14 September 2020

Lukashenko’s warning: if Belarus goes down, Russia follows next. Is it exaggeration or despair (?)

Cristian Eremia

One month after the disputed presidential elections from Belarus were held, the street protests against Lukashenko continue and the opposition made no progress to that end. The president goes from hysterical blackmail to obedience to Moscow, which may indicate a solution to the internal political crisis controlled by Kremlin, where the Western interferences will be rejected. It also comes out that the pro-West opposition from Minsk will not take over the power too soon. Lukashenko will be supported by Kremlin in coping with the protests’ pressure, especially for state’s policy to stay untouched by the West and to make some steps towards the integration of the small republic in the Russian space, as Moscow dreams for quite a while.

Image source: Profimedia

Recently, Lukashenko responded to a series of questions of a team of „Russian journalists” (September 9th). On the internal situation, he proved that there is no destabilization at all – „Everything is good and normal during the week, but on Saturday and Sunday we, sometimes, see the people on the streets”. Which would not have happened if, according to him, the “foreign factor: the foreign control…” would have interfered. He also added that Minsk and Moscow know who is behind the foreign control: “the Americans in the centre nearby Warsaw… the second centre is in the Czech Republic and then Lithuania, unfortunately, and then Ukraine, which is creating fortresses to influence Belarus”.

Thus, these circles would call and push the citizens to go out on the streets. Protesters do not seem to go, however, after Russia, but Lukashenko only, as Byelorussians have had enough of him. The Byelorussian leader insists that there is a second major influence, the West forces at the Western borders of Belarus, that he now calls “borders of the Russia-Belarus Union”, wherefore he mobilized almost half of the 60 thousands military Army from Belarus.

 Lacking any willingness to negotiate with the opposition, Lukashenko thinks that he must personally start to talk with representatives of the students, women, business people or veterans organizations. He says that he will intensively work to make modern changes in the new Constitution project that will be elaborated after a referendum. He also promises to create a “General Assembly of all Byelorussian” – a sort of people’s congress, to be held in three-four months and which will decide the future actions “up until the presidential elections, if necessary”. He accepts the organization of anticipate presidential elections, if “experts, not politicians” will introduce this modification. But he does not say when – a year or two - will the elections be held.

The Minsk opposition lacks leaders. The regime has room for disinformation and manipulation

Fragile or not, there is still a political opposition in Belarus. But it has no leaders capable of leading it. All the more now, given these circumstances, the Lukashenko regime uses all the manipulation, disinformation and propaganda tools to disestablish the opposition’s movements. For example, Lukashenko says he has no one to negotiate with, and if the opposition is the one to present “two unrealistic programs” of unthoughtful and dangerous reforms for Belarus, then he does not accept that. This means that the opposition does not want privatizations, but investors are setting conditions like “leaving on the streets” half of the personnel, which is something Lukashenko does not want.

There was also a story about the arrest of the well-known protests’ leader, Maria Kolesnikova, which took place somewhere near the border with Ukraine, where she wanted to run with some acquaintances, who eventually threw her out of the car. The other two were about to be handed over in Ukraine, where they managed to escape. While being imprisoned, Kolesnikova presented a different side of the story and she wants to go to trial.

In Lithuania, the Coordination council of the opposition forces from Belarus is slowly starting to work (in fact, the Baltic States are hosting, alike Poland, exiled members of the pro-Western Byelorussian opposition). Lukashenko “swears” he did not know anything about this coordination centre and its members until recently. He insists that they have launched anti-regime, anti-Byelorussian and even anti-Russian programs.

Another example is Lukashenko harshly criticizing a demand of the opposition for Belarus to get out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), coordinated by Moscow. He said, through Russian journalists, that leaving the Treaty would mean that the acquisition of new tanks or missiles would be made differently than at internal prices, by following the global market ones (Belarus only has Russian tanks). Then, he guaranteed that Russia will not accept for Belarus to go in enemy’s camp, alluding to what would the Byelorussian people would expect from Moscow (alluding to Ukraine’s case), knowing that the people are afraid of it. And even if Russia would not oppose it (totally unlikely), this would mean, according to Lukashenko, that Belarus would turn into a theatre of military actions between Russia and NATO. And he, again, asked: “is this what the Byelorussian people want?”.

It is also noteworthy that Lukashenko disregards the opposition, which would have created the proper environment for going out and protest “with covered ears, on a sick, old and ugly horse”, which will, eventually, lead to its marginalization.

No one can resist the power of the Internet

Lukashenko admitted that he tried to block the access of its citizens to the Internet, when the protests started, because he thought he could oppose the “foreign propaganda and disinformation”. After some experiments, Lukashenko stated that no one can resist the power of disinformation and manipulation of some foreign power centers, giving “Telegram Channels” as examples, which are coordinated by Poland.

He also stated that he warned Putin: “I talked with the … older brother… Putin, I warned him. He cannot resist it. How can one oppose a Telegram Channel? Do you have the ability to block these Telegram Channels? No. No one has. Even those who invented this web lack this ability”. The internet managed to enter the “people’s brains, heads… some people are simply going crazy. What shall we read? Only headers…”.

This is what explains, according to Lukashenko, how one can provoke an internal war, in the “calm Belarus”. He insists that no authority should take it easy in terms of Internet’s threats. Even in Russia there are “suddenly” certain political events, therefore Lukashenko warned Putin that “If Belarus is going down today, Russia follows next”. He even accepted that there is not going to be a total collapse, he called on the fact that the “great Soviet Union was a nuclear power, but where did that go away?... Some things were unexpected, not because of carelessness, but because we did not see it coming”.

Now back to Putin

Lukashenko started a harsh anti-Western speech, immediately after he realized that the protests are increasing, are attracting citizens from the pro-regime groups, are getting more power and might overthrow him. From that moment on, Lukashenko became more vocal - being politically and diplomatically supported by Moscow – claiming that the Western foreign interferences can be observed in the “field” of the protests. He says he learned from last year’s mistakes, when he was almost seen was as an enemy of Russia.

He explains now that 47-48% of the Belarus’s exports to the Russian market, therefore he tried to diversify the internal market, calling on China and West’s exports. So, he allegedly spoke with unions and workers who threatened to start strikes and protests. After that, the Prime Minister of Belarus gave assurances that "strikes are no longer on the agenda", which is a bad signal for protesters and opposition. Lukashenko is aware that the unions are factories working in the defense field (satellite equipment, ammunition of all kinds, including Topol missiles, etc.) with two years in advance orders and that they would lose these benefits following a regime change. He called on workers to look at the examples set by Ukraine, the conflicts in the Caucasus, and so on, and to think carefully about whether the country deserves a "wrong path."

Even related to the arrest of the 33 Russian citizens, the Belarusian leader said it was a challenge launched by the Ukrainian side. Due to the way Minsk initially reacted to Moscow, the leadership of the KGB (national security service) was fired because it did not control the situation and led to incorrect decisions for the President of Belarus.

Let’s us not forget that, last year, Lukashenko opposed the deep integration of Belarus in Moscow's integrationist projects, or within the 20-year-old Russia-Belarus Union. Lukashenko then strongly recommended reading Russia's integration as an "incorporation" of Belarus. Now, the "last dictator in Europe" - as Lukashenko is being called internationally - has no choice but to “be dependent on Moscow", being totally dependent on Putin's will and goodwill. In the current circumstances, Lukashenko called for comprehensive economic integration with Russia. This can be a first down payment for his support for power. Thus, Lukashenko promised (during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin's visit to Minsk on September 3) that he would discuss the next meeting with Putin: "I will put an end to the 'sensitive issues' of recent relations between the countries”.

Moreover, Lukashenko is politically planning the population for Russian troops to enter the country if the situation deteriorates dangerously to the detriment of the dictator, and the pro-Western Belarusian opposition would be join forces and be able to take power and change the geopolitical orientation of the state. The Russian military - whether they are internal or military troops - should do what Lukashenko cannot ask the Belarusian military to do, that is, shoot his own people. The entry of the Russian military into the game will not be an invasion, but the "natural response" of the strategic partner and the Russian ally to the imperative request of the Lukashenko regime to intervene to restore constitutional order in the state. Subsequent costs for Belarus in terms of sovereignty and independence no longer seem to matter to Lukashenko.

Moscow's interests. Quick integration, then they will see.

Just like in Ukraine’s case, Putin is extremely determined not to lose Belarus from Moscow's sight. Moreover, he wants to continue the possible integration of Belarus in the Russian space. The exact scenario Moscow will apply with the Lukashenko case is still unclear. What is certain is that Putin is not speeding things up, because he does not want to antagonize through hasty actions the people who sympathize him - the Belarusian people. Kremlin understands the situation in Belarus in detail, and Putin knows that Lukashenko has no choice but to submit to Moscow's dictatorship from now on. It is ultimately his guarantee of survival, even if not necessarily in power, or in Belarus.

In the near future, this situation also makes the President of Belarus vulnerable as the political leader of an independent state. Moscow might also want to play cards so that Lukashenko will be the one to settle before the people of Belarus the irreparable losses in terms of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state in favor of Russia.

The Russian MFA shows the world that only Russia would have legitimacy, rights or even legal obligations in relation to Belarus, including in terms of politics and military intervention, by virtue of the fact that both are members of the CSTO and, in particular, of the Russia-Belarus Union. This is, in fact, the only political and international law element that Lukashenko could use to be supported only by Russia to remain in power. Under certain conditions, which he is probably trying to negotiate with Kremlin.

Admitting that Belarus is going through difficult times - but as if nothing had happened to Lukashenko, Kremlin announced (September 9) that, at the next meeting of the presidents of Russia and Belarus, which will soon be held in Moscow, they will address new, “more urgent and important” issues of deepening integration - from the Roadmap for future integration within the Russia-Belarus Union (trade and economic problems, debt restructuring to Russia, prices for energy resources provided to Minsk, establishing interaction a “large number of enterprises”). Most likely, they will also address the introduction of the single ruble currency in the Union market.

President Putin has, in the meantime, ordered a "special reserve force" to be set up - probably from internal and military police troops, ready to intervene in Belarus if the situation degenerates catastrophically and the armed intervention is needed to resolve the internal political crisis.

The working visit to Moscow would be the perfect occasion for Lukashenko to be determined to fulfill his previous "integration obligations" towards Russia and to move to unconditional "political obedience" to Moscow. In fact, Lukashenko returned to the "brotherhood" terms that links Belarusian and Russian citizens in a "common homeland, from Brest to Vladivostok." The most likely scenario is that this "submission" of the Belarusian dictator will include the transfer of power in Belarus to an agreed successor and in a process controlled by the Kremlin.

Therefore, it is also very interesting the publication, in Moscow, of a letter addressed by Belarusian citizens to President Putin, where they request, neither more or less, the incorporation of Belarus in Russia: "We want to be part of Russia!". Belarusian citizens show that the protests are exclusively against Lukashenko and that the republic’s takeover by Russia would avoid the replication of the Ukraine case situation. True or not, the invoked letter only begins the psychological spadework for the next phase that follows the integration.

Can the West interfere in the pro-democracy Belarus?

In Moscow and Minsk, no one believes in the power of Western sanctions. For example, many Belarus experts think that the sanctions imposed to Belarus, to be imposed by EU at the September 25th summit, will rather be an “agonistic element” and, even if it would include 31 people and the president himself on the list, they will still lack the needed influence to stop the internal conflicts. Furthermore, the opinions of the Western states are not convergent at all, because Minsk if “far from Lisbon or other states – like Cyprus, which has its own serious issues.

Belarusian experts say it will be very different, economically speaking, because harsh political rhetoric is usually not accompanied by harsh economic measures - it is believed that Berlin or Warsaw will not rush to affect their own profitable business with Belarus. And it seems that media sources confirmed (September 10th) that Cyprus is blocking the European bloc's sanctions against Belarus, linking this file to the EU's position on the confrontation with Turkey.

The EU has urgently called for and got the withdrawal of the Serbian military from the anti-terrorist military exercises "Slavic Brotherhood 2020", which takes place between September 15-20 by soldiers from Belarus and Russia, in the midst of anti-Lukashenko protests. However, the Kremlin responded immediately that it understood Belgrade's decision under Union’s pressure.

Western chancellors who insist that the EU and NATO interfere on the situation in Belarus are immediately reprimanded by Russian diplomacy, which shows that Belarus does not belong to those organizations, but to the CIS, UEE and CSTO organizations. Although, so far, the EU has not imposed severe sanctions on Minsk, and NATO has not intervened militarily - just as it has not intervened in any conflict in the territory of the former Soviet republics, where Russia is present.

Despite the fact that the EU and the European Parliament refused to admit the elections in Belarus as fair and correct, Putin states that Lukashenko is the legitimate elected president that has legitimate rights. Kremlin says he supports a contained attitude on the developments in Minsk, accusing the US and the European states for politically pressuring Minsk.

Translated by Andreea Soare