There is a joke in which a Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Belarusian enter a train compartment and sit down simultaneously. The Russian and Ukrainian immediately jump up with shouts of pain. After a stream of invective, the Russian exclaims, “Someone put a tack on my seat! I’m a Russian citizen, damn it, there’s gonna be hell to pay!” The Ukrainian likewise lets fly a barrage of salty language, but then picks the tack up from his seat, turns it thoughtfully in his fingers, and mutters, “Hmm, I could probably sell this…” The Belarusian, for his part, remains seated in silence with a dismal expression on his face. The other two chide him: “Why the long face? At least you didn’t have a tack on your seat.” The Belarusian replies, “Oh, there’s a tack on my seat. I assumed this is just the way things are supposed to be.”
The legendary passivity of the long-suffering Belarusian people is being put to the test in the run-up to the August 9, 2020 presidential elections, where the incumbent, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, faces a novel situation—in fact, something approaching a perfect storm.
In the past, the authoritarian Lukashenka could count on a variety of factors to ensure a landslide victory. There was his genuine appeal to rural and working-class voters, as well as pensioners. To an electorate that identifies strongly with Russia, Lukashenka could claim the mantle of “best friend of Russia” compared to more Western-oriented opponents, and he could count on some degree of moral and material support, variously enthusiastic or grudging, from Moscow. He could engineer the removal on technicalities of strong challengers from the ballot, ensuring that he faced only token opposition on election day. Lukashenka’s total control of the state facilitated the mobilization of administrative resources to help lubricate the wheels of electoral triumph, and a bit of judicious ballot-stuffing ensured a blowout victory every time, at least on paper. As the embodiment of the overwhelming Belarusian longing for post-Soviet stability, Batka (“Daddy”) Lukashenka has had scant need to engage in mass repressions in order to cling to power—a few timely, precision-guided repressions have always sufficed.
Now, suddenly, things are shaping up rather differently. Since March, Belarus has been pummeled by the twin blows of the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession, with a widespread perception that Lukashenka mishandled the first and has no credible remedy for the second. Estimates of his popular support vary wildly, but there is a whiff of vulnerability about him. And after 26 years in power, with the actuarial tables as the sole limiting factor, Batka can hardly hope to escape a certain degree of incumbent fatigue. To what extent does the populace view him as the strong and wise father of the nation, or see him instead as a cantankerous and increasingly befuddled old man? At what point does stability degenerate into stagnation?
Much more ominous for Lukashenka is the changing attitude of Russia, and above all his weakening hand with respect to Moscow. For more than a year the Kremlin has been signaling its intense dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in consummating the Russia-Belarus Union State, a confederation foreseen in a 1999 treaty between the two countries. For a whole host of obvious objective reasons, such a “confederation” could not possibly be a union of equals, but would amount to the de facto absorption of Belarus by Russia. The Union State idea looked promising to Lukashenka in 1999, when it might conceivably have propelled him, as the presumptive head of the Union State, to succeed Yeltsin in the Kremlin as the ruler of a united Russia/Belarus. However, once it became clear that the next ruler of Russia would be Putin rather than Lukashenka, the latter lost interest in implementing the project.
Moscow has subsidized Belarus in various ways, principally by providing hydrocarbons at concessionary prices, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The precise value of these subsidies is difficult to ascertain and no doubt fluctuates in accordance with hydrocarbon prices and Kremlin generosity, but estimates have generally been in the range of $2-6 billion a year, with a cumulative total since 1991 well in excess of $100 billion. This is not chump change at a time when the Russian economy itself has been hit by a coronavirus-related contraction and the tanking of oil prices. Accordingly, the Kremlin is increasingly intent on getting some return on its “investment” in the form of Belarus’s further political, political-military, and economic integration with Russia.
There has been periodic wrangling between Minsk and Moscow over many years about the terms and conditions of Russia’s hydrocarbon deliveries to Belarus. Angry public exchanges of accusations and threats have led many observers to wonder if the two supposedly fraternal states were on the verge of an ugly break, or whether Russian pressure was the prelude to an intervention intended to effect the Union State agreement with or without Minsk’s consent. However, the rhetorical fireworks have always proven ultimately to be a squabble about price rather than a showdown over sovereignty, with some compromise formula worked out to the mutual acquiescence, if not complete satisfaction, of both parties.
This time might be different.
Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments should have finally exploded the dubious theory that Putin required the Russian absorption of Belarus in order to contrive an excuse to stay in power beyond 2024, ostensibly as the head of a “new” union state. It was always going to be easier for Putin to amend the constitution of a country where he could easily orchestrate the process, as opposed to initiating a potential international crisis with unforeseeable consequences. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Putin took the easy way out.
Another subject of recent speculation is the notion that Putin, faced with growing domestic headaches and sinking approval ratings, needs “a small, victorious war” in order to rally the Russian nation and restore the “Crimean consensus” that gave his approval ratings their last big, long-lasting fillip. Might Belarus fit the bill?
A note of caution is in order. Putin has demonstrated daring but not recklessness, and “a small, victorious war” could go badly awry. In 2014, the Crimea maneuver came off without a hitch, but the follow-on Novorossiya gambit was a fiasco. Nevertheless, are there reasons to suppose that the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis might incline it to assess Belarus as more like Crimea than Novorossiya, or to see the summer of 2020 as a make-or-break moment with respect to Belarus, whatever the risk?
As it turns out, there are.
Belarus, in contrast to Ukraine, has never consolidated a strong national identity. Unlike Ukraine with its Halychyna region in the west, Belarus has no “Piedmont,” no regional bulwark of Belarusian language and sentiment that could serve to galvanize a national identity. Efforts to revive and promote the Belarusian language have gotten little traction among an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking population. Public-opinion polling in Belarus since 1991 has consistently recorded an overwhelmingly pro-Russian orientation, persistent Soviet nostalgia, and high levels of support for “union with Russia,” however construed. Lukashenka has traditionally played to these sentiments to outmaneuver an opposition perceived as “anti-Russian” due to its pro-EU or Belarusian-nationalist orientation.
In 2020, however, for the first time Lukashenka has faced not a cluster of largely marginalized Western-oriented candidates or nonentities of his own choosing, but a strong challenge from opponents hailing from the post-Soviet elite and burnishing pro-Russian credentials that arguably exceed his own. Most alarming for the incumbent has been Viktor Babariko, chairman of Belgazprombank (that is, the Belarusian subsidiary of the banking arm of Russia’s formidable gas monopoly, Gazprom). Valery Tsepkalo is a career diplomat—a former First Deputy Foreign Minister and Belarusian Ambassador to the United States—and a long-time associate of Lukashenka. Finally, Sergey Tikhanovsky is a popular blogger and sharp critic of the incumbent.
Lukashenka has grabbed the bull by the horns in classic fashion, jailing Babariko (for corruption) and Tikhanovsky (for unsanctioned meetings), and ensuring the disqualification of Tsepkalo. In a charming touch, Babariko was arrested on his way to deliver the signatures to formally register his candidacy. Lukashenka’s equal-opportunity repressions have already generated protests and further arrests; there have also been reports/rumors of Russian agents allegedly working on behalf of Lukashenka’s challengers. That such reports could have any credibility at all underscores an important consideration: If in the past Lukashenka could always position himself as the lesser evil to a Kremlin that openly despises him, he now needs to watch his back from the east. Lukashenka increasingly looks like Ukraine’s Yanukovych—an ostensibly pro-Moscow President whose motivation is personal power and greed rather than aspirations of Eastern Slavic unity or the splendor of a “Russian World;” in short, a distasteful and ultimately expendable individual who has arguably exhausted his usefulness to the Kremlin.
If Lukashenka, unloved but long coddled by the Kremlin, is looking exceptionally vulnerable in the summer of 2020, it is precisely this “Russian World” factor that must weigh heavily in the balance of any Russian decision to intervene or to forego intervention in Belarus.
Many Russians have viewed the breakup of the Soviet Union as not only tragic and unjust, but also artificial—an unnatural sundering of the historical and spiritual ties binding Russia with many of its former subject peoples. Such Russians have postulated that this 1991 aberration would be reversed in some organic fashion, that “healthy elements” in neighboring post-Soviet states would heed the call of blood, language, and history, surrender to the natural gravitational pull of their mighty neighbor and reintegrate on some basis or another with Russia. Accordingly, the idea of Belarusian statehood (or Ukrainian, for that matter) was not merely a risible absurdity, but an outright affront—an offense against the natural order.
Belarus was long the poster-child for this ideological presumption about organic, consensual reintegration of post-Soviet states with Russia, with Lukashenka presumed to be one of the project’s biggest boosters. However, over the course of three decades the unthinkable has happened—the Belarusians, their weak national consciousness and their affinity with Russia notwithstanding, have grown increasingly comfortable with the notion of Belarusian statehood. Looking afresh at their history, many of them have assessed the centuries of rule by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania—when Belarus was separated from Muscovy—as something of a golden age for Belarus (which, in many respects, it was). Friendship with Russia remains the overwhelming preference of Belarusians, but the idea of the country’s absorption by Russia is losing its allure—and Lukashenka is okay with this.
For Putin, the latter-day gatherer of Russian lands, the takeaway is that time is not on the side of an organic, spontaneous reintegration of the post-Soviet space. A deepening loyalty to Belarusian statehood, even in the absence of a strong Belarusian national identity, is a serious impediment to post-Soviet reintegration—and the problem isn’t going to remedy itself. Therefore, a scenario in which Lukashenka is gravely weakened or even deposed by demonstrations in 2020 might present the last, best chance of gathering Belarusian lands expediently back into the bosom of Russia.
One can anticipate the announcement of the official results of the rigged August 9 presidential elections triggering a wave of protest, which the Kremlin could exploit and augment if it were prepared and inclined to do so. In Ukraine in 2014, the hapless Yanukovych had even helped lay the groundwork for his country’s dismemberment. Too busy lining his own pockets to pay much attention to tertiary considerations like national security, Yanukovych had allowed Russia over the years to honeycomb the Ukrainian military and special services with its agents, crippling Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s bold moves during the “Russian spring” of 2014. By all accounts, Lukashenka runs a much tighter ship than the Ukrainian ex-autocrat, so any Kremlin-orchestrated attempt to create a “Russian summer” in Belarus would have to weigh carefully the possibilities for peeling off local elites or subverting the military and security forces. As in Ukraine in 2014, Russia has troops on the ground already, and it would not be difficult to slip additional forces into the country across a largely open land border. The massive snap military exercises that Putin ordered last week might have nothing to do with Belarus—but they sure would make a nice cover to preposition troops and materiel for possible deployment there. Regarding the attitude of the local populace, the Belarusian reputation for passivity and Russophilia would give the Kremlin grounds for optimism—but could also lead to serious miscalculation, as with Novorossiya.
Let me emphasize that the Russian-intervention scenario is merely a caution, not a prediction. There is nothing preordained about it. Still, in light of Russia’s surprise seizure of the Crimea in 2014, no one should rule out an opportunistic move against Belarus should circumstances offer the chance. The West has only limited possibilities to influence the Kremlin’s “go/no-go” calculations. Western condemnation would be a given. However, should Russia move against Lukashenka in the context of Belarusian unrest triggered by an electoral travesty, the West would be hard-pressed to offer any assistance to the man labeled “Europe’s last dictator.” All the same, the potential for additional Western sanctions would have to factor into Russia’s cost-benefit analysis, and the fact that Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia are still in place after six years, with no sign of easing, gives greater credibility to the threat.
As we head into the final lap of the Belarusian election campaign, the moment is replete with irony. Having marginalized Belarusian nationalism en route to power, Lukashenka has become the de facto guarantor of Belarusian statehood—not from any surfeit of patriotism, but to prevent his own demotion from President of an independent country to (at best) Governor of a Russian province. Having defied and alienated the West in his single-minded pursuit of power, “Batka” has nowhere to turn for support if the Kremlin decides that his number is now up. Russia, which supported Lukashenka rhetorically and materially for decades in the face of Western criticism and sanctions, has discovered to its dismay that Lukashenka’s pro-Russian orientation is tactical rather than strategic, contingent rather than principled. And the West must weigh its inclination to denounce dictators and support pro-democracy demonstrations against the possibility that unrest in Belarus could be exploited to undermine the country’s independence. Possessing the most varied and imposing array of hard and soft power ever assembled in history, the West nevertheless finds itself oddly irrelevant and with a sharply circumscribed ability to influence events in Belarus, a country on its very borderlands.
Whatever transpires in the summer of 2020, the decisive role will be played by the people of Belarus, if only by their inaction. The legendary passivity of the long-suffering Belarusian people might soon be subjected to multiple tests. Will the stereotypical Belarusian train passenger remain firmly ensconced on his metaphorical thumbtack, grimacing but uncomplaining, as Lukashenka steals another election more blatantly and shamelessly than ever before? Or, conversely, might the bewildered and demoralized Belarusian everyman submissively look on while polite little green men seize control of his country and the Kremlin expeditiously orchestrates the demise of Belarusian statehood, glumly assuming that “this is just the way things are supposed to be?”