Updated at 15:27,23-09-2020

Belarus protests: who are the key players and what do they want?

Andrew Roth in Moscow, The Guardian

Belarus protests: who are the key players and what do they want?
Opposition activists stretch out a flag during a rally in Minsk, Belarus. Photograph: Natalia Fedosenko/Tass
Historic protests in Belarus have driven the longtime president, Alexander Lukashenko, into the worst crisis of his career. It appears possible, though not certain, that his regime could fall in the coming weeks. For the first time in a generation, opposition protesters can see a path to power through free and fair elections. The former Soviet republic is a close ally of Russia but has played towards the west in recent years. Here is a short guide to what each side wants and how they might get it.

The protesters

The largest protests in Belarus’s history were sparked by rigged elections and by scenes of police brutality and torture against thousands of detainees. For now, they have Lukashenko on the defensive, but they may lose momentum if he is not ousted in the coming weeks.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the united opposition candidate who challenged Lukashenko, said she was ready to serve as a temporary “national leader” and hold new free and fair elections without Lukashenko in six months. She has also promised to release political prisoners and return the country to its pre-Lukashenko constitution.

But she is a moderate compared with many street protesters, who have also risked their lives and want Lukashenko out now.

Protesters have been careful not to frame this as a pro-Russian or pro-western movement, focusing on the excesses of Lukashenko’s regime. For now, there is no constituency in Belarus for a Russian intervention, and some protest leaders have also warned the EU to be careful not to antagonise Russia. The protesters would like to settle this on their own, but they may seek more foreign support if Lukashenko finds his footing.

Russia


Lukashenko’s isolation from the west has largely kept him in Moscow’s orbit, even while he has remained a temperamental partner. Moscow’s desire before the election was to see Lukashenko sufficiently weakened to further pressure him into integrating his country into Russia as part of a “union state”, a pet project of Vladimir Putin.

So far, Moscow has largely left Lukashenko to manage this crisis on his own and does not appear ready to protect him. Russia does not want to turn a protest movement against Lukashenko into one against Putin as well.

But Belarus is deeply important to Putin. If Lukashenko goes, Russia will try to be a part of that process, either by negotiating his exit or seeking to join discussions of what comes next. Russia would also look to cultivate pro-Russian politicians in the country and use economic levers, such as natural gas and oil prices, as well as trade, to influence policy.

Above all, Putin will seek guarantees: that Belarus keeps its agreements with Moscow and does not seek any kind of integration with the EU or Nato. That may be difficult if elections are opened to a wider field. It is easier with a dictator in charge.

The EU


Other European leaders have become increasingly vocal about Lukashenko’s flawed elections and his crackdown on peaceful protesters.

The EU has not recognised the election results and has already begun drawing up new sanctions lists against Belarus. But whether it will call on Lukashenko to step down could depend on other factors, including internal differences and the potential reaction from Moscow, which has signalled it wants the EU to stay out of the crisis.

Some EU states, led by those formerly part of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, want Brussels to take stronger action. Several countries have called for the elections to be rerun with international monitors.

But Lukashenko also has friends in the EU, particularly in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s government called for dialogue with Belarus at a time when many others were calling for sanctions.

Alexander Lukashenko


Lukashenko’s goal has always been simple: keep power at all cost. Now, for the first time, he knows he is in a fight for his political life.

Before the elections, he suggested Russia was trying to interfere. Now, he has blamed the west for supporting the opposition, hoping to scare his own citizens as well as Putin, who he hopes will provide support to help his regime hang on.

Since his violent crackdown has failed, Lukashenko’s new strategy may simply be to outlast the opposition’s momentum and hope that protests die down.

If it comes to talks, Lukashenko will likely seek to slow the process, preserving his position in the short term and then finding a way to renege on any agreement later on.