Steve August 27, 2020

In the past couple of weeks the mass demonstrations protesting the obviously
falsified Belarus presidential elections became featured news reporting in Western
media, edging out coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic and of street disorders
in the USA following yet another shooting of some unarmed black man by white
police. In this context, I was invited twice to give Zoom interviews on both
RT’s live 24 hour news broadcast from Moscow and on the Belarus state television
whose local crew had interviewed me at home in the past before Covid19 drove
us all into virtual reality.

Given that these Zoom interviews were put on live news programs that are not
reposted on, where you, dear Reader are more likely to catch them,
and given that my observations are rather different from what the herd of both
mainstream and alternative news commentators are saying, I set out here what
it is I have to say about Belarus at this crucial moment in the nation’s history,
when the outcome of the power struggle is by no means clear.

First, I make reference to the very special characterization of the Belarus
protest movement by The Financial Times from the very beginning, namely
that unlike the Maidan protesters in Ukraine in 2014, the Belarus protest movement
is not pro-EU, pro-NATO and anti-Russian; it is seeking only new elections conducted
under transparent and fair conditions, on the assumption that will lead to the
removal of President Lukashenko.  This reporting may seem obvious, but
it is remarkable in its own right.  I compare it to the latest militant
and self-righteous statements coming out of the Polish government in Warsaw
to the effect that the Belarus protesters are standing up against Russia.

Be that as it may, all reporting from all sides is missing the other outstanding
feature that distinguishes the present day situation in Belarus from Maidan
in 2014:  President Lukashenko is a vastly different personality from Ukraine’s
President Yanukovich.  Yanukovich had been ousted from power once before
and he knew perfectly well that the two-thirds of the country outside his power
base in Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine was ready to oust him by force. On
22 February 2014, he rather timidly accepted an EU offer of mediation with the
leaders of the rebellion that promised new elections in a year’s time. As we
all know, the next day the  Opposition ripped up the agreement and Yanukovich
fled the country. His life was saved only by quick and skillful Russian intervention.

The outstanding feature of Mr. Lukashenko over recent days has been his hyper-activity
in public and his personal courage in standing up to the protesters. He has
gone to the high risk hot spots to take them on.

Lukashenko said plainly that the only way the protesters will get new elections
in the days ahead will be over his dead body, and this was not empty rhetoric.
He has denounced the offers of mediation coming from grandstanding Western leaders
like Emmanuel Macron, deriding the hypocrisy of the man who has directed the
vicious police repressions against the Gilets Jaunes protesters in
his own country over the past two years.

Having tossed this bouquet to the Belarus President, I add that the problem
he is facing is largely of his own making by his actions and inaction over the
past 26 years in power.  The situation is so dire precisely because his
regime has suppressed all political opposition, has quashed civil society for
the purpose of staying in power.  To be sure, he might have justified this
truculence by the good he was doing for his nation by the conservative, statist
economic policies he pursued, by refusing to go along with the fads of privatization,
by staying close to the country’s main export market, Russia. Indeed, over his
time in power, Belarus has made impressive achievements in raising GDP and national

Thus, when a transition committee formed in the past week claiming to speak
for Belarus society and nominating itself to oversee free elections, Lukashenko
could say, with justice, that they represented nobody, and he would not negotiate
with them.  The calamity is that there is no one to negotiate with to resolve
the crisis, which means it will be resolved only by force and/or persistence
by one of the sides, and may drag on for months.

In the interviews alluded to above, I was asked to comment on Lukashenko’s
calling out the risks of trouble coming from NATO along the country’s Western
borders. As we know, the President used his visit to Grodno a few days ago to
visit the Belarus troops that are on maneuvers there at his order. 

In my view, Lukashenko’s attention to the Western borders is reasonable, but
not because of any invasion threat from Polish or Lithuanian forces.  Rather,
the risk is one of infiltration across that border by those carrying cash or
arms for the Opposition in general and for paid professional trouble makers
in particular.

Belarus television is interested in the question of possible Polish direction
of the disturbances in Belarus. Surely in the public domain, Poland has made
clear its support for the removal of Lukashenko.  I have no doubt this
is the case.  For Polish President Duda, taking a strong stand in defense
of human rights in Belarus puts his government in a favorable light within the
European Institutions and distracts from Poland’s notoriety as a black sheep
that is dismantling its own independent judiciary and putting in jeopardy rule
of law.

Then there is the question of what Russia can and may do as the Belarus scenario
unfolds one way or another. Again, from the get-go, The Financial Times
took a Realist position as opposed to the ideologically colored position that
so much of our media disseminate. It noted that Belarus is squarely in the sphere
of Russian influence and better not to put its dominance in question.

Many of our media outlets have looked to Belarus for insights into what may
be ahead for Mr. Putin’s regime. They have asked whether the kind of resistance
to the Kremlin that arose in Khabarovsk after the removal and arrest of its
elected leader from the LDPR party Furgal might not be spread further in Russia
with encouragement from the mass protests in Belarus.

In my view such contagion is improbable, because there are fundamental differences
in the way the Belarus “regime” and the Russian “regime” operate vis-à-vis their
electorates and civil society more generally.  This is overlooked by so
many of our media because they are willingly blind to the meaning of the Duma
parties. In Russia 20% or more of the electorate belongs to the Communist Party. 
Fifteen percent or more are supporters of Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR. 

Even Vladimir Putin showed in his answer to a journalist’s question a couple
of months ago that he did not quite fathom that the LDPR is a party that exists
outside the persona of Mr. Zhirinovsky and will likely continue to exist after
he leaves the scene. It is not to be compared with the movements of people like
Navalny or Nemtsov, who were, are nothing more than lightning rods for popular
frustration, without clearly defined party policies. The Furgal affair has driven
this fact home: the entire Far East has high levels of support for the LDPR
for reasons which may well have to do with their policy stands, not just personal
popularity of individuals.

The net result of the foregoing is that if there were to be serious abuses
in elections like those in 2011 in Russia or in Belarus today, the Kremlin would
easily find an Opposition to negotiate with, whereas Mr. Lukashenko finds himself
at the center of a political desert that he himself created.

These, I believe, are strong reasons for Vladimir Putin to go back to his courting
the Opposition parties as he did back in January during his state of the nation
address to the legislature.  The ambitions of Speaker of the Duma Volodin
to play dirty and to monopolize the political stage for the United Russia party
works against a peaceful transfer of power in the future and so is against the
national interest.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book
Russia Have a Future?
was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission
from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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