New Belarus. What comes next?
What protests have achieved? How Russia and the West could respond?
On August 27th, 2020, the weekly analytical monitoring Belarus in Focus in partnership with Press Club Belarus, the Belarusian expert community “Nashe mnenie” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an online Expert-Analytical Club meeting for international audiences to discuss the outcome of the 2020 presidential campaign in Belarus.
Guest speakers included Belarusian analysts, such as
Alexander Feduta, PhD in Literature, political analyst
Andrei Kazakevich, PhD in Political Science, director of the "Political Sphere" Institute
Valeria Kostyugova, editor at “Nashe Mnenie” and “Belarusian Yearbook”, leading analysts and head of analytical group at ‘Belarus in Focus’ weekly
Vadim Mojeiko, PhD in Cultural Studies, BISS analyst
Experts and analysts from various think-tanks, international journalists, foreign ministry officials, civic activists and other specialists following recent developments in Belarus participated in the discussion, including Andrius Kubilius (Lithuanian MEP), Shchyttsova Tatiana (professor at EHU), Olga Dryndova (editor at Belarus Analysen), Artyom Shraibman (political analyst), Valery Karbalevich (political scientist), Ekaterina Pierson and others.
The discussion was moderated by Anton Ruliou, MA in International Relations, programme coordinator at Belarus in Focus and Press Club Belarus.
- “What you have achieved is a historic miracle, you do not need our advice. What we need is your advice on how to help you” (Andrius Kubilius)
- “When ordering public officials to support torture publicly, the government lays a moral challenge at their feet” (Valeria Kostyugova)
- “Lukashenka is dysfunctional in the new political situation” (Andrei Kazakevich)
- “The Coordination Council could make up the Arts Council of the Kupala Theater, but not become a platform offering solutions and advising political actors in Belarus” (Alexander Feduta)
- “The leadership has turned inwards and lashes out at those suspected of questionable loyalty as its sphere of control narrows towards the perimeter of the Palace of Independence itself” (Vadim Mojeiko)
Protests’ achievements and (dys)functionality of the authorities
Alexander Feduta was convinced of significant achievements by society, emphasizing that “the practice of self-organization in peacetime has been replicated in wartime”, implying society’s response to the covid-19 outbreak and the election campaign. According to him, there was no central coordination point for those who disagree with the “prolongation of Lukashenka’s powers” and there was no external force behind current developments. Simultaneously, Feduta was somewhat critical of the Coordination Council efficiency, "they have been persistently dissociating themselves from the old opposition for so long that ultimately have lost any opportunity for organized political activity”. He added that "the new political leaders were not ready to offer a coherent programme to the striking labour collectives, did not assume coordination of their activities”, and generally did not know how to "facilitate the general strike campaign".
Andrei Kazakevich said that “Lukashenka is totally dysfunctional in the new political situation”. Previously, he was a guarantor of stability, including political and business stability. Business within his circle valued such guarantees, which are no longer valid. “Now Lukashenka’s presence on the political field immediately means instability”.
Kazakevich added that previously, Lukashenka’s entourage depended on him and now he is becoming dependent on his retinue, which naturally requires investment (financial, reputational, etc) and raises the question “What for?”. After all, “thecurrent authorities have no vision of how to improve the situation and stabilize the economy”. Moreover, everyone was observing Lukashenka`s “peculiar psychological and emotional state” in the crisis, and it is only reasonable to think about the transit of power, either within the nomenclature, or with the participation of his opponents.
Valeria Kostyugova noted that “the Belarusian people through their participation in the presidential campaign made it obvious that Lukashenka did not win a majority”. Nevertheless, “Lukashenka is not ready and will not acknowledge society as a political player ... he is not ready for any kind of dialogue, let alone transit; he does not understand and does not want to understand why he might need it”. So, the communication efforts should focus on his entourage to “show them estimated costs of continuing Lukashenka’s project”. According to Kostyugova, the Belarusian authorities are short of many things, including money (loans are becoming more expensive), security officials (asking for Russia’s help), workers (some are on strike, and the authorities are threatening to fire them and import from other countries despite labour shortages on the neighbouring markets), students (likely shortage when the new academic year starts), and, potentially, bureaucrats (“when ordering public officials to support torture publicly, the government lays a moral challenge at their feet”).
According to Kostyugova, repression by the authorities and consistent protests prompt the Coordination Council to clarify its political position and participate in the rallies (although initially it was deemed only as a negotiation platform). In much the same way, when the presidential campaign commenced, Tsikhanouskaya and Babaryka “had no position, except for a more humane system”, but had to clarify their political positions during the campaign.
Vadim Mojeiko highlighted the fact that protesters’ major achievement was the sheer scope of the protest, which “is massive and lasting like never before in Belarus’ modern history”. He added that August 2020 became an important milestone in the nation-building, showing the unequivocal unity of the majority marching under the historic white-red-white flag and peacefully coexisting with those marching under the red-green flags at rallies, regardless of the state propaganda.
Mojeiko added that the Belarusian government is behaving like the opposition, “The leadership has turned inwards and lashes out at those suspected of questionable loyalty as its sphere of control narrows towards the perimeter of the Palace of Independence itself”. Meanwhile, the protesters act the other way around, embracing society as broadly as possible, allowing everyone in who shares basic requirements (to end violence and hold new fair elections), without getting into conflicts over details.
The inauguration: from a lame duck to void treaties
Alexander Feduta believes that Lukashenka "is playing for time to hold the inauguration", after which he “will no longer be a lame duck transition figure, but rather the de jure president of the country, making it (more) difficult to contend that this is not the case”. "After the inauguration, the transition period may be drawn out up to four years, when everyone else would prefer a maximum of six months."
Andrei Kazakevich has disagreed, saying that after the inauguration Lukashenka`s position is likely to weaken, because he will no longer be regarded as legitimate president in the West. Andrius Kubilius has confirmed that “After November 5thor the inauguration, Lukashenka will not be regarded as the president in the democratic world”. Andrei Kazakevich has added that after the inauguration, official visits and the exchange of ambassadors may still take place, however, international treaties and transactions could be recognized as void, meaning that Lukashenka would become a risk factor for the international community and the business community.
Valeria Kostyugova pointed to the fact that “In Minsk, as it is now, the inauguration would be impossible”, hence, the date yet has not been set.
Response of the West: “Marshall Plan for a democratic Belarus”
Alexander Feduta noted that “for the first time ever recognition of Belarusian elections has been explicitly withheld” by the West; previous elections were recognized, with the caveat of being undemocratic and non-transparent. He expressed gratitude for the solidarity shown with victims of repression, including from Polish and Baltic universities willing to enroll Belarusian students. Further, he suggested that the EU could also withhold recognition of all official appointments after November 5th (including diplomatic passports), and potentially freeze the accounts of state banks and state-owned enterprises abroad until Belarus’ democratization.
As for political pressure, Feduta believes that “the Kremlin is the only lever to influence Lukashenka. This means, we need to influence the Kremlin”. According to him, Putin may be delighted to have the opportunity to show his ability to participate in the democratization of Belarus. He also mentioned China, which, being difficult to influence, could supply Lukashenka with additional funds he needed so much. Feduta regretted that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said nothing about China whilst “tipping hat to Russia”. “China is concerned about the fate of its investments and is ready continue to back Lukashenka, being convinced by domestic diplomats that this is the only option”.
Andrei Kazakevich emphasized that the EU`s response when it did not recognize Lukashenka as president-elect, was already tough, and “everything points to the conclusion that the US will do the same”. Moreover, Russia will not unequivocally support Lukashenka, she is likely to play “a more sophisticated game”. Belarus’ pendulum policy, envisaging “threatening Russia with the West and vice versa” will no longer work, further undermining Lukashenka’s positions.
Kazakevich believes, that external influence on the situation in Belarus should be in the format “EU, Russia and the USA, if Russia is excluded, the consequences may be dire”. The main task is to put pressure on the Belarusian authorities (both, sanctions, and direct communication with the elites) to start a dialogue. Mediation may be required too, the parties inside Belarus have neither the trust nor the experience of such negotiations. In the long-run, a “Marshall Plan for Belarus” would be a good idea, outlining the support for reforms and making the transit as painless as possible.
“China is a dark horse”, Kazakevich said and added that it could support Lukashenka politically and financially, but economic cooperation would be restricted due to the non-recognition of Lukashenka by the EU and potentially by the United States. Moreover, “China’s political presence in Belarus is at odds with the interests of both the United States and Russia”.
Vadim Mojeiko pointed out the strengthening of Russia’s soft power in Belarus (Russia Today propagandists on Belarusian television and National Liberation Movement flags at pro-government rallies) and emphasized the importance of strengthening Europe’s soft power, including support for non-state media and pro-European CSOs. Medical aid in Europe for victims of violence by security forces can also become an important humanitarian gesture. With the start of the academic year, Mojeiko proposed that a clear-cut message be sent that all students and teachers caught up in repressions would receive support in European universities: “Such a clear statement from the EU may, of itself, reduce the intensity and effectiveness of pressure on students and academic staff before repression even starts”.
Andrius Kubilius said that “What you have achieved is a historic miracle. You do not need our advice, but we need your advice on how to help you”. He emphasized that the West was unanimous in its assessment of the events of August 9th, that Tsikhanouskaya made a strong impression on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and that “it is necessary to strengthen the international relations’ team within the Coordination Council and Tsikhanouskaya’s HQ”. Kubilius also advised the Coordination Council to ensure that they make their position clear to the key international players: Brussels, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. He also advised against OSCE mediation, fearing that this would result in “long-lasting chaos”. He was supportive of the “Marshall Plan for a Democratic Belarus”, which, in his view, should be debated by all concerned as soon as possible and estimated the likely value at some EUR 3.5-4 billion.
Russia`s response: intimidating with support
Valery Karbalevich was the most pessimistic among analysts, interpreting Lavrov and Putin’s statements as a confirmation of Russia’s willingness to “repeat the Hungarian or Czechoslovak scenarios” and Lukashenka’s – as a request to send in Russian military. In this case scenario, “Belarusian protests have no chances to succeed”. However, other analysts disagreed.
Valeria Kostyugova said that Russia was not rushing to help Lukashenka and that all Putin’s promises came with caveats e.g. “when we see that such help is needed”. Essentially, the spectre of Russian intervention is directed at society. De facto, Russia has not yet significantly intervened "having limited itself to a group of propagandists who work either for Lukashenka or for Russia". Kostyugova also noted that Russia will hold elections on September 13th, 2020 and that amidst unrest in Khabarovsk and Belarus, this would require resources to be reserved for domestic purposes.
Andrei Kazakevich said that Lukashenka’s demand for Russian security officials was not real, unlike his demand for money, which Russia had not promised yet: “if they give money, it will become clear that this is a game ‘Saving Lukashenka’”. In addition, the U.S. State Department announced that Russian troops would be regarded as an unfriendly intervention with serious foreign policy consequences for Russia. Hence, Kazakevich concluded: "why should Russia do so if there is a possibility to resolve the crisis in a non-military way?”. He believes that Putin`s statement was a touchstone, commencing a sophisticated Russian game focusing on transit.
Alexander Feduta reiterated the Russian Finance Ministry instruction, advising to deprive Armenia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Belarus of cheap loans. He also pointed out that Peskov twice neutrally mentioned the Coordination Council: “the Council should have better focused on responding to issues raised by Peskov - then Russia’s statements could have been different”Feduta added. In his view, “the Coordination Council could make up the Arts Council of the Kupala Theater, but not become a platform offering solutions and advising political actors in Belarus”.
Vadim Mojeiko interpreted Lukashenka`s appeals to Putin as a continuation of the blackmail of Belarusian society, started by Lukashenka back in 2014, promoting the false dilemma “either me or Putin on a tank”. This blackmail could have lasted indefinitely, but apparently Belarusian society simply stopped falling for it.
Belarusian Expert-Analytical Club meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-9Z_qkKgVk