The Belarusian Mirror on the Russian Wall

Оn Sunday, August 9, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko—the longest-serving post-Soviet leader—will face his biggest challenge in 26 years in power as he seeks a sixth consecutive term in office. The electoral outcome is certain: Mr. Lukashenko will be proclaimed the winner. But for the first time, no one knows if and how long Mr. Lukashenko will remain president after the election.

It has been an extraordinary eight months. At the beginning of the year, all was going according to plan. Lukashenko had staked out a popular position in Belarus as a defender of Belarusian sovereignty and encouraged nascent Belarusian nationalism in response to Russia’s hardball economic tactics and rumors that the Kremlin was eyeing a “Union State” with Belarus as a way of extending Vladimir Putin’s rule. But a series of crises and miscalculations by Lukashenko, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have dramatically shifted electoral dynamics and public sentiment. Though Lukashenko’s tight control of the state means he will most likely be proclaimed victor, his legitimacy has greatly diminished—which should sound eerily familiar to Putin. And although the awakening of civil society within Belarus and the emergence of a united opposition is not a story about Russia, how Russia chooses to respond to an unfolding and politically dynamic situation on its border makes this election geopolitically significant, with potentially lasting implications for the region.

Two events transformed the typically uneventful Belarusian election into a potential geopolitical issue to watch.

First, in January, Moscow imposed an oil embargo on Belarus following months of failed export duty negotiations. Russia has long made Belarus economically viable (such as it is) with subsidized crude, which Minsk then reexports to Europe at market price, but a change in Russia’s excise tax in 2018 significantly reduced the discount. The dispute subsided after further negotiations, but the damage was already done: supplies from Russia decreased by 76 percent in the first two months of 2020, leading to an 18 percent year-over-year drop in Belarusian exports in the first quarter. By March, the Belarusian ruble had lost close to 20 percent of its value, while budget revenues plunged by roughly 16 percent year over year in the first half of 2020. The shock sent a shudder through an already stagnant economy that had never fully recovered from a protracted economic crisis from 2015 to 2016.

Second, Belarus was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and an early absence of public health measures. Lukashenko, wary of inflicting further damage to the Belarusian economy in advance of the election, downplayed and dismissed the virus as “frenzy and psychosis” and an “ordinary flu” best resolved by sauna visits, vodka, and more time spent on tractors. While the rest of Europe entered a pandemic lockdown, professional sports in Belarus went on uninterrupted through the spring, and large-scale celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany occurred as scheduled on May 9 (even Putin postponed similar festivities in Russia). As cases picked up in the late spring and images emerged of doctors and nurses working without any protection, Lukashenko drew wide criticism from civil society for his lax handling of the crisis, which Belarusians assessed as one of the worst in the world. In April, Belarusian doctors told Radio Svoboda that the infection rate was five or six times the officially reported figures.

Amid a deteriorating economy and a botched government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, three independent and pro-Russian candidates—Valeriy Tsepkalo, Viktor Babariko, and Sergei Tikhanovsky—suddenly emerged as genuine political rivals to Lukashenko and were promptly removed from the field. (Mr. Tsepkalo was denied registration as a candidate and fled Belarus; Mr. Babariko and Mr. Tikhanovsky were arrested.) Typically, that would have ended any competition for Lukashenko, but perhaps the most surprising series of events is what followed: the wife of Sergei Tikhanvosky, who registered on his behalf when he was arrested, stepped into his place, and the usually fragmented opposition united behind Ms. Tikhanovskaya. Now, for the first time in decades, the Belarusian opposition appears to have a legitimate and wide base of support. A July 30 rally in Minsk featuring Ms. Tikhanovskaya drew a record-breaking 63,000 people, according to the Viasna Human Rights Centre. A surge in support for the opposition has also come from the smaller towns and cities that Lukashenko traditionally dominates.

Lukashenko’s current level of support is widely believed to be low, though the exact number is unclear. One unofficial online poll put his support as low as 3 percent before authorities banned polling; this is likely misleading because so many Belarusians rely on the state for their economic wellbeing, but “3 percent” has nonetheless become a rallying cry for the opposition. If this were a free and fair election, there is little doubt that the election would produce a winner other than the strong-arm president who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. But as this will not be the outcome, Lukashenko’s dubious “victory” will likely detonate a substantial pushback from civil society—perhaps on a scale that modern Belarus has never witnessed before. Despite being met with brutal police repression, civil society has turned out in large numbers to protest the arrest of opposition candidates, and importantly there are growing signs of disobedience inside the establishment, with several reporters and anchors from government-controlled media publicly dissenting in recent weeks and dozens of police, security services, and army officers taking to social media to pledge their support to the Belarusian people, not the president.

For many inside the Kremlin, the prospect of another Maidan (the 2013 protests in Kyiv, Ukraine that led to the ouster of former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych and precipitated the invasion of eastern Ukraine) on Russia’s western periphery at the same time that the Kremlin is confronting the largest demonstrations in the Russian Far East in decades raises the question of how it will respond to an escalation of protests following the August 9 election.

Moscow’s interests in a post-election Belarus are two-fold. First, although relations with Minsk have been rocky in recent years as an emboldened Lukashenko has sought to capitalize politically from taking a more defiant stance against Moscow, he is basically a comfortable and well-known partner for the Kremlin. A surprise victory by Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who herself has outlined a neutral position on Russia but who has pledged to call for new elections within the first six months, likely renewing the candidacy of her husband, Mr. Tikhanovsky, could put Belarus on a more independent path from Moscow. But most importantly, her victory would demonstrate to the average Russian the ability of grassroots opposition movements to generate freedom of choice in politics. This would pose an unacceptable threat to President Putin’s own legitimacy and leadership at a particularly inopportune moment and alter Russia’s narrative that it holds a “privileged” sphere of influence in its immediate periphery.

Belarus has long been a mirror on the wall for the Kremlin—a testing ground for political strategies and legislation that Russia would appropriate and expand on. The slogan of President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 electoral campaign calling on citizens to “vote with their hearts” was lifted from the words of Mr. Lukashenko in 1994. Similarly, Putin’s 2000 campaign pitch for “stability” echoed those of Lukashenko three years earlier. Putin followed Lukashenko’s example of eradicating independent political parties and silencing political opponents, and in both countries, the once independent parliaments and courts were transformed into departments of the presidential administration. Russian laws on “foreign agents” and “unwelcome organizations” have roots in Belarusian legislation introduced six years earlier. Changes to the constitution that would allow Putin additional terms in office have a Belarusian precedent: Lukashenko orchestrated a national referendum in 2004 to remove term limits from the constitution. The practice of expanding online or mail-in voting, which Russia instituted in the recent referendum, resembles Belarus’s week-long “early voting” that has helped Lukashenko secure one victory after another. Because anti-democratic tactics and strategies in Belarus have long presaged what would come in Russia, a fatal crisis of Mr. Lukashenko’s 26-year-old vertical model of governance could portend the twilight of its Russian replica.

A bizarre twist to this already dynamic situation came with the arrest of more than 30 Wagner Group mercenaries in Belarus on July 29, raising questions around Russia’s intentions in the election. Lukashenko, who has long sought to portray Belarus as the target of foreign interference in order to shore up support for his own candidacy, was quick to exploit this “discovery,” calling on Russia to come clean in a televised emergency meeting of the Security Council. Authorities claimed that as many as 200 Russian mercenaries had entered the country to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign.” Amid much confusion, the Russian ambassador to Belarus stated on July 30 that the detained Russians were using Belarus, the borders of which have remained open through the Covid-19 crisis, as a transit point to other destinations (RFE/RL footage showed Sudanese banknotes belonging to one of the detained Russians). The Russian ambassador has further clarified that these individuals were on their way to Latin American destinations.

It seems highly unlikely that a group of Wagner mercenaries, who made little attempt to conceal themselves and who operate under the umbrella of Russian state security services, would transit through Belarus without the prior knowledge of Belarusian security. The most likely explanation is that Lukashenko, aware of their presence, took another gamble on his relations with Moscow in a final, flailing attempt to shore up support ahead of the elections. Already, the incident has been used to justify increased security around opposition rally events in an attempt to suppress attendance.

How this will play out is unclear. The crowd sizes in Belarus have grown too large for a Belarusian military response to end the protests (similar to the crowd sizes in Khabarovsk). Lukashenko remains Moscow’s safe play, but should things escalate within Belarus and his political future becomes uncertain, the Kremlin will have a difficult choice to make. A Russian military intervention would come at great cost to the Kremlin. For one, it would inflame anti-Russian sentiment on Russia’s western flank (as was the case in Ukraine in 2014 and to some extent in Georgia in 2008), dealing Moscow another self-inflicted strategic blow. Belarusians do not consider themselves Russians, nor would an annexation of Belarus find much support within Russia, where socioeconomic concerns dominate. Moreover, an intervention could ignite additional Western sanctions and would likely end peace talks with Ukraine, underscoring that Russia can never be trusted.

But at the same time, the stakes for the Kremlin are high, fueling uncertainty as to how Moscow will respond, particularly as it looks ahead to September municipal and regional elections in major cities. If Lukashenko emerges wounded from the election and on uneasy political footing, Moscow could seek to exploit his weakness to its favor, perhaps by trading economic and security support for the embattled dictator in return for closer integration on Moscow’s terms. However, in his own attempt to prolong his tenure by defying the Kremlin, Lukashenko may have closed that option, leaving Russia with a series of more difficult and costly choices at a time when the Russian elite view political developments in Belarus as eerily mirroring some of their own.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is a non-resident senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Cyrus Newlin is an associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Heather A. Conley is the senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS. Maria Snegovaya, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, contributed to this article.

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Heather A. Conley

Cyrus Newlin

Cyrus Newlin

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Vladislav Inozemtsev