Belarusian Protests: Russia’s Reluctance

Belarusian Protests: Russia’s Reluctance

The anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus are eagerly being portrayed as a geopolitical standoff between Russia and Europe by both Western and Russian analysts. However, the nature of the current protests and the relationship between Lukashenko and the Kremlin are structurally different compared to previous protests in the former Soviet republics. This means that Russia is likely to also adopt a different position.

Russia and the Belarusian Protests in Perspective

During the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko was faced with unexpected opposition. As Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced her candidacy for Belarus’ highest office after her dissident husband got imprisoned, a national movement calling for democratic reforms started to develop. However, protests did not fully erupt until Lukashenko claimed an overwhelming victory with 80% of the vote, whereas Tikhanovskaya claimed to have at least 60%. After the official announcement, Minsk’s Independence Square quickly flooded with anti-Lukashenko protesters, demanding democratic reforms in response to the questionable results. 

Analysts were quick to extrapolate the situation in Belarus into the geopolitical realm, describing it as a local projection of a tug-of-war between Russia and the West. Consequently, parallels were drawn between Belarus and Ukraine, and assumptions were made that Russia will prevent the fall of Lukashenko at all costs. However, the complex dynamics of the Belarusian protests are often flattened and reduced to a false dichotomy of pro-Russian autocracy versus pro-European democracy.  The Belarusian protests, and Russia’s position, are distinct from events in Ukraine and other post-Soviet national movements.

Russian interventionism in the former Soviet republics

The pro-European/anti-Russian nature of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution provoked a Russian response, as did the 2003 Georgian Rose revolution. Going further back, the anti-Russian dimension of the independence movements in Georgia and Moldova in the late ’80s and early ’90s fueled Russia’s fear of the former Soviet republics breaking away from the Russian sphere of influence. Consequently, these movements were met with Russian intervention. Given Russia’s inherent animosity towards colour revolutions, one would expect Russia to prevent one from taking place along its border actively. Although there have been talks between Minsk and Moscow regarding the deployment of Russian security forces in Belarus, a Russian military intervention seems to be a rather unlikely scenario at this moment. 

The absence of anti-Russian sentiments

The unlikeliness of an intervention is due to several reasons. Firstly, the protests are first and foremost anti-Lukashenko. There seems to be no exact anti-Russian sentiment, nor do the various opposition candidates seek to move Belarus closer to the West. The National Coordination Council, self-tasked with facilitating a peaceful transition of power, has explicitly stated that they wish to maintain close relations with Russia as part of the Union State. Moreover, Tikhanovskaya continuously calls for the Belarusian people to remain in charge of the negotiations regarding a potential transition of power, signalling that external forces should not interfere in this domestic issue. This message is also conveyed by the Belarusian people, who actively promote traditional and nationalist Belarusian symbols. As opposed to the Euromaidan, hardly any European flag can be spotted on the streets of Minsk. Instead, protesters are flying the national flag of the 1918 Belarusian People’s Republic, which since then has turned into a symbol of nationalism and opposition. 

The absence of anti-Russian or pro-European sentiments may address some of the Kremlin’s concerns, but it does not guarantee that Russia will not intervene in any way. The risk and uncertainty of a potential post-Lukashenko power vacuum would be too high. Nevertheless, whatever predisposition Russia has towards backing autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet space, its troubled relationship with Lukashenko may be a spoiler to this.

Lukashenko’s troubled relations with the Kremlin

In addition to the absence of anti-Russian sentiments, strained relations between Lukashenko and the Kremlin help to explain Russia’s moderate response to the protests. Lukashenko has long been a source of irritation amongst the Russian elites; several oil and gas wars have taken place, and joint projects have failed as Lukashenko was unwilling to make concessions towards Moscow. The latest incident, the arrest of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries who Lukashenko accused of executing hybrid operations against Belarus, further deteriorated relations. As such, the Kremlin may not be as attached to Lukashenko per se as they are to his staunch anti-Westernism, explaining their muted response.

Consequently, Russia is faced with a choice between getting rid of Lukashenko at the cost of a regime change, or preventing a colour revolution and saving an autocracy under a president it does not like. So far it has somewhat reluctantly chosen for the latter. After several weeks of protests, Putin announced that law enforcement personnel and security forces are prepared to intervene in Belarus if the situation escalates and challenges the current political order. This could be seen as a guarantee that Russia will intervene if Lukashenko is at risk of being toppled. Still, it could also mean that Russia will only step in if their vital interests are threatened, regardless of whether Lukashenko remains in power. So far, Russia is in Lukashenko’s corner, but this may change if his position proves to be either untenable, or against Russian interests.

Potential controlled transition of power: the Armenian example

If Lukashenko’s position is no longer compatible with the Russian interests, Russia could opt for a controlled transfer of power, as happened following the Armenian protests. In 2018 a relatively peaceful regime change took place in Armenia after a series of anti-government demonstrations, through which the autocratic government was replaced by a more democratic and accountable one. Despite the democratic reforms, Russia and Armenia maintain good relations as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reaffirmed Armenia’s close political and military ties with Russia. This highlights that it is not democracy in itself, but the potential underlying pro-Western sentiments that Moscow fears. Consequently, Russia could choose for Belarus to follow the Armenian example.

The Belarusian protests: a more nuanced understanding

Notions of an imminent Russian intervention to save the Belarusian regime and prevent a colour revolution do not seem to fit the case of Belarus, where the Russian interests so far are not directly threatened. Firstly, the national movement lacks a precise anti-Russian/pro-Western dimension, which usually determines whether Russia intervenes or not. Secondly, Russia is not particularly attached to Lukashenko per se, and their troubled relationship affects Russia’s position directly. Nevertheless, the situation on the ground is developing at a rapid pace, adding a great deal of uncertainty to any prediction on the outcome of the protests. By Lenin’s words, it is impossible to predict the time and progress of a revolution, as it is governed by its mysterious laws. It remains uncertain whether Lukashenko will stay in power, but at this stage, it seems that Russia will not play a decisive role in ousting or supporting the president.

Categories: Europe, Insights

About Author