Just one year on from Belarus’ disputed presidential election, the tense situation in the country has ground into a stalemate between the government and opposition activists. The next move seems unclear even to the major players.
In the wake of the vote, activists failed to overthrow veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko, even though last fall it felt like another ‘spring’ revolution was inevitable. The contributing factors have been outlined repeatedly.
First, the authorities opted for a ruthless crackdown and there was no noticeable discord among the security services organizing it.
Secondly, Moscow offered support, sending a clear signal it would not tolerate a regime change in the country at present.
Third, the response by the West was tepid – nothing compared to the overwhelming solidarity with protesters, backed up by material support, that we saw in Ukraine.
However, Lukashenko’s gambit didn’t put an end to the crisis. Instead, all it secured was his grip on the levers of power.
The Belarusian leader, of course, wants things to go back to normal – and his ‘Big Conversation’ question-and-answer session with the public proved that he thinks that the unpleasant chapter is over and he can continue with his pre-election policies.
But it still seems strange to act like nothing has changed. The veteran president and his team are used to dealing with disputed election results.
Moreover, the West’s opinion doesn’t concern them as much as it used to, having burned most of the bridges with it already.
Now, though, the legitimacy of the Belarusian regime is shaken to the core – the situation has deteriorated severely compared to any previous crises.
Russia no longer feels like playing his game of endless integration talks – it wants to see concrete outcomes. Domestic resources needed for the country’s growth used to be few and far between before, with no chance to scrape up any going forward.
The only ‘future’ offered to regular Belarusians is the image of an eternal leader who promises to never let ‘those scumbags’ take power.
Lukashenko’s opponents in the West are also facing a stalemate. Sanctions are increasing Belarus’ dependence on Russia, turning it into one of its subsidized regions, which is exactly what the West was trying to avoid in the first place.
Setting up an alternative community outside Belarus does not affect the status quo inside the country, no matter how many important offices Tikhanovskaya visits in Europe and America.
Those who oppose the Belarusian regime insist things can’t go on like this for much longer, and hope that it will ‘blow up,’ and so on. However, the last few decades showed that ‘blowing up’ only happens when the government fails to opt for extremely tough measures.
When they are introduced with no holds barred, the pompous conviction that freedom is bound to triumph turns sour.
North Korea is a perfect example: its leadership learned their lessons from the events of 1989-1991 and know that any sign of weakness will trigger a collapse, while showing none will ensure victory.
There is another vital condition here, though; namely a powerful source of external support that helps counteract hostile external pressure. For North Korea that was China, and in the case of Belarus it is now Russia.
Having forced an emergency landing of a foreign civil aircraft to detain an opposition figure and having launched his large-scale Operation Illegal Migrant, is absolutely on par with Kim’s behavior.
The West can chant about a doomed dictator all they like, or admire how just one year saw Svetlana Tikhanovskaya transformed from a housewife into a real political figure invited to meet with US President Joe Biden or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but that’s all idle talk.
And so it will remain, until Moscow for whatever reason decides to withdraw its support for Lukashenko and let the chips fall where they may.
In Russia, there is more and more annoyance on the subject. Some say that it’s time to quit pampering a slippery partner and either force him to accept the conditions or use the many tools he has at hand to ensure a transition of power that would be acceptable to the Kremlin.
Lukashenko, though, is a very experienced and savvy politician. He knows that Moscow also depends on him, since unexpected political developments and regime change would not turn out in his neighbor’s favor.
This very concern is what made Russia back Lukashenko last year, even though his campaign platform was basically anti-Russian. Now that Moscow publicly bet on him, it would be unbecoming and risky to backtrack.
When it comes to foreign interference, Russia possesses neither the skills nor the experience that the EU or the USA have – even if the collective West hasn’t been as successful at it lately, but that’s another story.
Moscow has never been good at winning the loyalty of other nations’ elites, despite it being something that Russia’s ‘soft-power’ fans have long dreamed about, and it is too late to try and adopt the American model.
Common values and identities, as well as economic cohesion between NATO states, are certainly a powerful factor of unity for the collective West.
But what’s even more reliable is the presence of US military bases and troops in Europe and other allied countries/regions. Joint security, the threats to which are defined in Washington, is a good foundation to build upon.
In Russia’s case, this is particularly true. The presence of combat-ready armed forces and the ability to use them in creative ways is Russia’s most important instrument for establishing its presence in the world – in neighboring countries or elsewhere.
Examples of Moscow’s actual global influence are all related to areas where Russia has its military bases – from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Armenia and Syria.
The case of Armenia is especially illustrative. The fact that Armenia depended on Moscow for its national security made Russia tolerate all the shifts and turns of Armenia’s political life.
Last year, many used to draw parallels between Belarus and Armenia. The opposition in, or, more often now, outside of Belarus kept wondering how Yerevan’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan managed to convince the Kremlin that taking power from pro-Moscow forces wouldn’t pose any threat to Russia’s interests.
The situation in Belarus is different from Armenia’s in that it has no clear Russian military presence. Lukashenko did bring up the subject of a Russian military base every now and then during his prolonged presidency, but never went through with it.
As was noted earlier, his gut never fails him. He understands too well that a foreign military presence changes the balance of power, even if we’re talking about a close ally.
But a week ago, speaking about the obvious external threats, the Belarusian president didn’t rule out the possibility of soliciting Russian military assistance in order to address them.
Setting up a ‘perimeter’ for a strategic neighbor’s external policy while allowing complete freedom in its internal affairs is not a bad alternative to integration or a merger. Armenia is almost there. It might work as a solution for Belarus, too.
The more enemies, the higher the demand for Russia’s military intervention – and the closer the opportunity to drive the situation out of the frustrating, prolonged stalemate.
RT. com / ABC Flash Point News 2021.