'Near revolution' in Belarus: Lukashenka's balancing act and Putin's fear of another Maidan
In a week in which much has occurred of geopolitical importance, the evolution of the domestic political situation in Belarus has not received as much attention as it should have. Belarus isn't usually high on the list of countries the average American watches in terms of international news. Recent events there, however, provide good reason to give the country some attention. Public protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenka that began in mid February in response to a tax on those employed for less than half of a year have grown and morphed into a demand for systemic political change, and have thus set up a showdown with a regime not accustomed to challenge, while stoking fears in the Kremlin that it may be facing another “color revolution” on its border, potentially triggering a muscular Russian response.
Outside observers could be forgiven for not seeing change in the wind in Belarus, where on the surface everything looked the same. Change has, nevertheless, been coming, even to “the last dictatorship of Europe”, spurred by the Ukraine crisis, which set in motion a series of changes in Lukashenka's approach both to the West and to Putin, which changes have been working themselves out gradually since. Fearing that the West could support a Maidan-type uprising against him, and also needing Western investment to spur economic growth in an economy (overly dependent upon an imploding Russian economy) in recession, Lukashenka offered to mediate between Russia and the West in the ongoing confrontation over Ukraine. Putin's annexation of Crimea and stoking of conflict in eastern Ukraine also brought home to Lukashenka the danger that Russia could undertake similar actions in Belarus should it believe its interests there to be threatened. He therefore began a sustained effort to warm ties with the West while maintaining his security ties and strategic alignment with Moscow, whose support he needs in order to maintain his rule.
With an eye on Western opinion Lukashenka has allowed a limited number of small, unsanctioned protests, such as those last year that accompanied the debate over whether Russia would be allowed an air base on Belarusian territory (Minsk was able to dodge that demand on Putin's part by agreeing to purchase new Russian warplanes for the Belarusian military, which would then be used as part of the Single Air Defense System, and by agreeing to participate in an Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System). He has also released several prominent political prisoners over the past year in a nod to the West. On March 1, 2016, as part of his attempt to continue to warm relations with the EU, the Belarusian interior ministry announced a softer stance on protests – it would no longer detain protestors, but that police would file charges and protestors would be forced to appear in court and pay a fine, but no longer serve jail time. This change, as much as anything else, set the stage for the events of the past month that have the potential to reshape both Belarusian domestic politics as well as its foreign policy.
The EU has responded positively, voting just over a year ago to remove sanctions that had been in place targeting 170 Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenka, which had been in place since 2010 when Lukashenka cracked down on demonstrators following his victory in a presidential election that was heavily marked by fraud. (Sanctions against a very few officials remain in place.) The removal of sanctions was followed by the visit to Minsk of a high level EU delegation, and beginning of movement on Lukashenka's part toward a gradual political transformation.
More recently, Lukashenka has made other moves favorable to the West that have raised Moscow's ire, including the liberalization of its visa requirements for more than 80 countries, including the United States and the EU. In response to this move Russia installed border controls with Belarus – which border is supposed to be “open”, which resulted in Lukashenka accusing Moscow of “violating treaties”. Russian displeasure with the new visa regime announced by Minsk was so hot that the editors of a leading Belarusian opposition news source believed Putin had made a decision to depose Lukashenka.
Since the beginning of the year an increasingly vituperative rift between Minsk and Moscow has grown, one largely rooted in a tug of war between the two over Belarus' flirtation with the West and Moscow's fear that it could lose Belarus as it has Ukraine. Although that fear would previously have seemed farfetched, the evolution of the political protests, and the government response to them, make them appear less so. Russian media has provided indications that Moscow sees the trajectory in Belarus as paralleling that of Ukraine several years ago, with Russian media blaming Lukashenka's flirtation with the West for current events, as well as suspecting the hidden hand of the West. Belarus's strategic value to Russia being on a par with that of Ukraine, the departure of Minsk from that orbit would be a strategic disaster, particularly following close on the heels of the alienation that has occurred between Russia and Ukraine. This would open the door to potentially aggressive moves on Putin's part to keep Belarus in the Russian fold should events be deemed to be getting out of hand.
From Putin's perspective, the dangerous situation in Belarus comes at a time in which the political environment in Europe stands a good chance of being reshaped in his favor, with elections across Europe having the potential to bring to power parties and governments more sympathetic to Moscow. Now, he faces the specter of another of the “color revolutions” on his doorstep. Putin has doubtless noted the fact that the protests are spontaneous and organic, not being organized by an opposition party or hostile foreign country, which makes them more worrisome.
Moscow has reverted to its typical use of energy as a geopolitical weapon, threatening to make Belarus pay the same rate for its Russian natural gas as does Europe – a significant increase. This led Lukashenka to respond angrily last Thursday: “If some people believe that they can constantly pressure us and bring us to our knees, this will never happen.” A month ago, Lukashenka similarly lashed out angrily at the Kremlin, accusing it of violating treaties (in reference to Russia's decision to establish border controls at the previously open Russian-Belarus border) and using its role as sole energy supplier to Belarus in order “to grab us by the throat”. Signaling that he valued independence above secure energy supplies, Lukashenka asserted “independence cannot be compared with oil”. (Ibid.) Lukashenka also recently gave a speech to his armed forces in which he emphasized Belarus' territorial integrity, a pointed comment aimed at Moscow.
The current spate of protests began in mid February in response to the government's plans to tax the unemployed the equivalent of approximately $250 – a tax which has been called various names including the “social parasite tax”, the “anti-sponging tax”, and the “vagrant tax”. As Mitchell Polman explained in The Hill a few days ago, the regime has been adept at using economic coercion in order to ensure political quiescence in a country in which the vast majority of workers are employed either in state owned enterprises and industries or directly by state itself.
Conditions are different now, however, resulting in a citizenry no longer being so willing to let itself be controlled. The Belarusian economy has struggled for the past couple of years, having been impacted both by the dramatic drop in oil prices from their June 2014 highs, as well as by the severe economic troubles in neighboring Russia, Belarus' most important trading partner by far and the country to whose economy Belarus is most closely tied. This has made life more difficult both for Belarusian citizens and for a government needing to find ways to staunch the fiscal bleeding. The means the government has come up with in order to do that has added to the burden on the people, exacerbating their frustration at their worsening economic condition. Among other things, the government has raised the retirement age in a bid to reduce the burden on state coffers (as of 1 January 2017).
The tax on unemployment has become the straw that broke the camel's back, bringing people out onto the streets. Many were just making it before the unemployment tax kicked in, but will be unable to do so should Lukashenka go forward with it. The total numbers protesting don't sound large to a Westerner, with the protests starting with a bit over 2,000 people in Minsk in mid February and growing to possibly 5,000 people there, with hundreds more in each of Brest (on the Polish border), Mogilev, Bobruysk, and Gomel (a city in southeastern Belarus near the territorial confluence of the Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, the symbolism of which is likely to have caused some anxiety in the Kremlin), and around 1,000 in the eastern city of Vitebsk, also near the Russian border. Although the total numbers are relatively small, the fact that they have occurred at all and that the government has allowed them to continue in a country in which the internal security services has retained the name “KGB” and in which past protests have elicited strong government crackdowns illustrates just how much things have changed in Belarus.
At the same time, his domestic political position is coming increasingly into question. More than 400,000 of those billed have refused to pay the unemployment tax altogether, facing Lukashenka with widespread civil disobedience. The tax appears to have been a straw that broke the camels back, waking many Belarusians to a desire for deeper political change, and the protests have morphed into a demand for broad, systemic political change. The fact that protests are occurring not just in Minsk, but in multiple other cities, as well as evidence that discontent is widespread in the countryside, indicates that Lukashenka's position is less secure than most outside observers had assumed.
Lukashenka is not in an enviable position – he cannot afford to antagonize Moscow too greatly as his continued rule depends upon Russian support. At the same time, he doesn't want to throw away all of the effort he has undertaken over the past three years to warm ties with the West, an effort that has been bearing some fruit, through a crackdown on the protestors. Reverting to form appears to no longer be a possibility in any case.
He has been forced to make concessions to the protestors, and both they and the nascent political opposition in Belarus (which had been extremely timid previously but has been emboldened by the success of the protests) sense that the regime is, for the first time, hesitant and vulnerable. Two weeks ago the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that, consistent with its decree of a year ago, it would not be deploying riot police in the streets to counter the protests, announcing that it saw no point in doing so “just for the sake of demonstrating strength”, which action in effect ceded the streets to the protestors. Last Thursday, Lukashenka suspended the tax that triggered the original protests, although not yet rescinding it. Protest leaders are refusing to accept the mere “suspension” of the tax that Lukashenka has offered, and are demanding broader and deeper changes. Lukashenka has also promised to discipline government officials who unfairly labeled citizens “parasites”, and called last week for the creation of space for peaceful dialogue between citizens and government officials. His statement on this revealed the delicate balance he is attempting to pursue, both domestically and in terms of the carefully watching West and Russia, respectively, in terms of allowing greater freedoms while maintaining political control: “People should have places where they can express their opinions, as in developed countries in the West. But all attempts to create disorder or violence should be stopped immediately.”
He is attempting to placate the crowds in the hopes that they will dissipate. Indications are, however, that they will not. The people sense the possibility, for the first time, of real change, and are not likely to let it go. If they continue and Lukashenka's regime appears to be in serious danger, the Kremlin will then calculate whether it can continue to dominate Belarusian politics through control over Lukashenka's likely successors. Putin would not lose sleep over Lukashenka's departure, as long as he can continue to control what occurs in Minsk. After the financial and reputational costs, as well as the negative economic impact of sanctions, on Russia after its takeover of Crimea and military actions in eastern Ukraine (not to mention the financial costs of Russia's actions in Syria, which have also been great), the last thing Putin needs is to become embroiled in another conflict in Belarus. Also, at this point early in the tenure of US President Donald Trump, whom Moscow has seen as its best hope for a potentially more cooperative relationship with the United States, it would seem that the situation in Belarus would have to become very threatening to Moscow's position there to justify his taking any aggressive action that would be certain to foreclose the possibility of Russian-US cooperation – in Syria or elsewhere – or a potential broader understanding with Washington. Any muscular action on Putin's part would further sour relations with the US and EU, accentuate the already heightened fear of Russian intentions in the Baltics, Poland, Romania, etc., and justify the recent deployment of NATO troops and assets in Poland and the Baltics. Such action would also exacerbate the financial burden Russia is already bearing as a result of its takeover of Crimea (which as been a budgetary black hole), and its military involvement in eastern Ukraine and in Syria, and worsen the country's budget deficits. However, should the situation evolve to the point at which Moscow is no longer certain that its interests are secure in Belarus it will become more likely that it will take more forceful action in order to protect its position there. Such action would in turn set up the first real confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the new Administration of Donald Trump.
Belarus, then, bears watching closely in the coming days and weeks. The nature of the changes occurring there, and the manner in which those changes occur and outside powers respond to them, will determine not just Belarusian domestic politics and foreign policy, but also do much to shape Russian-Western relations moving forward. What appears clear is that the people of Belarus have had enough. Whether Lukashenka goes into exile, cracks down and remains in power at the cost of alienating the West, or Putin makes an aggressive move in an attempt to retain the Russian position there, in any case, change is coming to Belarus - the only question is the pace at which it comes.