab of repressive policies”; but such repressions have hardly changed people’s minds (Naviny, August 9).
In the avowedly pro-Russian circles, including the political movement Soglasie (Consensus), most believe the entire political crisis was caused by the Belarusian authorities’ longtime willingness to tolerate or even support pro-Western non-governmental organizations (NGO) as a way to partially distance Belarus from Russia (Facebook.com, August 8).
Semyon Uralov, a St. Petersburg–based editor of Sonar-2050, the online periodical devoted to the Union State of Russia and Belarus, opined that in Belarus, during the last ten years, perestroika-like processes took place. The intelligentsia was preparing to betray the authorities… [But while trying to preempt this betrayal,] the authorities fell victim to usual Belarusian frugality… Instead of holding the […] manipulative elections and releasing negative energy with the help of a controlled pool of candidates, they decided to save money. The lack of a positive reputation in the media environment, [along with a] reluctance to spend on media and political technologies, have spelled the fate of Belarus” (T.me/su2050, August 9).
Whatever conclusions one may draw from this panoply of assessments, one peculiar case of oppositely directed change may be worth reflecting upon. Whereas the Belarusian protest movement initially downplayed geopolitics but then became imbued with it, Belarus policies pursued by the West evolved in a contrary way. Since 2014, if not earlier, US and European capitals emphasized the necessity to prop up Belarus’s sovereignty, the unpalatable political regime notwithstanding; but in the wake of the domestic crisis sparked by the 2020 elections, Western strategists sacrificed geopolitics on the altar of a new fight for democracy. Time will tell whether this shift was justified. But the intermediary effects have already emerged. On August 10, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus demanded that the US embassy staff be reduced to five, and it also withdrew its agrément for Julie Fisher’s appointment as US ambassador to Belarus (Mfa.gov.by, August 10).