Belarus unrest: Who will prevail?

by Nikola Mikovic (Twitter), a Serbian freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst. He writes for several publications such as Geopolitical MonitorGlobal Security ReviewInternational Policy DigestGlobal Comment, and Weekly Blitz. Nikola covers mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Belarusians living in Krakow, Poland and supporters demonstrate at the Main Square (Photo: Beata Zawrzel).
Belarusians living in Krakow, Poland, and supporters
demonstrate at the Main Square (Photo: Beata Zawrzel).

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko managed to consolidate power after a week-long mass protests and nationwide strikes that have paralyzed and polarized the Eastern European country. Although the situation in Belarus is still tense, the opposition, backed by the West and by certain Russian structures, did not manage to overthrow the 66 year-old leader, as the security apparatus is still loyal to him. 

After the Central Election Commission announced that Alexander Lukashenko won the August 9 election with 80 percent of the vote, the opposition – whose candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya received only 10 percent according to the state count – accused Belarusian leader of rigging the election and staged mass protests that turned into violent clashes with Belarusian riot police. Security forces managed to disperse protesters on the election night, but clashes continued for the next couple of days.

Even though Belarusian police demonstrated that it could crackdown on mass protests and arrest hundreds of opposition activists, the authorities suddenly changed their tactics and allowed anti-Lukashenko protesters to freely march through the streets of Minsk, as well as other Belarusian cities. On August 16, tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Minsk. This event was described as the biggest protest in Belarus’ history. However, even though it seemed that the opposition gained momentum, it failed to take advantage of the situation. Although many employees at state-owned companies joined the opposition demands for new elections, and even started a nationwide strike, there was no single attempt to storm government buildings or state-controlled TV stations. If successful, such an action would have been a serious blow to Lukashenko. Instead, the opposition kept protesting on a daily basis.

However, Lukashenko managed to stage counter-protests. Reportedly, his supporters gathered in Mogilev and Gomel, and will likely continue rallying all over the country. Although there were fewer people at pro-Lukashenko rallies than at the opposition protests, his opponents, as well as Russian media, could not ignore these government-backed events. This way, Lukashenko has yet again demonstrated that he is determined to fight and prevent any Ukrainian-style Maidan coups.  

Belarus police confront protesters as clashes continue over Lukashenko re-election

Lukashenko also accused Western countries of building up military strength in the region, which is why he deployed combat units of the Belarusian army on the western borders and put them on full combat alert. Playing on a “Western aggression threat” card could be a good strategy to mobilize his supporters. Given that the European Union foreign ministers have agreed to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials following the post-election crackdown on demonstrators, Lukashenko’s anti-Western rhetoric is expected to grow.

As long as Russia and China recognize Lukashenko’s election victory, mass protests and labor strikes will be far more critical for him than the EU sanctions that have already been imposed on him in the past. However, in the longterm, the sanctions will keep weakening his position and will be a method of pressure on his coworkers to turn their backs on him eventually. Quite aware of that, Lukashenko has signed a decree on awarding medals to over 300 security officials, and the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs has stated that it will not join the protesters. Suppose Lukashenko does not make any concessions to the West and fires or prosecutes high-ranked riot police officers, as well as the Internal Affairs Minister Yuri Karayev, they will unlikely betray him, as they are simply in the same boat. Lukashenko knows that without security apparatus’ support, his days in powers are numbered. On the other hand, the security structures are aware that, without Lukashenko, they can be brought to their knees, which was the case in the post-Maidan Ukraine. 

In any case, the struggle for power in Belarus is far from over. Even if Lukashenko manages to hold his position, he will come out weakened and will become a pale shadow of his former self. Gone are the days of the Belarusian strongman making speeches to factory workers who are not allowed to say a word. Now he is forced to debate with them (see video below). Since probably the most important Belarusian companies such as Belaruskali potash fertilizer producer and the Naftan and Mozyr oil refineries joined the strike, the Belarusian leader will have a hard time handling the situation. Besides that, to get at least partial support from Russia, he will have to make serious concessions to the Kremlin, as there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. It is not improbable that some of these enterprises will eventually have to be sold to Kremlin-backed Russian oligarch if Belarus stays in Russia’s geopolitical orbit. 

Given that the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States did not recognize Lukashenko’s election victory, any agreements that he may sign with Moscow will likely be considered illegal and illegitimate by the West. A potential but very unlikely Belarus’ unification with Russia would create even more problems for the Kremlin, as it would get a disloyal population that the West can use as another instrument against Moscow. On the other hand, the EU is showing no signals that a post-Lukashenko Belarus could even join the Union, which means that the country could become a “no man’s land” where various global and regional powers, particularly Russia and Poland, would aim to establish their zones of influence. 

In this geopolitical game, the only fortunate misfortune for the Belarusian population is that the country lacks natural resources. If it had crude oil, natural gas, or coal, Belarus would have likely been turned into another Libya, Iraq, or Ukraine a long time ago.

This entry was posted in Belarus, English, Nikola Mikovic, Security Policy.

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