Commentary: The rebellion against the Belarusian regime is a mix of demonstrations against Lukashenko’s mild response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the people’s response against his repression of the anti-regime candidates
Despite everything, Belarus is still the most stable of the former Soviet Union.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has never divided economic power among “oligarchs” – as also happened with Putin – but has transferred the entire State economic apparatus into the new political system led by him.
This is the real divide between Belarus and the Russian Federation, where also Putin has his “oligarchs” of reference, to whom he must somehow report and refer his policy line.
Still today, for example, BelAZ, the company that produces transport and excavation equipment in Belarus, controls about 30% of the entire world market. It also has many openings in Western markets. It is not at all true that Belarus has a “post-Soviet relic” economy.
In October 2019 Belarus also obtained a 500 million dollar loan from the China Development Bank, which was alternative to equivalent financing from Russia that never arrived.
The primary geopolitical fact is that the Ukrainian crisis was interpreted – even correctly – by Lukashenko himself as a real “Russian failure” and, since then, Belarus has progressively reduced its economic and hence political dependence on Russia.
Meanwhile China was considering a new route, outside Ukraine, for its Belt & Road Initiative to Europe. Two coinciding interests, including the desire to reduce the Russian power in the region.
Since then Belarus has been using its special relations with China to deal with the EU and, in some respects, with Russia itself.
In 2018 alone, bilateral Belarus-China trade increased by 17.1% to a total of 3-5 billion U.S. dollars.
In April 2019, during Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing, Belarus accepted a 100 million euro loan from China (again with the China Development Bank) to support its Central Bank’s reserves.
The Chinese Eximportbank also granted 67.5 million Euros to Belarusian railways.
President Xi Jinping called Belarus “the pearl of the Belt&Road Initiative”. It is a great miraculous substitute for Ukraine, now unusable for Chinese projects.
Furthermore, Lukashenko’s regime offers significant tax breaks to investors from both Europe and the “Eurasian Economic Union”, i.e. the small “Belt&Road Initiative” led by the Russian Federation.
Before 2014 China bet all its cards on Ukraine. Now, after the Western Russian “masterpieces” on the territory of that country, China is easily turning towards Belarus.
In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, the Belarusian ruling class also thought that Russia was threatening its territory with military exercises and was strongly suspicious of Russia’s demand to open a military base on its territory.
Hence the simple and peaceful relationship between Belarus and Russia exists only in mainstream Western newspapers.
Russia prefers to have China in Belarus rather than any other ally, so it has a wait-and-see attitude, at least for the time being.
Moreover, thanks to its role in the Belt&Road Initiative, Belarus has now every interest in strengthening all ties also with the EU – which, however, is not in Russia’s interest.
On the military level, during the series of mass demonstrations, Lukashenko announced some operations on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. He also announced that Belarus would “never become a sanitary zone between East and West” and therefore not even a buffer zone between Europe and the Russian Federation.
A very clear signal for NATO, but also for Putin.
The revolt against Lukashenko is based on sound reasons: a) the severe inefficacy of the regime in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; b) the social media’s efficacy in organizing demonstrations, which is a very clear sign of some Western “interference”; c) the regime’s attacks against opponents and the police’s harshness during the election campaign and afterwards, which inevitably catalysed the response; d) the regime’s prohibition to make ex-post electoral statistics; e) the arrests of bloggers, candidates, influencers and “militants” – another factor that triggered people’s anger.
The protesters used not the Internet, which had been blocked by Lukashenko, but NEXTA, a Telegram service that has 1.5 million subscribers in Belarus and was able to bypass the web blocks imposed by the regime.
NEXTA operates from a very small office in Warsaw – which is a clearly significant sign. It uses anonymous material and strangely – but not too much – it has no advertising, but is well financed by “anonymous” entities.
On August 17, NEXTA also “ordered” the demonstrators to march to a prison in Minsk and then told the doctors and journalists participating in the revolt to interview and provide first aid and care to prisoners. In search of torture evidence, above all.
It seems that the connection between Lukashenko’s intelligence services and the media against the regime is very close. Confidential information is quickly circulating on the web networks of the uprising.
Again on August 17, Belarus and the Russian Federation announced the start of joint military exercises at various locations.
The Russian forces were supposed to be stationed near Vitebsk, while Belarusian ones in Grodno on the Polish border.
Clearly all this is happening with China’s tacit support and probably with some economic support from China, which certainly does not want a confrontation with the EU, but not even Belarus’ autonomy from both Europe and, in other ways, from Russia.
Lukashenko could ask for Russia’s help within the CSCE, but he would certainly avoid also a direct confrontation with NATO at any cost.
There is also the issue of fertilizers, which is no small matter. Belarus exports large quantities of potash it extracts mainly from the Soligorsk mine, which are worth approximately 3 billion U.S. dollars per year. The ownership of the mine, however, is public and, according to Western investors, this “blocks” a market of 29 billion U.S. dollars per year.
The great Yeltsin-style “liberalization” looms large over Belarus and, in some sectors, it could be the deal of the century. This is one of the reasons for the ambiguity of the local intelligence services.
Too much not to create political and economic disturbance.
The Belarusian KGB has also estimated that about 1.8 billion U.S. dollars have been “donated” to Belarusian bureaucrats and journalists to “liberalize” the Belarusian economy.
With the inevitable and subsequent spreading of corruption, which is endemic in all countries with centralized economies. But the same holds true also for the liberal ones having a “free-trade ” economy.
This is the reason why Russia is trying to send to power Viktor Lukashenko, the son of the leader and man of “Gorbatchevian” background.
The British Embassy in Warsaw is supposed to lead and orient the opposition’s operations on the ground in Belarus, while Germany, Austria and even Poland are more attentive to the autonomy of Belarus which could also serve NATO in the future and just as a buffer towards the Russian Federation.
Other important bloggers are Siarhei Tsikhaunoski, who organized a Youtube channel called Strana dlya zhizhni, (“Country for Life”) and many others, such as RB Golovnogo Mozga, Maja Krajna Belarus, Narodny Reportor – all small-scale homespun structures, with dark funding, which, however, have become the primary and most reliable information source for most Belarusians.
An important role was also played by Radio Free Europe/Belarus and BelSat, both operating from Warsaw.
It should be recalled, however, that in early August 2020 – hence just before elections – Lukashenko accused Russia of coup plotting, although without ever clearly pronouncing its name.
Again in early August, Belarus asked to have exercises made for reservists on the Russian border, starting on August 11.
During the election campaign for his sixth term, Lukashenko also accused “external forces” that “go beyond colour revolutions”. He could not have been clearer.
Moreover, Lukashenko will most likely remain in power despite demonstrations.
A colour non-revolution against a country that has no particular inclination towards Russia – despite the recent requests for help and the relocation of Russian “hybrid warfare” operators on the borders between Russia and Belarus – has no history. Not even in Westerners’ hyper-simplified minds.
Furthermore, in case of a Western invasion of Belarus, China could move its divisions, which are not military but economic, and would all be against the EU.
Lukashenko won with 80.23% of votes. No rigged election can go that far and reach such a result. The Belarusian security forces have so far imprisoned as many as 3,000 protest leaders.
Apart from the vote rigging, which is very likely, the Belarusian intelligence services estimate that support for Lukashenko is around 48% of the population, while the rest are said to be positioning themselves between the current uprising and a veiled opposition to the regime.
The rebellion against the Belarusian regime is a mix of demonstrations against Lukashenko’s mild response to the Covid-19 pandemic and people’s response against his repression of the anti-regime candidates.
Nevertheless – and this could be a real game-changer – Lukashenko noted that many members of his security services actively and sympathetically followed the riots on social media, while many Belarusian military took part in demonstrations in favour of Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, in Brest on August 2.
Since then Lukashenko has engaged in propaganda against “external influences”, especially the Russian ones (reading between the lines).
In fact, on July 29 last, the Belarusian intelligence services arrested as many as 33 operators of the Russian military contractor company Wagner, which Belarus said had arrived on site to “investigate into the protests”.
The United States, Russia and Ukraine are currently the bêtes noires of Lukashenko’s propaganda and they are the three powers that, in his opinion, would like to “eliminate him before the election”.
Hence there are two possible options for Russia, which wants to control the rebellious Belarus: supporting Lukashenko while weakening him, by penetrating the security structures and the economy, or setting up a new regime.
Putin prefers the first option, i.e. support for Lukashenko, because this could stop the military mechanism of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or create dangerous repercussions on the Kremlin’s “hybrid” operations in Belarus.
If Russia takes Belarus, its pressure on the EU will be sensitive and very dangerous, and if Russia freezes Lukashenko’s regime, this will be a very strong foot on Poland and Lithuania, capable of counterbalancing the U.S. autonomous military operations in those countries, all against Russia.
The economy is another factor to be considered. Russia sells oil to Belarus 20% less than the market price, and cyclically Russia threatens to “adjust” tariffs.
As currently, when Russia has refused to continue oil negotiations until 2021.
Belarus, however, has bought 80,000 tons of Arabian Light from Saudi Arabia, after previously buying oil also from the United States and Norway.
With specific reference to natural gas, GAZPROM said it will renegotiate the price with Belarus only after it pays its 165 million dollar debt for the gas already supplied.
Nevertheless, Lukashenko has also accused Russia and Poland of “interfering in the upcoming presidential election” and this is likely to be true for both countries. This is the “pro-independence” key to Belarus’ current geopolitics.
Poland does not want combined threats from Belarus in relation to Russia, and indeed it does not want Belarus to become the corridor for a hybrid or non-hybrid invasion of the Polish territory by Russia. The latter, however, does not want Belarus to play its cards with the EU and become a NATO’s potential instrument of penetration of the post-Soviet space.
It is also likely that opposition candidates such as Babariko, a Gazprombank man, have been sponsored by Russia. A first taste for next elections.
Putin, however, does not want to intervene in Belarus.
So far protests have posed no geopolitical danger to Russia and the leaders of the uprising have not asked to join NATO or the EU.
Putin has therefore two options: a) he can strongly support Lukashenko, but Russia does not want to enter another point of crisis since it already has enough of them.
Moreover, Russia has never hidden its coldness towards Lukashenko’s regime and there are countless contrasts and small annoyances and nuisances between the two countries.
With a Belarusian KGB divided between the new oligarchs, to whom the regime has never allowed to expand their power, and a pro-Western modernization of the system, in view of future affairs, i.e. the dismantling of the Belarusian public system.
Or (b) Putin can enter into the Belarusian chaos, but he will do so if and only if he seriously perceives a heavy Western involvement.
Another option for Putin may be c) to replace Lukashenko with someone else, his son or a homo novus.
There is also the option of a possible cooperation between Russia and the EU to solve the Belarusian issue. For the time being this is supposed to be the option preferred by Vladimir Putin, although rumours are rife of Russian forces entering Belarus.
With new elections, but also without a new Constitution – as Lukashenko wishes – and possibly with pro-Russian candidates capable of winning and, above all, gaining the votes of the mass opposition to the current regime in Belarus.
This is therefore China’s “protection” for Belarus, as well as Lukashenko’s game between Russia and the EU to avoid being incorporated into the Russian system, for which, however, Belarus’ geostrategic role is essential.
Giancarlo Elia Valori