by Nikola Mikovic (Twitter), a Serbian freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst. He writes for several publications such as Geopolitical Monitor, Global Security Review, International Policy Digest, Global Comment, and Weekly Blitz. Nikola covers mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to win the presidential election scheduled for August 9, however, the turmoil in the East European country could start the day after. The main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will most likely claim that the election was rigged and will call her supporters to come out and protest. Could that lead to clashes and riots similar to the events in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 when the allegedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown?
So far, Belarusian security apparatus was loyal to Lukashenko. His son Viktor is a member of the Security Council of the Republic of Belarus, as well as an Assistant on National Security to his father. On the other hand, it is believed Russian operatives are, to a certain extent, infiltrated into Belarusian security services, and recent arrest of 33 members of the Russian Wagner private military company indicates that the Kremlin could try to destabilize its neighbor and ally. According to Press Secretary for the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov, “[t]hey had plane tickets to Istanbul“. There are speculations that Lukashenko orchestrated the incident so that he could postpone the election as he apparently fears that he could lose. Such a scenario is not very likely, as the current incumbent firmly controls the election process and the mainstream media. In addition, he is still supported by the majority of rural population, as well as senior citizens, and also by a significant percent of the middle class. The opposition, led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a wife of a popular vlogger Sergey Tikhanovsky who was arrested in May on dubious charges, can certainly count on votes from the young people, as most of them are tired of Lukashenko’s 26 year rule and his neo-Soviet brand of stability. She is also supported by the nationalist and liberal West-backed opposition, although there are claims that her husband was linked with certain Russian structures. In any case, her chances against Lukashenko are very slim, in spite of mass rallies where thousands of people came out to support her. If history is any guide, Belarusian leader is expected to win the election in the first round, as over the past 26 years he never got less than 70 percent of the votes.
His victory could, however, be a Pyrrhic one. Right after the election, he will have to find a way to deal with mass demonstrations, and possibly even labor strikes. If he responds brutally and crackdowns on protests, he can expect to get new packages of Western sanctions. In that case, he will have to turn to Russia which expects significant concessions, especially regarding the energy trade, as well as the future of the Russia – Belarus Union State. In the meantime, Lukashenko will have to decide if he will release the Wagner mercenaries, which is what the Kremlin requested, or if some of them will be extradited to Ukraine, which is what Kiev expects as some of the detained mercenaries reportedly fought against Ukrainian army in the Donbass.
It is not improbable that Russia is sending a certain message to Lukashenko by indirectly supporting some opposition figures. For instance, Viktor Babariko, former banker who spent 20 years working for the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, was seen as the most serious threat for Alexander Lukashenko. He was arrested on June 18 after he was accused of siphoning $430 million out of Belarus in money-laundering schemes. Since he was likely perceived as someone who has close ties with Russian energy sector, and who would have very high chances against Lukashenko, Belarusian leader had no choice but to put him behind the bars. Also, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and founder of a successful hi-tech park, was denied a spot on the ballot and he moved to Russia with his two children after unnamed sources in the Belarus’s Interior Ministry and the State Security Committee (the KGB) apparently warned him about a looming arrest and plans to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away. Finally, after the arrest of Russian Wagner mercenaries, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly unilaterally increased checks and started manually recording personal details of every Belarusian citizen crossing the border between the two countries, which is another pressure on Lukashenko ahead of the election. In addition to that, Russian controversial politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is seen as the so-called system opposition, advised Lukashenko to withdraw his candidacy, which can be interpreted as another message the Kremlin is sending to Belarusian leader.
In spite of tense relations with Russia, at this point, Belarusian radical U-turn and looking westward does not seem very likely, as the country is economically, and especially energetically, heavily dependent on Moscow. Since Russia does not seem to be willing to keep buying Lukashenko’s loyalty by providing cheap natural gas and oil to Belarus, relations between the two allied counties will likely have to be redefined. Lukashenko will undoubtedly try to keep balancing between Russia and the West, although such a policy may not be sustainable in the long term, as his position will be weakened and Belarusian economy will continue to sink. At the end, the future of the Eastern European country will depend on lucrative deals between the Kremlin and the West.
“Lukashenka Accuses Opponents Of Attempting Return To ‘Chaos’“, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 4th August 2020.