Updated at 14:37,26-01-2021

Public Relations and Realities of the Belarusian Crisis

Grigory Ioffe, Jamestown

Public Relations and Realities of the Belarusian Crisis
(Source: BelTA)
Popular narrative tropes are not always accurate predictors of how a story will ultimately develop. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the former presidential hopeful and a person believed by many to have won the presidential elections of August 9, is widely seen as a positive character in the unfolding Belarusian drama. Courageous and likable, she does her best to rally international support for the protest movement in her home country.

Tikhanovskaya has already met personally with six heads of state. And last week (December 10), Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania visited her office in Vilnius to explain that even though his colleague in Minsk had recently presented his credentials to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Belta, November 24), this did not reflect Israeli support for Lukashenka’s policies (Nexta, December 10). By all accounts, Western leaders are fond of hobnobbing with Tikhanovskaya, continuously professing her moral stature and ostensibly pending leadership. On December 3, she announced her readiness to lead Belarus “during a transitional period.” She pointed out that “the Lukashenka regime is falling apart, and following […] pressure and protest, the stage of dialogue will inevitably begin… We all understand,” she stressed, “that people from the system will find that it makes more sense for them to sit down at the negotiating table than to fight their own people” (Gazeta.ru, December 3).

In contrast to Tikhanovskaya, President Lukashenka is broadly castigated as a dictator associated with electoral fraud and abuse of human rights; while his public relations team is deemed a sore loser in the court of public opinion. And yet, despite months of protests against his rule, Lukashenka remains firmly in control and taking steps that look all but certain to retain this status quo, while keeping Tikhanovskaya from achieving her stated goals.

Some more sophisticated pundits on Lukashenka’s side, notably Yury Shevtsov, observe that the protest movement has been largely defeated. “Systemic processes have been deployed to cleanse the power structures of opposition-minded people and ideas,” observes Shevtsov. “This internal consolidation […] of the political class of Belarus is the main consequence of the failed color revolution [sic] here” (Facebook.com/yury.shevtsov, December 8). Furthermore, he rebukes the weekly Sunday street protests steered by Telegram channels and warns that the demonstrators are increasingly tiring of these activities, which they view as a fruitless game. “Until they get a new game that is safe for society,” Shevtsov argues, “they will perform protests that are becoming more radical and, as is already happening, in some cases, bloody” (Facebook.com/yury.shevtsov, December 12).

When it comes to Lukashenka’s own activities, two recent developments stand out. First, spurred on by Moscow’s reminders of his pledge to transition out of power, Lukashenka opted to assign a constitutional status to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a congress of the political classes convened once every five years since 1996 (Belta, December 8). All members of the parliament, directors of the largest corporate enterprises, presidents of Belarusian universities, and most oblast-level bureaucrats take part in these gatherings—altogether 2,500 persons. Most probably, Lukashenka wants to become the head of this new-old entity in case he has to abandon his current function (Naviny, December 8). Second, come December 21, all overland border crossings except to Russia will be closed for exit from Belarus. Although attributed to the pandemic, the measure is more likely designed to cut back on potential outflows of skilled labor. At the same time, since the announcement was made on December 10, it should still allow most active members of the protest movement to flee within the remaining ten days. Leaving via international airports is not precluded, but with vastly reduced numbers of flights and expensive airfares, this is no medium for mass movement (Tut.by, December 10). The border closure may, thus, pursue the goal of making the country more governable.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Western ambassadors in Minsk. On the one hand, it was a positive sign for Belarusian-Western relations that the meeting took place at all. But on the other hand, Makei repudiated the European Union Delegation’s summary of the meeting (Eeas.europa.eu, December 9), which, the Belarusian minister asserted, was couched in a condescending language of a wannabe mentor (Tut.by, December 10).

Despite the fact that Makei’s boss, President Lukashenka, depends on Russia much more than on the West, he still has not moved to release jailed former presidential aspirant Victor Babariko. His somewhat opaque links to Russian state-owned energy interests notwithstanding (see EDM, May 19), at least until recently Babariko was Belarus’s most popular politician. A recent interview with Feodor Lukyanov provides a rare glimpse into Moscow’s current stance. Lukyanov, after all, is one of Russia’s most trusted political commentators who is also close to President Vladimir Putin. Lukyanov believes that Moscow’s struggle for blanket influence across the entire former Soviet space should cease except in a few exceptional cases—one of them being Belarus. “Belarus is now an area of our intense competition with Poland, the state that perhaps three or four hundred years ago was our major enemy. Now, a united Europe stands behind Poland. [Still,] I really hope that we have reached that phase of our transformation whereby the extremist stipulation ‘until Belarus becomes our Western Federal District, we will not rest in peace’ is no longer seen as a reasonable political course. In fact, it would be counterproductive,” he declared. Lukyanov characterized Moscow’s effort in Belarus as a zugzwang: Yes, Lukashenka is not an option, but there is no alternative to rely on. “Now, it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of what exactly is happening in Belarus—not even so much in society as in the ruling conglomerate. If there is such an understanding, it will become clear what room for maneuver we have,” the Russian commentator concluded (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 8).

One can construe Lukyanov’s words as an allusion to the Russian government’s current preoccupation. Presumably, Moscow is busy navigating its multiple channels in the corridors of power in Minsk in search of a top-down solution to the Belarusian crisis. Within several months, the results of those efforts, if any, should become apparent.