An extraordinary week in Belarus was topped off by the largest opposition rally in the history of the country on Sunday, 16 August, a week after widely-disputed elections saw President Alexander Lukashenko returned with 80 per cent of the vote, according to the official tally. After days of violent clashes between police and protesters, Sunday’s demonstration was conducted largely peacefully. A much smaller pro-government rally was addressed by Lukashenko the same day.
The BBC’s Russian service estimated that Sunday’s anti-Lukashenko rally drew around 127,000 participants in Minsk alone – equivalent to over six per cent of the city’s population. (The pro-regime rally drew just 13,000, the broadcaster said.) Protesters, buoyed by the relatively permissive attitude of the authorities after days of horrifying violence, are likely to continue meeting through the week.
On 17 August, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader forced into exile, released a video to announce that she was ready to become “national leader”. Her defiant tone contrasted with a previous video, filmed last week under apparent duress, in which Tikhanovskaya read from a script disavowing the protest movement. That Tikhanovskaya feels confident enough to issue such a defiant message with her husband still imprisoned by the regime demonstrates how quickly the balance of power has shifted in Belarus.
Lukashenko is facing significant and growing defiance to his rule. Swathes of the economy are on strike, including workers at the state-owned plants producing tractors and fertilisers who used to constitute the core of his support base. After a week of terror, something appears to have snapped. Protesters are no longer cowed: even some among an audience of supposed loyalists at a truck factory in Minsk shouted: “Resign!” at the president as he addressed them on Monday, 16 August.
It now seems clear that Lukashenko does not have the resources to suppress this growing rebellion by himself. The loyalty of the regular army and the rank-and-file police is being increasingly questioned and the protests are spread nationwide, far beyond just the capital – the nightmare scenario for the security forces, who could potentially suppress unrest were it limited to Minsk. With only a few hundred elite OMON riot police in the country, the president now has little prospect of crushing the protests with Belarusian forces alone.
The regime is looking east for solutions to its problem, hoping that Russia can be convinced to intervene to prop it up. During Sunday’s rambling address to loyalists bussed in from the provinces, Lukashenko directly called for Russian intervention.
As his position crumbled over the weekend, the Belarus president also held two phone calls with Vladimir Putin. Russia has said it agreed to defend Belarus from external military threats, a position that keeps the option of military intervention to support Lukashenko on the table without committing Moscow to action.
At home, Russia is split. Though state TV has been emphasising the threat of a “colour revolution” on Ukrainian or Georgian lines in Belarus, the print media, including pro-Kremlin publications, has been highly critical of Lukashenko. Stories of Russian journalists beaten by OMON riot police have horrified even Russians accustomed to repression of political dissent. Multiple Russian MPs, including the leaders of two parties loyal to the Kremlin have come out in support of the Belarusian protesters.
All of this suggests intervention is not on the cards. Though Belarus is strategically vital to Russia, to ordinary Russians it does not have anything like the emotional or cultural importance of Crimea that enabled the Kremlin to quickly generate support for its last major intervention in its near abroad. A move into Belarus would have to be actively sold to the Russian people, who are increasingly weary of war in Syria and Ukraine.
Moreover, the scale of popular unrest unfolding in Belarus means intervention would be a much costlier move than the coup-de-grace that captured Crimea, where Russian troops were, by and large, welcomed by the local population. An invasion of Belarus, by contrast, would be met with outrage and possibly active resistance by a population undergoing unprecedented political mobilisation. Unlike in eastern Ukraine, where protesters waved Russian tricolours and called for unification with Russia in 2014, the only banner present at the protests in Belarus is the pre-Soviet white-red-white flag – demonstrating the role of Belarusian identity in driving the movement and hinting at the hostility Russia would invite with an invasion.
Moscow intervening to prop up Lukashenko could also instantly turn pro-Tikhanovskaya protesters against Russia. Geopolitics have so far not featured in the demonstrations, which are focused on demanding free elections and the release of political prisoners and have steered clear of questioning Belarus’s close alignment with Russia. But analysts stress that Russian tanks on Minsk’s wide boulevards would change that. “Intervention would result in Russia losing the goodwill of Belarusian people more decisively and longer even than in Ukraine. This is a nation that right now is friendly to Russia,” Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst, said.
It is still possible that Russia could send in the troops: The conspiratorial, adversarial mindset that carries weight in the Kremlin may well justify a move that is expensive and risky as in Russia’s national interest. Yet that would still leave the problem of Lukashenko’s potential successor.
Moscow would likely be ready to see the back of the current president, should a sufficiently pro-Russian successor present themselves. But Belarus’s quarter century long dictatorship has reduced political life to little more than Lukashenko’s personality cult, with independent polling effectively banned, and elections widely condemned as rigged.
Above all, Moscow fears the rebirth of the radical, anti-Russian Belarusian nationalism that Lukashenko crushed in the 1990s, the official Telegram channel of Russia in Global Affairs, a Russian international affairs journal, wrote. Though the revolution’s leaders have stressed their lack of interest in breaking with Lukashenko’s pro-Russian foreign policy, any indication that Belarus’s prospective new leaders are toying with NATO or EU ambitions could provoke an extreme reaction from the Kremlin.
Russia joining the EU in supporting fair elections remains the most likely option, Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, wrote on her Telegram channel. As we reported before the vote, Moscow believes that its extensive economic leverage over its smaller neighbour means it can force any government in Minsk to make concessions.
Intervention by armed forces remains a remote possibility that would entangle Moscow in another military quagmire and would likely squander the Belarusian population’s significant goodwill towards Russia – but as this week has shown, events in Belarus can move with fearsome speed.