Belarus: Is there a new Color Revolution on the Russian border?

Echoes of Soviet disintegration are present in the crisis in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko's days are numbered

Belarus: Is there a new Color Revolution on the Russian border?
Tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Belarus in another mass rally against the country’s leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has been accused by the opposition of fixing recent elections - Photo: EFE
English 28/08/2020 17:37 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 17:43

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Echoes of Soviet disintegration are present in the crisis in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko's days are numbered. However, the country will not become another war-torn Ukraine.

Nearly 30 years after the independence gained by the old Byelorussia (White Russia), the massive protests against Lukashenko’s government remind us that the new states born out of the Soviet Union have failed to complete their transition to a viable political system.

Part of Kievan Rus’, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire in the past, Belarus has been ruled by Lukashenko during the last 26 years. A former director of a collective farm (kolkhoz) who also served in the Red Army, Lukashenko symbolizes the communist elite or nomenklatura—including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—that retains power from Minsk to Central Asia.

In the absence of a developed civil society and strong non-state institutions, a problem that has plagued other countries such as Mexico due to one political party’s dominance, Belarus remained under an authoritarian regime.

Lukashenko won his only free and fair election back in 1994, and has rigged the results in presidential polls at five-year intervals ever since. In each case, protests have arisen in Minsk, yet the opposition was divided or was ignored by the industrial workers and the rural population who benefit from the centrally planned economy.

This aspect is of the utmost importance regarding Belarus’ future, since Lukashenko, having learned the hard lessons of Western-backed economic reforms in Russia, managed to bring down poverty. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate fell from 60% to just 5% in Belarus, compared with an average of 14% for Europe and the Central Asian countries.

Income inequality in Belarus is lower than in Ukraine and Russia; a new middle class is emerging in the capital (which concentrates two of its 9.5 million inhabitants), due to the creation of a technology park with 450 startups working on software development and outsourcing.

Far from being an unconditional ally of Putin, Lukashenko took advantage of the 2000 Union State treaty with Moscow to get Russian energy subsidies which allowed Belarus to import Russian crude oil at below-market prices. The oil was then refined and sold internationally, generating annual revenues of USD $13 billion; a similar deal existed for natural gas, distributed through the vast network of Soviet-era pipelines and then resold.

The Belarussian leader refused to comply with the greater cooperation established by the treaty, opening his country’s economy for Russian investment. He played on Kremlin fears that Minsk might drift westward in a region of crucial geostrategic relevance, similar to Ukraine for Russia’s interests, even buying American fracking oil.

Nevertheless, things began to change last year, as Putin ordered the energy subsidies be gradually phased out by 2024. It is within this framework that Lukashenko ran for reelection on August 9; once again, he was declared winner with 78% of the vote in a process marred by fraud allegations, yet this time the opposition closed ranks around independent candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

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Human rights activist
A human rights activist, Tikhanovskaya is married to dissident Siarhei Tsikhanouski, arrested in May after he announced his intention of running in the presidential election. Tikhanovskaya fled the country in the hours following the vote and received asylum in Lithuania, where she has called to “continue and broaden” the strikes in the industrial sector that are crippling the economy.

In her latest video statement this week, she told the European Parliament that protesters are being “illegally detained, imprisoned and beaten.” The “democratic revolution,” she said, was neither pro-Russian nor anti-Russian; however, Tikhanovskaya has also stressed her willingness to negotiate. 

The aim of the National Coordination Council (NCC), set up in the wake of the contested elections, “is to run a dialogue with the current authorities. I hope that the dialogue will take place soon. Yet the first condition is the release of political prisoners,” she declared.

The NCC demands were bolstered on Wednesday by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, after she was summoned by the State Security Committee (KGB) in Minsk. Speaking to a crowd gathered outside the building, she expressed that “maybe the world will help us get Lukashenko to start talking to someone. We need the world to help, and maybe Russia.”

Hundreds of protesters have been arrested by police and at least three have died during the violent crackdown of demonstrations ordered by Lukashenko. The embattled Belarussian president has accused the NCC of trying to seize power, and deployed forces in the western border.

“Atlantic Alliance troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” he told supporters at a rally in Minsk.

According to Western and Russian press reports, there is a consensus that the Kremlin is not wedded to Lukashenko, yet it wants a transition ensuring that Belarus will not transform into yet another hostile neighbour as Ukraine.

They point out to the “Armenian solution,” in which a similar “Color Revolution” took place in the Caucasian country in 2018 without raising concerns in the Kremlin, since it did not bring any threat to its pro-Russian geopolitical alignment.

For starters, Putin underscored on Thursday that his government has set up a “law enforcement unit” on Lukashenko’s request, yet it will not be used unless the situation gets out of control.

Moscow’s intervention so far has been subtle and surgical, sending special Federal Security Service (FSB) units working in the hybrid warfare front to counter disinformation operations from opposition groups based in Poland and Lithuania.

In the political arena, they were behind the decision to release detainees, and the organization of rallies to support Lukashenko, explained Stalker Zone; a key element was the advice to reward the army for its service, “thereby making it clear that they would not abandon the military, because the military was afraid of reprisals and many thought that they would be fed to the people to calm protests.”

With regard to the diplomatic front, in private talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin has reminded them what it means “situation out of control” for Moscow: any threat to Belarus’ position as a buffer state between the NATO bloc and Russia, as well as its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Community.

It is at this point where the opposition has discredited itself, by allowing a leading role for far right, anti-Russian groups similar to the Ukrainian extremists in a homogeneous country where 98% of the population speaks Russian, and has received economic assistance from its Eastern neighbour equivalent to 12% of its GDP annually.

While Tikhanovskaya committed a mistake meeting with French neoconservative activist Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has promoted NATO’s regime change operations from Tripoli to Kiev, the opposition’s electoral platform stated that its priorities would be the withdrawal from the Union State, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Customs Union, “and other integration entities where Russia dominates.”

The document called for the prohibition of “pro-Russian organizations whose activities are contrary to national interests;” it proposed criminal penalties against “public statements that challenge the existence of a separate Belarussian nation and/or its historical right to own a state.”

Its medium-term goals include, it added, the introduction of criminal sanctions for insults to Belarussian language, and “conduct comprehensive de-communization and de-Sovietization of Belarus; Belarusization of religious life of all Christian denominations and other religions, and the Belarusization of the education system at all levels and forms.”

Although Tikhanovskaya and Alexievich are the moderate faces of the opposition movement, their allies are pursuing an agenda that will sow division in Belarussian society. Apart from NATO leaders interested in fostering instability in Russia’s neighbours, the world must question itself whether in addition to the Minsk elites Belarussian people will accept the use of the 1918 red and white flag related to counter revolutionary forces.

Probably more than an "Armenian solution," Belarus must look to another of its neighbors, Finland, where neutrality has gone hand in hand with the construction of one of the most prosperous societies on the planet.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen