Lukashenko’s days are numbered, and so could be Putin’s29.08.2020
The events in Belarus have attracted the attention of many people. After the results of the presidential election were announced, the Belarusian people used their rights to express their opinion, which has notably shaken Lukashenko’s position. Everyone now wants to know – how will the events unfold in Belarus? Will one of the last authoritarian leaders be dethroned, and can the events in Belarus affect Russia, or – can Russia affect the events in Belarus?
In order to make any predictions, we must look at the chronology of events and their correlation.
9 August – after the polling stations are closed, protests begin. First clashes take place. Tear gas, light and sound grenades and water cannons are used against the protesters. Several people are detained.
10 August – the protests spread outside Minsk. Special equipment is used to suppress them. Roughly 3,000 people are detained, with 1,000 in Minsk and 2,000 in other regions of Belarus. Lukashenko announces that the response to the protests will be appropriate.
11 August – the protests continue, and there are clashes between the protesters and law enforcement institutions. Protesters are being detained; law enforcement uses physical force.
12 August – Kiev officially requests the extradition of the 28 Vagner mercenaries detained in Belarus. Solidarity protests against violence are taking place.
13 August – the protests continue without any serious clashes that were observed during the first three days. Employees of large factories go on strike.
14 August – the protests continue. Lukashenko orders the investigation of the mass detainment of protesters, and more than 1,000 of those detained are freed. Roughly 7,000 people have been detained, hundreds are injured and some have died. First incidents appear where security forces refuse to use force against the protesters. Belarus frees the Vagner mercenaries.
15 August – a phone call between Lukashenko and Putin takes place. Lukashenko announces that if requested Russia will aid Belarus in case of external military threats. Lukashenko makes a statement that he will not engage in dialogue on resolving the situation with foreign mediators.
16 August – another phone conversation between Lukashenko and Putin takes place. Lukashenko orders the Vitebsk air assault brigade to be redeployed to Grodno in western Belarus. At the Belarusian Ministry of Defense’s Strategic Command Center representatives of the Armed Forces announce an increase “of the military component” near the country’s western border.
17 August – there are reports of truck columns heading from Russia in the direction of Belarus. It is assumed that the trucks are transporting units of the National Guard or OMON. Lukashenko announces that if the protests are anything but peaceful, the protesters will have to answer for that.
18 August – the protests continue, and demands are made to release those who have been detained. People are urged to take part in a general strike to force Lukashenko to step down. The Belarusian ambassador in Slovakia resigns after expressing support for the protesters. Lukashenko accuses the opposition of attempts to seize power, as well as attempts to cut ties between Belarus and its closest ally – Russia. Russia announces readiness to assist Belarus if required. The government in Grodno gives in to several demands of the protesters. Local police apologize for violence. An FSB airplane from Moscow lands in Minsk with its director Aleksandr Bortnikov on board. Eyewitnesses report that no one aboard the FSB plane had entered the airport. The passengers used the employee exit, from which the airport security was thrown out, meaning that these people didn’t register as having entered the country and didn’t go through customs control.
19 August – Lukashenko announces that army units in western Belarus are in full combat readiness. In the Security Council, Lukashenko orders state institutions to “return a peaceful country”. The Ministry of Defense is tasked with monitoring the movement of NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania, and if necessary, to deploy troops in these directions, particularly stressing Grodno. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov announces that Belarus needs to engage a foreign mediator. OMON units once again begin dispersing the protesters in Minsk. The State Security Committee is tasked with identifying and stopping those behind organizing the protests and uncovering who funds them.
If we look at the chronology of events, we see that the protests in Belarus didn’t begin after the results were announced, but instead right after the polling stations were closed. Therefore, one cannot make the argument that the protests were against the election results. Initial photographs from the protests showed that those clashing with security forces were mainly young and athletic men. People representing other parts of the society engaged a bit later.
This means we can assume that the protests were initially planed with the aim of causing unrest.
It seemed that the initial protesters encouraged other people to participate, after which all of Belarus was taken by protests. Afterwards, fit men weren’t the only ones taking part in the protests.
We can consider 12 August as a turning point, when masses of people protested against violence by security institutions and factory workers began their strike. This is where Lukashenko attempted to deescalate the situation by announcing that those detained will be freed and that investigations into the detainments will be launched. This may have been caused by workers joining the protests. But the “thaw” didn’t last long. Belarus also released the detained Vagner mercenaries, and Lukashenko held several phone calls with Putin.
We also cannot ignore the fact that initially Russia media outlets were quite reluctant to report on the events in Belarus. The situation changed when Belarus released the Vagner mercenaries and Lukashenko called Putin. If prior to that Lukashenko attempted to somehow alleviate the tension, afterwards he took a much more “combative” stance. This usually happens when someone is forced to deal with a situation alone, but then decides to ask for help – this makes the person more confident.
In its statements regarding the situation in Belarus, Russia stressed that foreign nations are behind the protests and assured that it will assist Belarus in case of any external “attacks”. After these statements, Lukashenko too begins talking about external threat and makes decisions as if the threat was real – redeploying units and increasing combat readiness. This created the illusion that Belarus is indeed being threatened and legitimized Moscow’s offer to help in case of external threats.
Moscow, based on Lukashenko’s statements about external threats, could then deploy its security forces in Belarus – officially to protect Belarus against these threats, but in reality to ensure that Lukashenko remains in power. This assumption is backed by the visit of the director of the FSB in Minsk. If Russia really wanted to protect Belarus from external threats, the visit to Minsk would have been made by the minister of defense or at least the chief of the General Staff, not the director of the FSB.
What concerns the aforementioned scenario, we can only guess what “price” Lukashenko has promised to pay Putin for his help, but it is most likely greater integration between Belarus and Russia which would result in Putin achieving his goal of becoming the president of both countries.
However, such a scenario could prove deadly for Putin, because the discontent of the Belarusian people has reached such a high level that they won’t be easily fooled by the notion of “friendly Putin” assisting Lukashenko. This means that the protests could spread to Russia, where the people’s discontent towards Putin’s rule is reaching unprecedented heights. This could create a situation where the savior becomes the one who needs to be saved.
There is no doubt that Russia is very interested in influencing the events in Belarus in its favor. We still haven’t answered the question, whether the Kremlin was the one responsible for the initial destabilization of the situation. It seems that the Belarusian people, who have sensed an opportunity to get rid of Lukashenko, will not allow this to happen with Russia’s aid. In such case, the events in Belarus will most certainly affect the events in Russia. I must agree that right now it is best for Putin to leave Lukashenko alone (however, several indicators suggest that Putin doesn’t intend to do so).
It is clear that Lukashenko will not be able to remain in power, the question is – how long will he endure and how “severe” will his dethronement be? The fact that his days are numbered is evidenced by numerous officials resigning from their posts, and Lukashenko has even lost control over an entire city (Grodno).
After Lukashenko and his clique are overthrown, there is a significant chance that power will be assumed by someone who favors EU policies and NATO integration.
If previously Putin directly or indirectly considered Lukashenko to be “of a lesser race”, it now seems that Lukashenko will be the reason Putin loses his influence, or even his throne.
In any case, Putin is now at a crossroads, and none of the possible directions promise anything positive. Therefore, we can be certain that regardless of whether Russia will try to affect the situation in Belarus, the events in Belarus will definitely have an effect on Russia’s future, or to be more precise – Putin’s future, which doesn’t look so bright anymore.
Zintis Znotiņš INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR COUNTERING RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA