Belarus caught in the crossfire

Welcome back. After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and east-central Europe in 1989-1991, the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus came to be dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”.

Nowadays this label has largely dropped out of use, because Vladimir Putin’s regime next door in Russia has turned so repressive that it bears obvious comparison to that of Lukashenko. For the hard-pressed people of Belarus, the question is whether the war in Ukraine will end in such a way as to permit the establishment, at long last, of full national independence and civic freedom. I’m at tony.barber

First, the results of last week’s poll. Asked about the outcome of Sunday’s Turkish elections, some 40 per cent of you thought that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would stay in power no matter what, 35 per cent thought the opposition would win and take office, and 25 per cent were on the fence. Thanks for voting!

Impact of Ukraine war on Belarus

For Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, the connection between Russia’s assault on Ukraine and her country’s independence is clear. As she commented in December in an interview with the Robert Schuman Foundation, a Brussels-based research centre:

The defeat of Russia in Ukraine will herald the defeat of the Lukashenko regime. And if Russia is allowed to get away with it, so that it ‘can save face’, then these two regimes will continue to exist.

Many political commentators tend to agree with Tsikhanouskaya. In this article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Artyom Shraibman writes: “The fate of Belarus as a state is becoming increasingly tied to the outcome of a future peace settlement [in Ukraine].”

However, the war could end in various ways that fall somewhere between an outright victory for Ukraine or a triumph for Russia. Under these circumstances, the dictatorship in Belarus, a country of 9.4mn people that gained a rather shaky independence in 1991 as the USSR broke up, might stay in place for some time.

A good analysis along these lines appears in this briefing paper by political scientist Ryhor Astapenia for the London-based Chatham House think-tank.

No matter how sweeping the repercussions of the war in Ukraine may seem, the fate of Belarus does not necessarily depend on its result, especially since there is no knowing how and at what point warfare will stop.

Astapenia describes the war as being “superimposed on the country’s internal dynamics — a slow transition of power from the ageing authoritarian leader, Lukashenko, to a successor who has not yet been publicly identified. Broadly, the outcome could be anything from a complete loss of independence [to Russia] to democratisation.”

A pitiless dictatorship 

The Lukashenko regime’s repression is taking place on a scale that ranks it with the most unsavoury communist systems of the pre-1989 era, such as Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania.

This month, blogger Mikalay Klimovich, who was jailed for posting an online caricature of Lukashenko, died in a penal colony in the Vitebsk region, according to a Minsk-based human rights group.

Raman Protasevich, a journalist, was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of slandering Lukashenko, calling for the seizure of state power and organising mass protests. He is the activist who was seized by the authorities in 2021 after they diverted a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius — in essence, they hijacked it — and forced it to land in Belarus.

In a still more egregious case, a court in January imposed a 10-year prison term on Ales Bialiatski, a human rights campaigner and co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It seems appropriate to quote from his lecture, which his wife Natallia Pinchuk read on his behalf, at the prize ceremony in Oslo in December:

Ales Bialiatski
Ales Bialiatski, co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, picks up an earlier human rights award in 2020 © TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

In my homeland, the entirety of Belarus is in a prison . . . The courts work like a conveyor belt, convicts are transported to penal colonies, and new waves of political prisoners take their place.

. . . but at times a bizarre one

Like many dictatorships, Lukashenko’s has its bizarre, even surreal side, which would be cause for laughter if it were not evidence of how unlimited power corrupts a leader and humiliates ordinary people.

As Tsikhanouskaya wrote in January for the Politico website, a resident of the village of Vyazynka was punished for taking part in an unauthorised political protest by being forced to stand in a detention centre and watch Lukashenko speeches playing continuously on a television monitor 10 hours a night, for three successive nights.

And in Francis Scarr’s tweet from December, we see Lukashenko taking time off jailing his critics to complain to his minister of sport about the poor quality of football in Belarus compared with other countries.

Nevertheless, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that the overall condition of Belarus is anything but funny. Astapenia calculates in his Chatham House article that there were about 1,600 political prisoners in Belarus as of early this year.

Does anyone in Belarus support Lukashenko?

Of course, if events had been allowed to take their course in 2020, Lukashenko would not still be in power. That was the year when peaceful mass protests erupted across Belarus after a blatantly rigged presidential election.

By turning to Putin to save his skin, Lukashenko placed himself at Russia’s mercy in a way that he had striven to avoid since first coming to power in 1994. Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador in Minsk who is among the sharpest commentators on Belarus, observes:

Lukashenko’s position in respect to Moscow has been very weak since late 2020 after he essentially burnt all his bridges with the west as a consequence of the brutal crackdown on peaceful demands for change in the country.

It might seem, then, that few Belarusians, apart from those with a strong stake in his regime’s survival, continue to support Lukashenko and his wartime alliance with Putin.

Yet according to a Chatham House poll conducted last August, opinion in Belarus about the war is not one-sided. The survey estimated that 45 per cent of respondents either definitely or mostly opposed the war, but 30 per cent definitely or somewhat supported it and 24 per cent were not sure.

That said, there seems little reason to doubt Tatsiana Kulakevich’s argument that most ordinary Belarusians want to stay out of the war, and any attempt by Lukashenko to deploy troops in support of Russia might result in protests and desertions.

Pro-Ukraine Belarusian partisans

A small number of Belarusians are even fighting on Ukraine’s side. Writing for The Beet, Eilish Hart says the most prominent such force is the Kastuś Kalinoŭski regiment, named after a Belarusian revolutionary who led an uprising against the Russian empire in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, this detailed Associated Press report quotes Valery Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst, as saying:

A broad guerrilla movement has evolved in Belarus, with its members blowing up railway tracks and Russian warplanes and attacking Russian and Belarusian official websites.

One organisation, going by the name of Bypol, claimed responsibility for a drone attack in February on a Russian military surveillance aircraft at an air base near Minsk.

Finally, specialists working in Belarus’s once flourishing IT sector appear to have been voting with their feet and fleeing the country, according to analysts Andrew Wilson and Tadeusz Gizcan.

Despite this evidence of social discontent and active hostility to Lukashenko’s regime, it is noticeable that Ukraine’s government has maintained a certain distance from the Belarusian opposition.

It may be the case, as Margaryta Khvostova, Dmytro Kryvosheiev and Pavel Slunkin write for Social Europe, that Kyiv is wary of antagonising Lukashenko too much when it has its hands full fighting Russian forces on other fronts.

For the moment, then, Lukashenko and his rogue regime remain in place. Let me express the hope that when change for the better comes, and I believe it will, it takes place — as in most of east-central Europe in 1989 — with as little violence as possible.

More on this topic

Prospects for Belarus in 2023 in the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine — a commentary by Katsiaryna Shmatsina for the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies

Tony’s picks of the week

  • In another political blow to Gabriel Boric, Chile’s most leftwing president since the early 1970s, conservatives won a clear majority in a vote to decide who should rewrite the nation’s constitution, the FT’s Michael Stott reports

  • Germany’s policy of dialogue and economic interdependence with Russia has failed, making deterrence and defence capabilities essential elements of a new foreign and security policy in Berlin, Stefan Meister and Wilfried Jilge write in a paper for the German Council on Foreign Relations

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