The Belarusian spiral

“It’s time for some ‘polite men’ to restore order. They know how to do it.” So sayeth Russian foreign propaganda tsaritsa, editor-in-chief of RT Maragarita Simonyan, in an unambiguous reference to the Russian soldiers in patchless uniforms that took over Crimea. Disorder is certainly rampant: After an election widely decried for fraud committed by the authorities, Alexander Lukashenko remains president of Belarus after “winning” roughly 80 percent of the vote, and Belarusians have been taking to the streets in the largest protests in Belarusian history since the results were announced.

Instead of responding with attempts at dialogue, Belarusian officials initially cracked down on protestors, with some reports suggesting live ammunition has been used. In an attempt to save face with the mass uprising, authorities have released thousands of those detained, but the damage has already been done. Anti-government fervor has only been strengthened by allegations of torture by the released protestors.

Historical white-red-white flags of Belarus are seen as people attend an opposition demonstration to protest against presidential election results, in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Lukashenko has found himself entrapped in one of Plato’s five regimes: tyranny — he wielded absolute power, but can no longer extricate himself and still ensure his personal safety. With opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya not backing down, and with Lukashenko now doubling down and calling protestors “rats” and “trash,” continued tolerance of his abuses seems unlikely.

In light of all of these events, the EU is moving to levy sanctions against Belarus for government abuses against protestors, and it has called the election, with the US concurring, “neither free nor fair.” With so many factors indicating Belarus might finally move closer to the West — Russia cutting off oil, diplomatic relations being restored with the US, the arrest of Russian mercenaries inside the country — Western actions might push Lukashenko into a corner. Torn between less independence from Putin and ceding ground to his country’s opposition movement, Lukashenko is almost certain to choose the former.

Sanctions against Belarus and the harboring of Tikhanovskaya, who released a recorded video on Friday from the safety of Lithuania to encourage protestors to keep peacefully resisting, has caused Lukashenko to once again cozy up to Putin. In Putin’s post-election congratulatory call to Lukashenko, he even suggested further integrating their states, and Lukashenko later returned all but one (a Belarusian citizen) of the alleged mercenaries arrested earlier in the summer to Russia as a sign of good faith.

The Kremlin must have been watching these events unfold with consternation as Lukashenko lost control of the situation. Indeed, over the weekend Lukashenko finally called Putin to ask for Russian assistance.

Putin plays by a different set of rules. He cannot and will
not allow his “union state” with Belarus to be dominated by someone he cannot
control. While not outwardly anti-Russian, recent events already give the opposition
reason to become increasingly favorable towards the EU. Further, an ousted
Lukashenko might inspire Putin’s opponents during the 2024 elections in Russia.

Like Plato’s tyrant, Lukashenko is unlikely to go quietly. “We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,” he said. Whether or not Putin will send in the “polite people” to “restore order” as Simonyan recommended remains to be seen, but with Russian National Guard units heading to the border and the Belarusian military amassing next to Lithuania, all cards are apparently on the table.

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