In Belarus, protest rallies are continuing for the seventh straight week, as are the authorities’ selective arrests of protesters. But against this background, concerned actors and observers alike have been offering competing narratives to explain the situation. One recent illustrative example can be found in the contrasting content of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s interview to RTVI, a NYC-based Russian-language TV channel, versus Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s speech he delivered upon returning from his meeting in Sochi with Vladimir Putin.
“The President of the Republic of Belarus […] himself said that he may have overstayed his welcome at the helm of power,” Lavrov stated. “According to the Belarusian leader, after the constitutional reform he will be ready to announce early parliamentary and presidential elections. This proposal shows the framework within which national dialogue is entirely possible. It is only important that representatives of all strata of Belarusian society be involved in the process of constitutional reform, that this reform be fully legitimate and understandable to all residents. In addition, we need some concrete proposals on when, where and in what form this process can begin” (YouTube, September 17). Lavrov thus reiterated the Kremlin’s position, pushed by President Putin in Sochi on September 14 (see EDM, September 16): essentially that Lukashenka must go.
However, Lukashenka himself does not seem to agree with such a scenario. Perhaps in Sochi he did not challenge it. But upon coming home, he effectively disavowed the putative agreements. Speaking at a meeting with 300 leading members of the political establishment on September 16, he declared, “[T]he next presidential election is going to occur according to the constitution.” In other words, unless a new constitution is adopted soon, which Lukashenka openly discourages—“Let us do this work calmly. Something big is not done in a hurry, it must ripen”—the new elections will take place in 2025 (President.gov, September 16).
Whereas Lavrov talks about “national dialogue,” Lukashenka’s rhetoric is a blanket expression of enmity toward the protesters who, in his view, are merely puppets subservient to foreign puppeteers. Whereas Lavrov calls for “involving representatives of all strata” in a discussion of constitutional reform, Lukashenka notes that he will address the issue of a new constitution at the All-Belarusian Assembly, a group of handpicked loyalists.
It seems that Lukashenka is convinced Putin will back him up because the latter’s fear of a successful “color revolution” is stronger than his reluctance to prop up the Belarusian leader. Moscow will “have to conduct this dialogue without any abrupt movements. For if the Belarusian nomenklatura […] feels that Lukashenka is left without Russian support, this can quickly finish off his regime. The Kremlin does not want such a collapse before it acquires reliable partners in the Belarusian ruling elite or in the opposition,” writes Minsk-based expert Artyom Shraibman. “Realizing the importance of this monopoly on contact, Lukashenka will continue to block separate negotiations between the nomenklatura and Moscow, smash political affiliations, and jail all possible opposition leaders so that Russia cannot find another interlocutor, even if it wants to. Thus, from an overripe apple that was supposed to fall into the hands of Moscow, the Belarusian regime is becoming more like a toxic asset, with which it is just as difficult to deal with as it is to get rid of” (Carnegie.ru, September 15).
If the Sochi agreements essentially became obsolete within days, a similarly quickly abortive pronouncement came from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on September 15, when she assured that “if Lukashenka goes peacefully, he will be provided with personal security guarantees” (Lb.ua, September 15). The ongoing street protests notwithstanding, Lukashenka shows every sign of being in command; as such, he is much more realistically suited to providing such assurances himself than a Belarusian political refugee in Lithuania—which is what Tikhanovskaya effectively is. The same pertains to warnings. Facing some outflow of personnel from the power structures, Lukashenka directly called on them to, in case of disagreement with the leadership, not make public statements but to instead quietly submit their resignations (Naviny, September 16).
According to the most detailed and well-reasoned numerical assessment of the true outcome of the August 9 elections presented so far, Lukashenka may have actually won 50.8 percent of the vote (the official result is 80.8 percent), whereas Tikhanovskaya’s share of the vote is assessed at 38.3 percent (the official result is 10 percent) (Vedomosti, September 16). That close examination of the falsified vote—combined with personal observations—has led analysts such as the philosopher Vyacheslav Bobrovich to claim that talking about a confrontation between political power and Belarusian society is somewhat misleading; rather, one should talk about two mutually hostile parts of society, with the pro-Lukashenka part being significantly less visible at the moment. However, due to mutual bitterness and exasperation, any observation that bears the imprint of neutrality is quickly qualified as treasonous by both parts (YouTube, September 17).
That attitude may explain the dismissive remarks of opposition-minded Belarusians as well as silence on the part of pro-government analysts in response to a topical recent interview by Yauheni Preiherman, who heads the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, to the opposition-minded outlet Salidarnasts. In the preamble to the interview, the editor states that Preiherman’s April warning (see EDM, April 22)—a torn-apart society with mutual recriminations and distaste for compromise can lead to the loss of national sovereignty—has actually materialized. “The delightful explosion by Belarusians has been taken advantage of by Moscow,” Preiherman stated. “I observe with horror how some of the angry citizens dream of transforming the conflict from peaceful to armed. People are boiling with anger; their emotions are understandable; but the consequences are even more understandable and inevitably tragic. Summing up, we can say: now only a miracle can save Belarus as a full-fledged sovereign state,” the Minsk Dialogue founder concluded (Gazeta.by, September 16).
Preiherman’s misgivings dovetail with observations and musings by Vladimir Pastukhov of Oxford University who writes that the “the strategy of peaceful protest has been seriously discredited in Minsk.” This, perhaps, is the main result of the events that the world has witnessed. Pastukhov predicts that the next upheaval in Belarus is not going to be peaceful and that “the terrible and dreadful 19th century, with its cult of revolutionary violence, returns to European history” (Novaya Gazeta, September 18). One is left to wonder whether to welcome or bemoan such an outcome.