No Turning Back: Belorussian Maidan stalled, but Lukashenko still on the fence


March 27, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by J. Arnoldski –

In the Republic of Belorussia on March 25th, the pro-Western opposition held its widely advertised “Freedom Day.” According to reports from opposition sources in Minsk and regional centers, quite an impressive number of protesters (around several hundred people) came out. Nevertheless, as far as we can judge, the number of protesters is less than what the opposition expected. 

Although society is severely perturbed by the deteriorating socio-economic situation and agitated by Decree No.3 on “spongers,” support for the pro-Western opposition remains minimal.

Independent public opinion polls show that society is discontent with the state policies pursued by President Lukashenko. The statistics of opinion polls conducted by opposition sociologists suggest a decline in confidence in President Lukashenko. Characteristically enough, they correlate with the data of closed polls supposedly conducted on the orders of authorities (insider information in need of clarification and verification). The level of President Lukashenko’s support, according to the survey, is just over 10%. Tellingly enough, in September 2016 Lukashenko’s rating was around 30% when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating was 80%. In the opinion of independent experts, Lukashenko’s drop in popularity has even increased Putin’s rating.

Statistics also show a fall in living standards in Belorussia, rising prices and unemployment. This broadens the social base for a Belorussian Maidan as the “spongers marches” have shown. Although on March 24th Lukashenko categorically stated that he will not allow a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in Belorussia, authorities seem to be very scared. As our partners in Minsk have relayed, yesterday a special police unit for combatting street protests patrolled the city center with guns. A group of foreign journalists covering Freedom Day was arrested, but they were quickly released. 

But let us take note of the fact that these are Western journalists, accredited in Belorussia from EU and US agencies, who ignored the arrest of pro-Russian scholars  in December.

Independent observers in Belorussia have pointed out that if the West ignores the numerous arrests of “sponger march” participants and organizers (around 200 people) and Belorussian neo-Nazis (26 people), then they are probably willing to  close their eyes to the “opposition’s” persecution and work with the government. In other words, a pro-Western government, not a weak and unpopular pro-Western opposition, is a more convenient partner for the West.

Let us note first and foremost that the Belorussian Maidan can already be considered a failure. Key figures of the Maidan’s organizers have been arrested and channels and mechanisms for the supply of money, weapons, people, and literature from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland have been closed. The Freedom Day march, the Chernobyl March to be held on April 26th, and possible additional “sponger marches” will affect the political climate in Belorussia, but will not replicate the success of the Kiev Maidan. What is important is that they will be used by the West as a tool for pressuring the Belorussian authorities. The West only pays attention to protests in countries where the government is not under their control. 

The situation in the Belorussian echelons of power is much mores serious. Here there is an obvious crisis of government. According to unconfirmed and vague rumors from the upper and middle echelons of power in the republic, talks are ongoing among the ruling Belorussian elite about how the pro-Western majority of the elite will be compelled to make sure the country’s leader is changed. In other words, the pro-Western wing of the Belorussian establishment is ready to reach an agreement with the West by “ditching” President Lukashenko. 

A detailed analysis of the pro-Western lobby’s game in the Belorussian leadership has been offered in an article by the famous Belorussian expert Yuri Baranchik, “Who gave political cover to the Belorussian Maidan?”. The author names the main beneficiary of the “selling out” of  President Lukashenko to the West to be none other than the main Westernizer in the Belorussian elite: foreign minister Vladimir Makey. 

We can interpret Lukashenko’s recently reported meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko in this light. The subject of their talks could have been not only the situation in Donbass (which is the official version), but Ukraine’s exporting of a Maidan to Belorussia. As well as perhaps the fight against their own elites who are preparing to negotiate with Donald Trump at the expense of the two countries’ unfortunate presidents. However, this is only a guess.

Yet another parallel with the Ukrainian situation is the example of Sergey Levochkin, who at the moment of the Maidan was the leader of the presidential administration of Ukraine. Behind the back of his boss, President Yanukovych, Levochkin held secret negotiations with the leaders of the Euromaidan and the West. Without his help and betrayal, the Maidan’s victory would have been impossible. This begs comparison between Levochkin and Makey. Belorussia’s foreign minister is holding active negotiations with the US and EU and is the main critic of integration with Russia. The West sees him as “their guy” who can be negotiated with. Makey is perhaps the only representative of the highest echelons of power in Belorussia who is capable of negotiating with the pro-Western opposition. In short, he is an ideal candidate for a government reshuffle.

According to independent experts in Belorussia, it is namely the pro-Western group in the Belorussian establishment that ordered Decree No.3 which has caused mass protests and President Lukashenko’s approval rating’s collapse. An interesting parallel here is that the collapse of the USSR was to no small extent contributed to by an artificially created socio-economic crisis (delayed wages for miners, trade deficit, etc.). The situation surrounding Decree No.3 appears to be not the result of stupidity on the part of a government that does not take into account social and political consequences, but a manufactured provocation of public opinion. In super-centralized Belorussia, after all, all negativity is directed towards the first person: the president.

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The pro-Western group in power has also intimidated the Belorussian leader with allegations of an impending invasion of Russian troops. More precisely, the Western party in power and the pro-Western opposition are playing intellectual ping-pong, playing one and the same game in implying as an “invasion” the upcoming (in September) military exercises codenamed West-2017 involving around 3,000 Russian soldiers and 280 units of military vehicles and equipment. In pro-government yet pro-Western expert circles, reports on military exercises are a priori presented as an impending occupation of Belorussia by Russia. Perhaps this black PR worked on President Lukashenko. Instead of fighting the real threat (a Maidan exported from Ukraine and the preparation of mass protests by Western governmental and non-governmental organizations), he is fighting against the wind. 

President Lukashenko’s statement from March 20th when he called to allow NATO observers to the upcoming West-2017 exercises should probably be seen in this context. But there is perhaps another explanation in which this is part of Lukashenko’s game with the West. To recall, the first to voice this idea was NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, which was then repeated by the pro-Western Belorussian opposition. The logic of this statement would make sense if NATO allowed CSTO (the post-Soviet countries’ defense bloc) advisors to oversee NATO’s joint military exercises with Ukraine and in the Baltics, but this is not the case. 

Meanwhile, the US and EU are interested in regime change in Belorussia or, in the very least, President Lukahenko making a geopolitical u-turn. Yet as public opinion statistics show, the majority of Belorussians still see the future as alliance with Russia, and are critical of the prospects of membership for Belorussia in the EU. Around 50% responded negatively to the question of membership in the EU, and just over 50% are ready to vote for unification with Russia. And this survey was conducted by the opposition’s social services that are financed by Western grants. 

It should be recognized that the curve of support for unification with Russia has decreased in recent months and the curve of support for joining the EU has grown. This has probably been influenced by the pro-Western campaign by Belorussian authorities aimed against Russia. However, resistant to situational fluctuations is the trend of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating, which is no less than 80%. In our opinion, this indicator more fully reflects the geopolitical sentiments and sympathies of Belorussian society.

President Lukashenko is interested in maintaining the status-quo with a multi-vector policy in which he is free to choose between Russia and the West depending on the situation. However, let us recall that this policy led neighboring Ukraine to two color revolutions and a coup d’etat, now leaving the Ukrainian state’s existence itself at stake. The time and space for the Belorussian leader to maneuver is closing while he is panicking over falling into too close of an embrace by allied Russia, hence his turn towards the West. Yet all the while, too close of rapprochement with the West is dangerous for him, or rather much more dangerous than any convergence with Russia. Unity with Russia guarantees Belorussian society relative socio-economic stability and the personal security of Alexander Lukashenko and his family. Rapprochement with the West meets the interests of the Westernizing party in power and threatens catastrophic collapse, as the experience of neighboring Ukraine demonstrates. 

For Alexander Lukashenko himself, strategic drift towards the West would result in an elite coup and bench in the Hague. It is sufficient to recall the fate of Slobodan Milosevic or Muammar Gaddafi.

For these reasons, Lukashenko is in no hurry to make a fateful choice and is bargaining for a position for negotiations. Following his accusations against Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland, President Lukashenko also blamed American and German foundations for sponsoring provocations in the country, which is a complete analogy with the Ukrainian Maidan (minus Lithuania). In turn, the US has taken steps toward narrowing the space for the Belorussian leader to maneuver. On March 24th, a message from the American embassy in Belorussia invited President Lukashenko as one of world leaders to attend the 100th anniversary of the US’ entry into the First World War.

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Experience and intuition suggest that Lukashenko will politely refuse this invitation. He perfectly remembers the fate of Hugo Chavez and other left-wing Latin American presidents who suddenly came down sick with cancer after contact with the Americans. What’s more, holding negotiations on enemy territory is not in Lukashenko’s interests. The outcome of such negotiations would be a final bet by those American circles responsible for Eastern European policy hedged on either negotiating with the current Belorussian president, or making a final bid to find a more sensible leader in Belorussia’s ruling circles. 

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