Sunday, September 27, marked the 50th day of Belarusian protests against the falsified results of last month’s presidential election. Again, many participants of the rallies were arrested, tear-gassed and beaten by riot police. At the same time, the so-called Cyber Partisans hacked the online broadcast streams of two state-run TV channels to insert video footage of Belarusian police brutalizing the protesters (Tut.by, September 26). The ongoing situation has given rise to multiple attempts at analytical forecasting regarding Belarus’s future.
What indeed will be the protest leaders’ next move? At present, five major leadership teams vie for primacy. One is headed from Lithuania by the exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The leaders of the second team—presidential hopeful Victor Babariko and his campaign chief, Maria Kolesnikova—are both behind bars. According to the well-informed Alexei Venedictov, editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed their fate in Sochi with Lukashenka (Tut.by, September 22). The third group is headed by another attempted candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, currently in Latvia; the fourth one is led by former minister of culture Pavel Latushko in Poland. Finally, the fifth nucleus of opposition efforts is headed by Maxim Borgetsov, who is still in Minsk and out of jail. Bogretsov was formerly a deputy leader of EPAM, a well-known IT firm operating in Belarus and the United States; Borgretsov himself has lived intermittently in both countries (Village, September 9).
Many observers agree that a resolution of the crisis is impossible without some sort of negotiation between Lukashenka’s power vertical and the Coordination Council, of which all the above-mentioned opposition leaders are members. However, one condition set by the Council—i.e., Lukashenka’s resignation—can hardly be a starting point for such dialogue (Facebook.com, September 23). According to philosopher Viacheslav Bobrovich, the pro-Lukashenka part of society is now gaining visibility, and the societal divide is much closer to 50/50 than members of the protest movement may think (Facebook.com, September 26).
In turn, Yury Shevtsov, a seasoned analyst and a steadfast defender of the president since the late 1990s, believes that the protest movement has failed to extend beyond a part of the middle class, college and high school students, and people from the “creative professions” (e.g., IT and visual and performing arts). Most importantly, he points out, large-scale strikes in industry did not occur. At the same time, the demonstrations came to resemble festivities. In his interview to a prestigious Russian media outlet, Shevtsov, nonetheless, states that “discontent over forms of governance” in Belarus is tenacious and will not go away, and “if Lukashenka fails at a political settlement of the crisis, then all bets are off.” Shevtsov concedes that some force majeure circumstances, like a terrorist attack, may affect the showdown in Minsk (Interaffairs, September 18).
Interestingly, Artyom Shraibman, who unlike Shevtsov sympathizes with the protest movement, also thinks that at some point self-control may fail the protesters and some riot police could end up killed, thus potentially leading to a state of emergency. Shraibman also believes that, fundamentally, the showdown in Minsk will not be resolved through direct negotiations and will require involvement from Moscow within weeks—or, at most, a few months (Svaboda.org, September 25).
Semion Uralov, the editor of Sonar2050, an analytic portal devoted to the Union State of Russia and Belarus, shares an account of the protest movement’s achievements. His account is all the more impressive given that the author is hardly a supporter. “What we see on the newscasts is just the tip of the iceberg,” writes Uralov. “The most interesting thing is happening now on the Telegram channels of districts, micro-districts and even individual residential blocks. I am subscribed to a couple of such channels. Hundreds and thousands of participants. Hundreds of messages a day. Active self-organization and offers of mutual assistance. The distribution of propaganda materials and careful planning of future postings. The formation of groups for a weekly rally. Due to the lack of dialogue, the protest goes deep and begins to form public structures of resistance to the state. In fact, a non-state headquarters network structure is beginning to form within the republic. Rallies are just an irritation factor. The real work is in the field. In the [would-be] early presidential elections, the protest candidate is guaranteed to reach a second round” (T.me, September 22).
Considering that most analysts believe in the crucial role of Moscow in the resolution of the Belarusian crisis (regardless of whether they welcome this or not), criticisms of Russia are gaining attention, too. Thus, Alexander Nepogodin of Lenta.ru rebukes the Kremlin for rendering financial aid to the Belarusian regime in exchange for empty promises, comparing how the Kremlin channeled $3 billion to then–Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych just two months before he was ousted by forces friendly to the West. Nepogodin claims that the lack of organized pro-Russian structures within the Belarusian opposition constitutes the main problem for Moscow, which otherwise would have already deposed Lukashenka, whose regime is “hostile to everybody”—pro-Russian and anti-Russian alike (Lenta.ru, September 24).
Meanwhile, in his critical review of how Russia treats the former Soviet republics, a review extending far beyond relations with Belarus, Carnegie Moscow Center’s Director Dmitri Trenin avers that, in a practical sense, “for all post-Soviet states, independence implies first and foremost freedom from Russia.” Knowing that Moscow will not shy away from voicing its interests within these states, it should not limit its relations with them to national leaders alone. At the same time, he argues, Russia should stop parroting the United States’ efforts at cultivating allies for the simple reason that Moscow lack the financial means to accomplish this and because all elites in those countries—and a significant part of Russia’s elites as well—take guidance from the West. Rather than “allies,” Russia needs “situational partners,” Trenin suggests, although he agrees that of all post-Soviet countries, relations with Belarus should be the closest. Moreover, Trenin believes that the Russian embassy’s rejection of contacts with the opposition in Minsk was a mistake as was removing Mikhail Babich as ambassador. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center director, Babich’s attempts to develop relations with the opposition had irritated Lukashenka (Kommersant, September 22).
It could be, as Yury Tsarik and Arseny Sivitsky of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research, assert, that the Kremlin is already in the midst of executing its Lukashenka removal plan (Forstrategy, September 25). But it remains to be seen whether the three teams of Russian paratroopers already in Belarus (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 23) will play any role in its implementation.