“A Good Time for Putin to Get Rid of Lukashenko”


Despite losing all legitimacy in the eyes of the civilized world, Belarus’ Lukashenko took his oath of office during an unannounced ceremony, seemingly intent on staying in power at all costs and through Russian assistance. Whether his bet on the Kremlin pays off, and what political fortunes he will have to pay his benefactors, remains to be seen, but it is clear the country’s protests have entered another, slightly more convoluted, stage. The Georgian Institute for Security Policy spoke with policy analyst Kaciaryna Šmacina of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies about the prospects for fledgling Belarussian democracy.

“One thing we can be sure about is that Russia wants to keep us in its sphere of influence, and ideally they would like to see us as a weak neighbor, as long as Putin is in power, and now they understand that they will capitalize on the situation in any case, be it Lukashenko staying in power or a new leader coming in, because they understand that the scope of the political dependence won't change overnight,” she tells us. “The recent meeting in Sochi is proof of it. First, it's interesting that it was totally behind closed doors with no clear public statements, but sources close to the Kremlin leaked that Putin will try to convince Lukashenko to leave and to transfer power. It's also interesting that this 1.5 billion allocation they announced is unlikely to reach the Belarusian people because we have so much debt to pay. Even if it were to be injected into the Belarusian economy, it would only be enough to sustain us up to October at most, and I think that's a move from Putin just to buy time to maneuver. Russia is just buying time and also serving as an informal mediator for its own benefits.

Why would Putin try to convince Lukashenko to transfer power?

Lukashenko and Putin are not friends, despite the public rhetoric of brotherhood: they can barely tolerate each other. Now is a good time for Putin to get rid of Lukashenko and pave the way for constitutional reform, and I think that the Belarusian elites close to Lukashenko realize that he is not eternal and at some point he will have to leave. This will change the status quo, needing them to relocate resources, and now is a good time to do so because the longer you prolong the agony, the harder it will be to benefit from it; so I think it's a good time to get rid of him.

Everyone wins except Lukashenko. What has he to gain if he accepts Putin’s proposal and leaves?

It's not like Lukashenko has much room to maneuver, because he is no longer legitimate and has very little support among the population. When everyone hates you, and you question even the loyalty of people inside the system, how can you rule the country? And for how long when your economy is crumbling and the only guy you can reach out to for support is Putin, essentially because no one else is willing to talk to you? It pretty much spells the end.

So Russia tries to keep you as a weak neighbor and In its sphere of influence. What do the Belarusians think of that?

Public opinion polls say that we want to be in good relations with both east and west, and actually we don't have a clearly anti-Russian mood. In the public perception, Russia is still a friendly neighbor, but Belarussians don't want to integrate, that's important: they want to be independent but have good ties with Russia.

What would the opposition and protestors’ policy towards the bigger neighbor be should the democratic leadership win?

All the candidates were smart enough when they ran with their agenda to talk very cautiously about Russia, and that makes sense as you don’t want to irritate Russia straight away with anti-Russian sentiment. But then again, most of them said they want to review all the existing treaties with Russia, examine them against Belarusian national interests, and because Lukashenko concluded those perhaps not with the people's interests in mind but for his personal gain, they say they would review the union state integration agenda and not necessarily proceed with it. So, the potential new Belarusian leadership is not pro-Russian, which is important to understand, because many Ukrainians see it that way and maybe some other neighbors when the Minsk protests are not openly anti-Russian.

And if Russia does indeed participate in the mediation, do you think it will yield good results for Belarus and its statehood?

It is important to include other influential partners on the other side, like international organizations and Western powers which would be a counterweight to Russia.

If Lukashenko stays in power with the help of the Kremlin, new demands will be made of him, one possible one the recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia and Crimea.

Yes, it is possible, because Lukashenko does not have much leverage or power in negotiations and would essentially agree to everything. But I would be more worried should Putin proceed with integration or pushing towards placing military bases here. This would not only change the diplomatic power-play but would mean actual reconfiguration of powers in the region, and this would pose a threat both to NATO and all the neighboring countries.

Suppose the union comes to pass, what would Belarusians do?

There is very little support for this integration agenda, and we did have protests on the integration talks. Now, when the protest moods are boiling against Lukashenko, it won't make much difference who to protest against, especially if an external actor comes in. Besides, Putin doesn’t have enough ground in Belarus to support for the integration state; the polls show less than 10%.

And if he brings in the military and forces you, what is Belarus going to do in that case? Go to war?

The situation is different from Crimea: he has much less support here for integration. The people will stand for independence and democracy.

Is Belarus a good opportunity for Putin to raise his plummeting popularity ratings?

It's an opportunity and, like what he did with Crimea, he might sell it as a win domestically, with Putin being the peacemaker. Or if it evolves into some sort of real annexation, he might also sell this to the population through his propaganda tools. But this won't solve his problem in Khabarovsk, or the internal discontent with how things are going down in Russia.

By Vazha Tavberidze

01 October 2020 16:57