Belarus crisis escalating, unsettling for Putin at home

The unrest in Belarus is unfolding swiftly, but it has been years in the making. What critics describe as an almost laughably fraudulent presidential vote on Aug. 9 — after which election authorities declared that more than 80% of the ballots were cast for Lukashenko — galvanized a mass opposition movement not only in the capital, but also in far-flung towns and cities in the country of 9.5 million.

 

Over the last week, heavy-handed measures by the authorities against peaceful protesters — street beatings, horrendous jailhouse conditions for thousands of detainees, most since released — not only failed to quell the demonstrations, but also provoked more anger and widened participation by mothers and teachers, teens and pensioners, reported LA Times.

 

The echoes of past uprisings that led to an end of Soviet rule beginning in the 1980s are radiating across Belarus, where Lukashenko, a caricature of a Cold War autocrat who took power in 1994, faces the most pronounced threat of his political life.

 

In both Poland and Romania, anti-government uprisings that might otherwise have been summarily snuffed out gathered unstoppable force when laborers — politically repressed by the state like other citizens, but long rewarded with a steady job and an array of paternalistic benefits — threw in their lot with the forces of social and political change.

 

In Poland, the Solidarity trade union born at the Gdansk shipyard sounded a metaphorical death knell for Communist rule, with tanks and martial law proving unable to suppress the movement. In neighboring Romania, the death knell was literal: After disaffected workers helped fuel an uprising against the brutal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, the longtime dictator and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989.

 

In Belarus, workers’ sense of betrayal by Lukashenko has been compounded by his mishandling of the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreak. Close-quarters work in sprawling state factories, and a near-total lack of any precautions, has led to rampant infections at industrial sites, human rights groups allege.

 

“Under such conditions, people no longer feel that the state offers them any protections,” said Anais Marin, an analyst with the British think tank Chatham House who also serves as a special rapporteur on Belarus for the U.N. Human Rights Council.

 

Analysts also said workers — many already angered over moves to privatize state enterprises and sell them to Russian interests — resented Lukashenko’s weekend appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin for assistance. Putin’s response was calculatedly narrow, offering protection against foreign aggression but omitting any mention of helping the president counter domestic threats.

 

Leaked and widely disseminated video and audio from Lukashenko’s bruising encounter on Monday with workers at the state-run MZKT factory, which makes military vehicles, showed the extent to which he mistakenly relied on a pliant response to the last week’s tumultuous events.

 

“They are talking about unfair elections,” he said at one point. Instead of demurring, as he seemed to expect, the listening workers shouted: “Yes!”

 

Lukashenko has refused demands for a redo of the Aug. 9 vote that many believe was won by his main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled the country under pressure from the authorities, but has been rallying support from exile in neighboring Lithuania.

 

In a video statement on Monday, perhaps her boldest yet, Tsikhanouskaya declared herself the true election victor and offered to serve as interim leader during preparations for a new vote.

 

Marin, the analyst, said despite abundant signs of discontent, it was difficult to say whether state workers seeking Lukashenko’s ouster were solidly in the majority, or simply the most vocal.

 

“Each enterprise has its own balance of forces,” she said. “The situation is very volatile.”

 

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The political crisis rocking Belarus presents a foreign policy challenge for President Vladimir Putin, who wants to keep the country firmly in Moscow’s orbit, and there are early signs that it might also cause problems for him at home.

 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered police on Wednesday to end 10 days of protests in the capital Minsk following his claim of a landslide victory in an Aug. 9 election. The opposition say the vote was rigged.

 

Events in Belarus are seeping into Russian politics.

 

Some anti-Kremlin protesters in Russia’s far east, who have demonstrated for six straight weeks against what they regard as Putin’s mishandling of a local political crisis there, have started chanting “Long live Belarus!” in support of the protesters in Minsk, 9,000 km (5,590 miles) to the west.

 

The protests in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk are unusual by Russian standards for their longevity and scale.

 

One hand-drawn placard said: “Khabarovsk is with you, Belarus.”

 

The man holding it, who did not give his name, said Belarusians and Russians had both run out of patience with what he called unfair political systems.

 

“I see parallels between Belarus and Khabarovsk,” the man told Current Time TV. “Not because we’re all protesters, but because we are united by the same thing: the right to vote and take part in honest elections.”

 

Supporters of leading Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow say they are also closely watching the developments in Minsk and trying to learn lessons for what they expect eventually to unfold in Russia.

 

Culturally, politically and economically, Belarus is the ex-Soviet republic with the closest ties to Russia, including a treaty that proclaims a “union state” of the two countries with a Soviet-style red flag.

 

Putin is not Lukashenko, however, and there are no serious threats to his rule on the horizon. But that closeness and the fact that the two countries share a common language — Russian — mean that events in Belarus are starting to influence Russia’s own political landscape.

 

Russia’s much greater size and its more socially divided society make a repeat of the Belarusian scenario unlikely for now, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

 

“UNCOMFORTABLE” FOR PUTIN

 

But the spectacle of tens of thousands of Russian-speakers demonstrating against an autocratic leader who, like Putin, has been in power for over two decades would be unsettling for the Russian leader, he said.

 

“Here (in Belarus) is an example for Russian civil society,” said Kolesenikov. “So it’s of direct interest to Putin. For him, the Belarusian protests must be unsuccessful as it would be uncomfortable for him to see a protest success story in a neighbouring ‘brotherly’ state.”

 

Putin has spoken to Lukashenko several times since the crisis begun and told him Russia will help militarily if necessary, a moment the Kremlin believes has not yet come.

 

Putin’s opponents have struggled for years to make an impact in Russia’s tightly-controlled system, but are now drawing inspiration from the protests in Belarus.

 

Ahead of regional elections involving 40 million voters next month, veteran anti-Kremlin activist Navalny is using Belarus to try to persuade Russians to back candidates he supports.

 

In an Aug. 14 appearance on his YouTube channel, Navalny spoke excitedly of how successful strikes by key workers in Belarus had forced authorities to start engaging with protesters.

 

Video clips of Belarusian workers declaring they had voted for the opposition accompanying his commentary were labelled “Russia of the future”.

 

One of his aides, Leonid Volkov, said he and fellow activists were monitoring the Belarusian authorities’ tactics.

 

“We’re carefully watching Lukashenko’s attempts to switch off the internet,” Volkov wrote on Twitter. “It’s really important because without doubt the same things await us in Russia.”

 

Activists believe they may face a Belarusian scenario when Putin comes up for re-election in 2024 after he successfully got the constitution changed to allow him to run again for president twice.

 

“In today’s Belarus we can see ourselves in the near future,” said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov.

 

“The opposition candidate gets 80% and the dictator is struggling to get 10%, but the election commission simply swaps the results.”

 

There are signs that the Kremlin is alive to the potential threat.

 

State-backed media, after initially depicting the Belarusian opposition in a sympathetic light, have begun to change tack, talking of foreign meddling, a purported long-standing Polish interest in dominating the region, and ‘coloured revolutions’ – a reference to previous uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine.

 

The spectacle of hundreds of Belarusians picketing their country’s embassy in central Moscow was also too much for the Russian authorities, who cleared them off the streets and threw their placards and protest materials into nearby bins.

Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.