The slow dismantling of the Belarusian state

Gustav Gressel

Commentary - 02nd September, 2020

While this revolutionary movement did not start as a geopolitical endeavour, it will certainly end as one.

Initially, the political crisis in Belarus seemed to have taken Moscow by surprise. Moscow knew that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was unpopular and would rig the election to prolong his rule, but appeared to be taken aback by the size and tempo of the protests – and unsure how to react. The confusion was most visible in the media sphere. For more than a week, the Kremlin did not issue orders on how to frame the protests. Hence, in both Russia and the West, observers started to discuss how the Kremlin would eventually respond.

On 19 August – when the European Council threatened to sanction the Belarusian regime if it continued to engage in repression, and warned against “geopolitical” manoeuvring in Belarus (in the hope of encouraging Moscow to engage in talks about a leadership transition there) – the Kremlin decided to back Lukashenka both in words and deeds. Although Moscow was ambiguous about the extent to which it would support him, its practical measures would soon become visible.

The first and most visible parts of the intervention were in the media. The Belarusian regime not only replaced striking Belarusian state media personnel with Russian teams but also adopted the Kremlin’s style in its overall communications effort: depicting the protesters as foreign-orchestrated agents of a “colour revolution”, and promoting the idea of a border conflict with Lithuania. State media outlets broadcast stories that bore little resemblance to the reality on the ground, and that citizens could easily disprove. The amateurish ‘copy and paste’ techniques Russian media operatives used to spin the situation only reflected the prejudices of many Russians audience on Belarus. The protesters have increasingly responded by mocking Russia and its political leadership. In parallel, Russia will help Belarus refinance some of its debt.

The fictive border dispute provides a pretext for the second, less visible takeover. While Belarus has an army of its own, this force only engages in territorial defence of the country as part of an operation of the Union State within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance. By mobilising and deploying the Belarusian army to manoeuvres on the country’s western border, the regime not only moved the force away from cities, soldiers’ families, and sources of information from the opposition but also enacted the “Zapad 17” scenario. In this scenario – as in every Belarusian defence plan – the Belarusian armed forces are subordinated to the Russian Western Military District command. While these Belarusian manoeuvres are insignificant militarily, the move has significant political implications: Belarus has surrendered its armed forces, and hence its sovereignty, to Russia. Any move the army makes will be not only with Moscow’s consent but under its orders.

Having accepted Lukashenka’s political surrender, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to deploy a “law enforcement reserve force” if the protests got out of hand. Indeed, the Russian armed forces have been training for such an intervention to put down an insurgency – just in case.

Belarus has surrendered its armed forces, and hence its sovereignty, to Russia.

The third remarkable change in Belarus concerns domestic security. By calling on the police and the (Belarusian) KGB to restore order on 19 August, Lukashenka initiated a second crackdown that followed a completely different playbook than the first. Instead of engaging in random violence and repression, the security forces targeted the leaders of the demonstrations on 22-23 August and the following weekend. This crackdown struck at the political representation of the protest movement: members of the transition council and strike committee leaders. Without leaders, the regime reasons, the protests will lose steam sooner or later. The fact that the Russia Federal Security Service has closely consulted its Belarusian counterparts suggests that Moscow is, in fact, directing these targeted operations. And, when Lukashenka appeared to congratulate the riot police for handling street protests on 23 August, he was accompanied by bodyguards from an unknown security service who were carrying Russia’s new service rifle, the AK-12. As the rifle has not been introduced into any branch of the Belarusian security services, Lukashenka may well be receiving personal protection from Russia.

The Kremlin has declined offers of mediation from the international community, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And decision-makers in Moscow have started to discuss changes to Belarus’s constitution and domestic political system. On 31 August, Lukashenka announced that the process of redrafting the constitution would be overseen by an advisory board made up of loyalists, and would involve no consultations with the protesters’ representatives. He made clear that he had no intention of introducing real democratic procedures – at least, not without tightly controlling their outcome.

But, given that the circumstantial evidence points towards Moscow establishing de facto control of the Belarusian state, the issue of whether Lukashenka stays or goes is a secondary matter. Moscow has long sought to weaken Belarus as an independent state and increase its control of its purported ally. If a weakened Lukashenka is dependent on Russian support to stay in power, Moscow could exploit this to squeeze as many concessions out of Belarus as possible. Constitutional revisions – especially those designed to entrench Russian influence in Belarusian institutions – would make it easier for Moscow to administer Belarus as a de facto colony.

Yet such an imported political structure would do little to address popular demands for change and public accountability. Like many revolutionary movements, this one can contribute to nation-building, and to the establishment of a distinct political identity. As happened in Georgia and Ukraine, foreign interference in democratic and national emancipation will produce a backlash. Belarusian citizens will now have to limit Russia’s influence on their country if they want to elect a new president. So, while this revolutionary movement did not start as a geopolitical endeavour, it will certainly end as one.

For this reason, Russian intellectuals – particularly those affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – advocated a smoother transition at the beginning of the crisis. By dropping Lukashenka early on, Moscow could have preserved its influence without being drawn into debates on national identity. But, as is so often the case in Russian politics, those with reason and intellect on their side held little power.

Moscow’s reliance on security measures that back and exploit Lukashenka suggests that the Russian intelligence community has once again prevailed in its decision-making process. Russia’s response to the crisis reflects strong unease about any sort of democratic movement – even if it is one dominated by people who did not initially want to cut ties with the country. Moscow’s decisions appear to be motivated by fear that, if people are free to pick their leaders, they might one day feel free to change their foreign policy alignments.

While the European Union has only limited influence on all these developments, it should pay close attention to events in Belarus. The EU was slow to condemn Moscow’s intervention in eastern Ukraine; it should act more quickly on Belarus. Now that Lukashenka has accepted Russian help in the media sphere, Europeans need to clearly speak out about Moscow’s involvement and shift the blame accordingly. Of course, in the security realm, this will demand further intelligence efforts to pin down new lines of command and interference. Nonetheless, the West needs to hold Moscow accountable, and not just sanction a few proxy actors.

Given that Russia is heavily involved in the wars in Ukraine and Syria, interference in Western elections, and efforts to poison opposition candidates and dissidents abroad, Europe – particularly France and Germany – need to realise that economic outreach and dialogue will not make the Kremlin change its behaviour. And, as the case of Belarus has once again illustrated, the constant foreign policy clashes between the West and Russia are due not to a lack of dialogue (there have been ample of calls between European and Russian leaders in the last few weeks) but to fundamentally opposed interests and value systems.

Beyond the current crisis, the dismantling of the Belarusian state will have profound long-term consequences in the region. Before the 2020 election, Lukashenka preserved a minimal degree of independence from Moscow by refusing to recognise the annexation of Crimea or to allow Belarus to become a springboard for Russian military interventions. He will no longer have this freedom, and will have to accept new Russian military bases and deployments on Belarusian territory. Accordingly, Ukraine will have an even longer border with territory in which Russian forces can manoeuvre, leaving the country more vulnerable. The shift will alter the regional balance of power on NATO’s eastern flank to the detriment of the alliance. Europe must now prepare for all these changes.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Russia

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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