Few were surprised when the protests in Belarus began on the election night of August 9, 2020. Few had doubted that the presidential election would be rigged, and the opposition had always gathered crowds of varying sizes to protest against every election result there’s been ever since Lukashenka came into power. However, it had quickly become apparent that these protests were no regular opposition rally. Unlike the traditional opposition marches in the capital, these protests were decentralised and swept all across the country. They appeared spontaneous and leaderless, but most importantly — they were unprecedentedly massive.
The masses were effectively coordinated not through megaphones but through anonymous messenger channels. Naturally, this gave rise to some speculation about who the brains behind the operation were and fuelled conspiracy theories about alleged foreign puppeteers.
When it comes to interference in foreign elections by means of sophisticated manipulation of digital media Russia naturally pops up as a usual suspect. There has long been an apparent upside for Putin in having the ground shake under Lukashenka’s feet after the election. His Belarusian colleague has built his whole political career on the fundament of Soviet nostalgia and a supposed dream about a new union with Russia — one he once had a good chance of claiming leadership over. Over the years Lukashenka has signed an array of various bilateral integration treaties with Russia. For this he has been generously rewarded with Russian gas and oil subsidies, which to a great extent have fueled the Soviet-like economy of Belarus by boosting its margins on exported petroleum products.
Only after many years of bear hugs and brotherhood talk came the sneaking lucidity that the integration of the two countries was more like walking on a treadmill rather than actually getting anywhere close to a real union. Lukashenka is simply too obsessed with power to ever seriously consider ceding any of it to any supranational authority. Last year the Kremlin explicitly made the energy subsidies for Belarus contingent upon Lukashenka’s signing of additional integration treaties potentially so infringing to Belarus’ independence that both governments refused to even display their content to the public. Lukashenka refused to sign, initiating the most persistent charm offensive towards the West ever observed during his 26-year-long rule.
The bear fact that Belarus, a transit country with a 92% fossil fuel share of the total energy consumption, through which Russian oil and gas pipelines run further into western Europe, started importing crude oil from the United States delivered by sea, is a vivid illustration how bad things had gotten between Moscow and Minsk.
With this being status quo, some post-election turbulence with excessive police brutality against peaceful protesters resulting in Western sanctions could potentially cut Lukashenka off from the West again, pulling him back into Putin’s bosom with a pen in his hand ready to sign whatever could save him from certain demise.
The above makes a perfectly sensible story. However, my analysis of Russian state-controlled media in the past two weeks points to something different. I’ve worked in the Russian TV business long enough to know that you don’t need a doctor’s degree to decipher the Kremlin’s state of mind by carefully analysing how the current events are framed and presented in news broadcasts and talk shows on state-owned networks.
The words spoken by the hand-picked Kremlin propagandists, representing various levels of nationalist chauvinism on these shows in a feeble attempt to create the impression of ideological pluralism, usually reflect the current line of thought in the Kremlin. Sometimes this is done in order to test new ideas with the audience. Other times it is to implant new ones. During the first week after the election in Belarus it appeared to be neither.
Instead of the regular cynical scorn of anything that dares cast a shadow of doubt over the sacred greatness of Mother Russia, the reactions to the events in Belarus rather resembled a mix of shock and wrath. It was clearly not the Kremlin’s plan for the protests to get so outrageously big. And what appears to be most disgruntling to the prevalent ideologists of Putin’s Russia is the total absence of pro-Russian sentiment among what now appears to be the vast majority of the Russian population. The most Putinist opinion-makers’ emotional outbursts against Lukashenka for his failure to tame his people reveal a genuine frustration over the painful insight that Putin may have betted on the wrong horse. Having been one of the first (and yet very few) world leaders to have congratulated Lukashenka on his “landslide” victory (officially, Lukashenka got 80% of the vote), Putin has now found himself in front of a geopolitical dilemma.
Openly supporting Lukashenka now will most probably turn a large proportion of the Belarusian population against Russia, which would be a devastating blow against Putin’s prestige project — a future Russian-Belarusian union state. Even authoritarian states need considerable public support to pull off something this big. On the other hand, throwing Lukashenka to the wolves would inevitably result in a new pro-Western government in Belarus, which most probably would kill the union project anyway. Lukashenka has effectively cleared the political field of all pro-Russian rivals, tactically leaving nobody else for the Kremlin to back apart from himself. On top of all this, the mere precedent of a president in a neighbouring country being overthrown for rigging an election could be potentially dangerous for Putin, who himself has earned his most recent electoral victories by very dubious means. The Russian opposition would most definitely gain a huge dose of inspiration from a successful Belarus case.
So what’s there for Putin to do? One week after the election, both the Russian state media and the Kremlin officials appear much more consolidated in their position. They largely support the Belarusian state propaganda’s interpretation of events, smearing the opposition to Alexander Lukashenkas as puppets of a Western intervention, but they also give little mercy to Alexander Lukashenka’s handling of the situation.
Clearly, Lukashenka has become toxic to Russia. He has proven himself an unreliable ally in the past, and now that he has lost almost all support with his people, he is of no better use to Putin than a seat warmer for a new pro-Russian president. The only problem is that the kremlin still needs to find one that the Belarusian people will support.
Thus, Russia will most likely assume a cautious stance outwards, while secretly helping Lukashenka keep it together for as long as it takes to find a better Putin protegé in Minsk. The Belarusian authorities will be advised not to confront the crowds during protests, but pick out protest leaders and strike organisers one by one between the mass protests, imprisoning them and threatening them into compliance. The Kremlin troll factories and propaganda channels will use their influence to sow dissent and disillusionment among Belarusian protesters. At the same time, Russia will keep the door open just enough to be able to agree to a new election in Belarus when the time is right, just as a reconciliation measure in case the protests do not cease.
In this respect time is on the Kremlin’s side. The longer Lukashenka manages to cling to power, the more likely that he will be replaced in a manner that will expand Russia’s influence over Belarus. In the worst case for the democratic-minded, the Kremlin may force Lukashenka to sign that last treaty, making him a de facto subject and vulnerable to Putin’s will, but also protected thereby. Such a development would of course cement Russia’s control over Belarus, making it another geopolitical fort towards the West and many any democratic and pro-Western development impossible.
In turn, a democratic triumph in Belarus is most likely to happen while the population is still highly mobilised, and while attrition from daily protests hasn’t yet turned into fatigue.
The workers of the large state factories play a crucial role here. When they go out on strike, which many of them already have, they paralyse large parts of the economy, thereby narrowing the time window the regime has to wait out the protest wave before its treasury is empty and police salaries can no longer be provided for. But the resilience of workers may only last for as long as they can still feed their families. Many have already been fired and many more were threatened with firing and went back to work. As the main trade unions are controlled by the government, the best way to help Belarusian workers fight on is by raising funds to support fired factory workers and their families. Now that the EU and the US are considering redirecting their aid to Belarus away from government-controlled projects, these worker support funds may just be the best way to invest in a democratic and free Belarus as a safe and peaceful neighbour to the European Union.