Belarus, Lukashenko and options for the future
Inside Belarus: Lukashenko says he will step down when opposition protests end
Andrew Wilson: &# 171; The formula “support for Russia – stability of the regime” no longer works&# 187;
What allowed Alyaksandr Lukashenka to remain “the last dictator of Europe” for so long? Why did such massive protests start in Belarus? How the confrontation between Lukashenka and protesters can end?
These and other questions to the Voice of America Russian Service were answered by Andrew Wilson, Professor at the School of Slavic and East European Studies, University College London, author of the book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship “).
M.G .: Why, in your opinion, are we witnessing such massive protests in Belarus right now??
E.U .: We saw protests in 2017, which, to some extent, have become harbingers of the events that we are witnessing now. Then the protests were caused by socio-economic rather than political reasons, in particular, the imposed “tax on parasitism.” This led to Lukashenka’s so-called electoral base – the elderly, unemployed, part-time workers – joining the protests. Thus, we saw on them not only professional opposition, political opposition. This year we are seeing a similar phenomenon on a much larger scale: a significant civil movement of Belarusians protesting across the country. The way the government of Belarus coped, or rather, did not cope with the coronavirus pandemic, can also be considered one of the reasons that provoked the start of the protests..
There are other explanations as well. This year, the authorities were not very successful in “coping” with the elections: they allowed popular candidates to stand out, not knowing what to do with them, and eventually removed them from the elections. But they allowed their “substitutes” to participate in the elections, for example, the wife of Sergei Tikhanovsky, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Thus, although the regime banned the opposition, it was unable to stop it..
But the biggest mistake was the gross, large-scale election fraud. Lukashenka got away with his previous victories with 80 percent of the vote, but earlier there was at least some illusion of plausibility. He still had some support, although its level was greatly exaggerated. This time, 80 percent (of the votes cast for Lukashenka – GA) were pure fiction and a blatant insult. So those who ran the elections this time simply could not simulate a victory of 80 percent of the vote, and I think that was the spark that provoked the protests..
M.G .: That is, you think that the pandemic and the lack of an appropriate response from the state to it accelerated this process?
E.U .: Of course. Some argue that this is the only reason. I think this is a bit of an exaggeration. But following the protests against the “tax on parasitism” three years ago, this turned out to be both a matter of paramount importance and a symbol of disdain (towards the citizens of the country – GA). The lack of an adequate response at the state level, as well as the activity of Belarusians in providing assistance to patients with coronavirus and medical workers – all this undermined his (Lukashenko – ed.) Electoral support. People first mobilized to help coronavirus patients and medical workers, and later this solidarity turned into protests..
M.G .: Why, in your opinion, Lukashenka managed to stay in the presidency for 26 years?
E.U .: The irony is that in 1994 he won a free and fair election. But all subsequent elections were rigged. Civil society was dispersed, the opposition was persecuted, and the state media monopolized. The degree of authoritarianism in his power varied, not significantly, but enough to convince the West to lift the sanctions imposed after the apparent fraud in the 2010 elections. The sanctions were in effect until 2016 and were lifted, including due to the fact that a certain amount of egregious restrictions in Belarus was lifted. In addition, the lifting of the sanctions was also an attempt to induce Belarus towards greater liberalization. And we can say that relative freedom in the past four years also made possible the beginning of these protests – people got used to a different way of life, which they wanted to preserve, having achieved even greater freedoms..
Why has Lukashenka been in power for so long? In part – thanks to the use of the above authoritarian methods, and election fraud. Political scientist Vitaly Silitsky spoke about “preventive authoritarianism”. The Lukashenka regime has been good at nipping in the bud any change that might hinder it. But this time he failed..
In the 2000s, the Belarusian economy did very well, largely thanks to Russian oil and gas subsidies. Part of this money went to support the country’s economy, pay pensions and the like, implying a certain social contract (between Lukashenka and the population of Belarus – GA). But the last decade turned out to be much more difficult for the country’s economy, which, in fact, broke the social contract and destroyed Lukashenka’s electoral base..
M.G .: Can peaceful protests lead to sustainable changes in the country??
E.U .: There are a number of possible paths to change: regime collapse, negotiating with the opposition, or splitting the regime. The collapse of the regime can be very sudden. We see cracks begin to appear at the base of the power pyramid. For example, police officers who refuse to follow orders. In Grodno, there was an attempt by representatives of the local authorities to come to an agreement with the opposition, after which they (representatives of the authorities – GA) were immediately removed. External intervention is, of course, another possible route to a solution. But Lukashenka seems to reject all kinds of negotiation or mediation on the assumption that he can stay in power even if he has to resort to the most brutal methods of suppressing protests..
M.G .: What do you mean when you assume that the regime can split?
E.U .: If you have a large-scale opposition movement with a massive outcry, partitioning the regime is often the path to resolving the crisis. In the post-Soviet space, a similar thing happened in 2003 in Georgia. Then Shevardnadze remained president, but lost power. There is a famous video where Saakashvili’s supporters walk to the parliament building, and the police simply step aside and let them in. The regime is divided into hardliners and more moderate ones, who enter into negotiations with the opposition. This happens either because the regime can no longer hold power by force, or there is a split among the leaders of the ruling regime. Unfortunately, I see no signs of any of these scenarios in Belarus.
M.G .: What development of events can we see in Belarus?
E.U .: We are aware of covert, as well as quite visible and serious Russian interference, which probably increases Lukashenka’s chances of retaining power and maintaining the regime. On the other hand, people are still on the streets, and there are still a lot of them. Emerged
some pause. The regime assumes that one of two things will happen next: the protests will lose strategic initiative and subside, or, otherwise, a new circle of even more brutal repression will begin..
But it is important that the formula “support for Russia – stability of the regime” no longer works. So even if Lukashenka remains in power, with all the blood on his hands, his position does not look particularly stable..
MG: There is an expression “dictators do not leave on their own”. Do you think it is possible that Lukashenka can decide to leave on his own??
E.U .: In one of his speeches (August 17, Minsk, MZKT – GA), Lukashenka said quite frightening things: that there will be no new elections “until they kill him”, that for this the protesters need to kill him. All dictators are cowards, of course. But these frightening statements of his inspire a certain degree of confidence. Yanukovych (ex-president of Ukraine – GA) was interested in money. My answer to the question “Why did Yanukovych run away in February 2014?” always sounds like “Because he finished packing his bags.” I collected money and everything else in a helicopter – and the trail disappeared. So Lukashenka, in essence, says: “I am not Yanukovych. I won’t run away. ” Which actually sounds scary enough and, unfortunately, it is quite possible to believe it.
MG: There is a popular opinion that Russia considers Belarus a “buffer” with NATO countries. Can Belarus be considered hostage to its geopolitical position??
E.U .: I don’t think there is an obligatory direct link between politics and geography. In many ways, the definition of the geopolitical role of Belarus was imposed on it by Russia. And Belarus agrees with this. But it is not between the West and the East, and it is not a “bridge” – a metaphor that can sometimes be heard in Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, it is rather a “redoubt” of Russia. The buffer zone assumes neutrality, while Russia’s participation is significant enough, therefore “redoubt” is the best metaphor.
There are many ways to conduct foreign policy in the same territory. Belarusian geographer Arkady Smolich wrote about Belarus, as some write about Ukraine: that it is located between the West and the East and that a multi-vector foreign policy suits it. Now this is not the case, the main external partner of Belarus is Russia, although in recent years Minsk has tried to balance this. Belarus’ foreign policy will be determined by the results of the protests.