On July 28, United States President Joseph Biden held a 15-minute face-to-face talk with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who many in the West consider to be the leader of Belarusian opposition. The opposition-minded media outlets and social networks conveyed a sense of triumph. Indeed, since the August 2020 elections, Tikhanovskaya has met with 31 presidents and prime ministers, whereas President Alyaksandr Lukashenka sat down with only 4 world leaders since his own reelection (Pikabu, July 29). “That this meeting will take place was kept in secrecy until the last moment,” Franak Viachorka, Tikhanovskaya’s principal advisor, wrote jubilantly. She “was greeted at the White House as a national leader… From the Willard Hotel, where the presidents usually stay […] Tikhanovskaya was accompanied by members of the diplomatic security service” (Svaboda.org, July 28).
“For the Belarusian democratic forces, […] this meeting means a lot,” acknowledged Pavel Slyuinkin, a former Belarusian diplomat, now an expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Until recently, the USA did not show much involvement in the Belarusian crisis… Perhaps after today’s meeting, American policy will become more active” (Svaboda.org, July 28).
Artyom Shraibman, an independent analyst, observed that the “symbolism of this meeting means more than just a picture for Twitter. This is a strong political impulse for American bureaucracy… Now, every initiative discussed at [low-level] technical meetings will be given a boost. The officials desiring to do something for Belarus will receive support of their own bosses with ease, whereas Belarusian opposition leaders will find it easier to connect with those officials” (T.me/shraibman, July 28).
As for symbolism, Tikhanovskaya herself added spice to it when she elatedly conveyed that after Biden left the negotiation room at the White House, he briefly reappeared to treat her to some cookies (Lenta.ru, July 29). In the Russian-language media, cookies are associated with Victoria Nuland, currently US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. At the end of 2013, when street protests in Kyiv came to a head, Nuland appeared there and proceeded to hand out cookies to the protesters. That scene became an instant meme on Russian social media and later among millions of Russians. It is now impossible to perceive the aforementioned Biden episode apart from that meme. Only this time, the cookies have gained in stature both per se and as a metaphor for heartfelt US support.
By now, multiple Belarusian and Russian officials, from Lukashenka himself to the press secretaries of President Vladimi Putin and of the Russian foreign ministry, have invoked Biden’s cookies in their comments. Somehow, this has become a powerful reminder that there is always a flip side to events. But while Belarusian opposition strategists have been successful as straightforward thinkers and achievers, they have been noticeably less effective in discerning and mediating the side effects of their achievements and, consequently, of reaping any benefits from them. Indeed, the new opposition did organize unprecedented rallies in Belarus back in August–September 2020; their appeals to the West to impose sanctions on Minsk did work, too; and now they have even succeeded in organizing their leader’s meeting with the leader of the free world. But what has all this collectively achieved for the anti-Lukashenka movement?
“The meeting with Biden puts an end to talk that the Belarusian crisis has no geopolitical dimension,” explains Maxim Samorukov, the deputy editor of Carnegie.ru. “The Kremlin has always perceived the Belarusian opposition as pro-Western, and finally they disposed of their disguise and showed who their masters really are… As for Russia, it does not want free competition with the West for Belarus, so they [the Russian authorities and economic elites] are trying to establish such ties with that country that would make free competition impossible. [As a result], this part of the Belarusian opposition [i.e., Tikhanovskaya and her entourage] will be excluded from any transit of power option in Belarus, which will occur under Moscow’s supervision” (Svaboda.org, July 29).
“Biden needs to show he supports democracy […] around the world, this is his declared policy,” writes Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia’s premier political commentator. “Accordingly, candidates instrumental in democracy promotion will appeal to him. Tikhanovskaya […] has turned into a separate player who has some importance in the West but has no meaning whatsoever in the context of what is happening in Belarus itself. Naturally, this game will continue. As in the Cold War, President [Ronald] Reagan hosted Soviet dissidents, so Biden is hosting Tikhanovskaya. But this has no direct impact on what is happening in and around Belarus” (Eurasia.expert, July 29).
While it is tempting to dismiss Lukyanov’s verdict as reflective of Kremlin thinking, observed realities suggest otherwise. If Lukashenka were indeed agonizing, as former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė recently insinuated (MSN Novosti, June 27), over the West’s efforts to replace him with Tikhanovskaya, that might make Lukyanov’s judgment worthless. But even some ardent champions of democracy still residing in Belarus, like Zmitser Pankavets, the deputy editor of Nasha Niva, woefully admit that “many [in the opposition] are still captivated by the belief that we are about to win, but nothing of the kind is going to happen. So, we should act within the limits of the possible and not continue to deceive ourselves” (Facebook.com/hurnievic, July 29). What Pankavets means is that it is necessary to talk to those wielding power, if only to facilitate a release from prison of so many Belarusians persecuted for speaking their mind.
A fresh interview with Oleg Manaev, the most seasoned Belarusian sociologist, also provides a less emotional and more analytical and cogent assessment of the Belarusian opposition (Svaboda.org, July 31). From that perspective, comparing the number of leaders Tikhanovskaya has met with versus the number that Lukashenka has appears to be a frivolous exercise. Those high-profile photo-ops cannot replace a working relationship with the actual decision-making authorities in Minsk—whether one likes them or not. No meaningful Belarus policy will be able to evade that truth for any reasonable period of time.