Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
After the presidential elections of August 9, 2020, the results of which were massively rigged in Lukashenko’s favor, protests of an unprecedented scale started in Belarus. The government managed to withstand the critical situation generated by the initial stage of the protests and is now attempting to minimize the protest sentiments.
According to the assessment of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition, Lukashenko only got a mere 10-13% of the votes during the elections and after he cracked down on the protests with brutal force, his ratings fell further to about 3%. These assessments are perhaps a little exaggerated; however, it is clear that Lukashenko’s ratings in Belarus are currently quite small while the protest sentiment remains rather high. Despite this, he still manages to hold on to power. In this, he is aided by several important factors.
First of all, it must be noted that Lukashenko had been preparing for such a scenario for a long time. He has been trying for years to weaken the opposition as much as possible. This included removing candidates from the political arena that Moscow could have seen as possible alternatives to him. Despite being allies with Russia, Lukashenko does not trust Moscow as he believes that replacing him with a more loyal political figure is in the interests of the Russian government. Therefore, being left without a pro-Russian alternative has largely determined Moscow’s support towards Lukashenko.
After holding the presidential elections, Lukashenko’s government exerted strong pressure on its opponents. As a result of this, several of them were forced to leave Belarus while others were arrested. It was precisely due to governmental pressure that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was Lukashenko’s main rival in the presidential elections and according to the Belarusian opposition and many independent sources, won the elections, left Belarus shortly after the elections were over. Despite strong protest sentiments in the population, being left without clear leadership made it more complicated for the opposition to fulfil their political goals.
In the most critical of situations, Belarusian law enforcement structures maintained their loyalty towards the government. Therefore, Lukashenko maintained a powerful weapon with which he could ensure his own safety and exert pressure on his opponents.
The opposition failed to translate strong protest sentiments into political dividends without a clear leader. According to the tactics selected by Lukashenko’s government, the wave of protests was extended over a lengthy period of time without achieving tangible results. Parallel to this, the government started arresting the participants of protests (not en masse, but relatively small in scale) and intimidating them in order to gradually weaken the protests. Lukashenko refused to hold any kind of negotiations with the “opposition council” while also accusing them of attempting to illegally grab power; however, he still made some concessions in order to weaken the protest sentiments. Namely, he agreed to constitutional reforms after which new presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in Belarus.
With regard to this issue, the interesting part is that according to some sources, Lukashenko made a decision about constitutional reform and new elections after he met with the high-ranking officials sent by the Kremlin. Suspicions that the idea of a constitutional reform in Belarus came from Moscow was further strengthened after Vladimir Putin was the first to speak about the necessity of constitutional reforms in Belarus after the September 14 meeting between the presidents of Russia and Belarus held in Sochi.
The role of Russia in developments currently taking place in Belarus is indeed important. It is clear that Lukashenko’s removal from power as a result of protests is unacceptable for Moscow. It is starkly negatively disposed towards “velvet revolutions.” On the one hand, Moscow believes that in the case of a successful “velvet revolution,” the positions of the West in Belarus will be strengthened while, on the other hand, the victory of the “velvet revolution” in Belarus will strengthen the protest waves in Russia and increase the likelihood of the events unfolding under the same scenario there as well.
Therefore, despite the fact that the trust towards Lukashenko has long been weakened, Moscow still decided to support the Lukashenko regime. At the same time, however, the Kremlin also needs to fulfill the task of strengthening its control over Belarus as a result of this support.
It must be pointed out that the steps taken by the Kremlin towards Belarus serve the consistent implementation of precisely this task. At the very outset of the wave of protests, Moscow sent PR technologists, FSB officers and military advisors to Minsk. As a result of this, it managed to infiltrate Belarusian structures that were closed to Russia before due to Lukashenko’s distrust towards Moscow.
After the negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko held in Sochi, the Russian Federation allocated USD 1.5 billion in credit for Belarus. According to the assessment of the experts, a large part of this money will go for servicing the debts accumulated by Belarus towards Russia. This is a mechanism utilized by Moscow towards various countries. Namely, by allocating new credits, the debt of a state in question towards Russia increases even further which is yet another mechanism for Moscow to exert its influence.
The experts also consider that during the negotiations between the presidents of Russia and Belarus, most of which were held one-on-one, Vladimir Putin unequivocally demanded a greater economic and political integration of Belarus with Russia and what is more – the transfer of state-owned Belarusian enterprises to Russian control.
Apart from this, it is widely known that Moscow has been interested in placing Russian military bases in Belarus for a long time. It seems that this issue is especially important for Moscow as after the finalization of negotiations in Sochi, already on September 16, the Minister of Defense of Russia, Sergey Shoygu, visited Minsk. According to the official information, the aim of this visit was to deepen military-technical cooperation between the two countries. However, following the visit, the Russian state propaganda openly started talking about placing Russian military bases in Belarus.
It is also noteworthy that given the strengthening protest waves in Belarus, Lukashenko has once again taken a position that is clearly critical of the United States. In his interview with the Russian state media prior to his visit to Sochi, Lukashenko accused the United States of organizing protests in Belarus. By doing so, he put the recent normalization of relations between Belarus and the United States under a big question mark which is also in Moscow’s interests.
In total, from the developments in Belarus it becomes clear that Lukashenko is managing to maintain power, yet he becomes dependent on the Russian Federation at the same time. Lukashenko is forced to do this despite the fact that he does not trust Moscow.
Moscow does not trust Lukashenko either as they believe that after strengthening his positions, he will once again attempt to distance himself from Moscow, something which he has done on multiple occasions in the past. Therefore, they are trying their best to use the crisis in Belarus to strengthen their control over it, turning Lukashenko into Russia’s puppet. Hence, despite maintaining power, the chances of Lukashenko remaining an independent political player in the future have been greatly reduced from today’s viewpoint.