As people in Belarus continue massive protests against an autocratic ruler and a rigged election, risks are rising that Russia’s military could take a direct role, less visible than an overt invasion, projecting power westward toward NATO and threatening Ukraine from the north. The dramatic images of this prodemocracy movement resemble those from neighboring Ukraine, yet one difference is critical. The Belarus uprising seeks no sharp break from Russia or turn toward the European Union or NATO. So effective policies to advance Belarusians’ democratic hopes should work for the long term.

A signal of Belarusian sentiments: Protesters in Minsk fly the flag of the 1918 independent Belarus, a symbolic rejection of President Lukashenko’s autocratic rule. Unlike in Ukraine, activists avoid waving European Union flags. (Wikimedia/CC License 3.0)
A signal of Belarusian sentiments: Protesters in Minsk fly the flag of the 1918 independent Belarus, a symbolic rejection of President Lukashenko’s autocratic rule. Unlike in Ukraine, activists avoid waving European Union flags. (Wikimedia/CC License 3.0)

Crowds have massed weekly in Minsk and other major cities, rejecting President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to have won reelection in August amid broad evidence of rigged balloting. Lukashenko has forcibly suppressed opposition throughout his 26-year rule, but the opposition to his harsh regime now seems to be far broader than ever before. Workers in state-owned factories have shouted their denunciations at him directly. Dozens of soldiers and police officers among those ordered to attack protesters have refused to do so. Some government officials have resigned in protest.

One pillar of the democracy campaign has been women leaders, including Lukashenko’s rival presidential candidate and probable election winner, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Another center of opposition is the mostly young professionals in Belarus’ large, profitable information technology industry. When Lukashenko’s forces began mass arrests, beatings of suspected dissidents and internet shutdowns to halt protests, thousands of IT professionals responded with an online letter saying the regime’s “falsification of election results” and the “atmosphere of fear and violence” would force their businesses to leave the country. More than 2,000 IT workers have fled to Ukraine, a senior official there says. Belarusian activists built a social media channel called Nexta (“Somebody”) to circumvent censorship and serve as a key source on information for the opposition.

The European Union and United States reject Lukashenko’s claimed re-election as a fraud and last week imposed sanctions on Belarusian security and elections officials. On October 6, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania with her children after reporting threats against her and her family. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has voiced support for Belarusians’ democratic aspirations, a position that has bipartisan backing in Congress.

Policies to help Belarus’ democracy movement will need to understand what it seeks. Tsikhanouskaya has pronounced this “neither a pro-Russian nor an anti-Russian revolution,” but “the striving of a nation to decide for itself.”

Belarus’ Stalemate, Russia’s Choices

The simple demand for honest elections is unacceptable to Lukashenko and Putin, for such a vote would clearly oust Lukashenko and rob Moscow of an important, if sometimes difficult, partner. In what is at least momentarily a stalemate, Lukashenko seems unable to quash the protests with his so-far calibrated repression. He knows that a full, violent crackdown would risk pushing Belarus into the kind of chaos that could trigger an overt, including military, intervention by Moscow. That would end the measure of independence that Lukashenko has sought to maintain from Putin, and it might lead Russia to remove him.

Although there is no love lost between Putin and Lukashenko, the latter’s ouster by a democratic uprising would represent too obvious a suggestion to Russians about what could be Putin’s own future. The Kremlin probably will aim to strengthen its ability to control a regime that provides Russia a buffer against NATO. In doing so, it could build a military platform it can use against the alliance or open a northern front against Ukraine. The Kremlin would readily discard Lukashenko himself in favor of another client if circumstances warrant. 

Russia seeks to manage the crisis without an overt military intervention such those by the Soviet Union in Hungary and Czechoslovakia decades ago. That would provoke a Western response and alienate those in the Belarusian opposition who say they want good relations with Moscow. Moreover, Russia does not want the expense and trouble of bailing out Belarus’ inefficient, Soviet-style economy. Moscow sells cut-rate crude oil and gas to Belarus that Lukashenko then re-sells abroad at international rates, leaving his economy and regime highly dependent on the Kremlin’s continued good will. Moscow has demonstrated the limits of this indulgence, for example by cutting off Belarus’ oil supplies last January, as it presses Lukashenko to implement a 1999 “union treaty” that would subordinate Belarus to Russia.

In August, the Kremlin sent information specialists to Minsk to help run Belarus state television in place of Belarusian staffers who went on strike over their inability to report truthfully on the protests. The newcomers are spreading the narrative that the West is behind the unrest. While Russia will use overt force only as a risky and expensive last resort, an ongoing series of Russian-Belarusian military exercises underscores that Moscow is prepared for a military invasion if Putin determines it necessary. That would risk a dangerous collision with NATO that Putin probably wishes to avoid. However, Lukashenko also could provoke a crisis on his own with Poland or the Baltic states to Western neighbors to rally domestic support for his rule.

Whether the immediate crisis can be resolved peacefully will depend heavily on Lukashenko and the Putin regime. The opposition campaign will face challenges with the onset of winter and Lukashenko will hope that a combination of repression, constitutional maneuvering and the Belarus’ freezing temperatures might contain the protests. In the near term the Kremlin is likely to present itself as an arbiter of Belarus’ crisis, even as it pulls the country closer. It may agree to a referendum on a new Belarusian constitution, confident that it can manipulate the process in its favor. Moscow will likely prop up Lukashenko until it finds an acceptable alternative.

How to Respond?

The U.S. and European sanctions imposed so far have targeted mainly Belarusian officials responsible for security and elections. Economist Anders Aslund has suggested considering further sanctions on Russian “enablers” of repression in Belarus, including Russian companies or leading figures in Russian disinformation efforts. A Russian military intervention in Belarus will have “very negative” effects on U.S. and European relations with Russia, Deputy Secretary Biegun said last month.

Protesters in Minsk carry a banner urging “honest elections” and freeing of political prisoners. (Wikimedia/CC License 3.0)
Protesters in Minsk carry a banner urging “honest elections” and freeing of political prisoners. (Wikimedia/CC License 3.0)

For the long term, proponents of democracy should work with Belarus’ nascent civil society to build its strength and skills for a nonviolent campaign. As in other countries making the transition from authoritarian rule toward democracy, Belarusians will need skills in building nonviolent, activist citizenship and the rule of law. Democracy advocates in neighboring countries—Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere in Europe should be supported to build alliances with their Belarusian counterparts. Ukrainian civil society groups working for their own democracy already have given shelter to their Belarus counterparts. A vital step will be to ensure that Belarusians can continue to access independent news and information—a role played so far by Belarus’ small independent media sector and offshore news sources such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In the end, Belarus’ ability to build its future independently and nonviolently will depend on the 10 million Belarusians. Efforts to help them, whether through government policies or grassroots activism, will need to stay tuned to the Belarusians’ own aspirations.

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