Most Americans have barely heard of the Eastern European country of Belarus. Farmers know “Belarus” tractors—affordable, relatively unsophisticated, and indestructible. Historians remember Continental Army Brigadier General Tadeusz Kościuszko, of Revolutionary War fame, who was born in what is today Belarus. His statue stands in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park (unless BLM and Antifa got to it). Many Belarussians work in Silicon Valley. But on the whole, Belarus hasn’t exactly been central to American consciousness.
These past two weeks, however, Belarus has become the focus of attention for millions of people in the Russian-speaking diaspora; not to mention millions of Russians wondering if the fate of Belarus’ ruler is a prelude to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fate a few years hence.
A ruthless dictator’s throne is getting wobbly, daily demonstrations are shaking the country, the Russian bear is stirring to the east, and the United States has a window of opportunity—if it plays its cards right.
Birth of a “Nation”
When the Soviet Union dissolved 30 years ago, Belarus, which had never been a real country, gained its independence. With a population of 9.5 million that universally speaks Russian and (most of the people) Belarussian, it could have followed the path of its neighbors towards liberalization and democracy, such as Poland to the west or Lithuania to the north. Instead, time mostly stood still in Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, elected president in 1994 in what passed for quasi-free elections in those chaotic post-Soviet days, has been ruling the country with an iron fist ever since.
Minsk, the capital city, has broad avenues, no traffic jams, Soviet-inspired architecture, and ever-present “stability.” Crime is low, the population friendly and law-abiding, the streets clean. Pyongyang in North Korea probably feels the same.
Lukashenko (accent on the “e”—Lukash-Enko) is the kind of dictator the Left doesn’t mind much. The Belarussian economy is a form of state capitalism—heavy on the “state” part (the government accounts for 70 percent of the economy) and a bit light on capitalism. Information technology and medical tourism are bright spots. Most fetishes of the Western Left—“free” medicine of fairly low quality, with long waits in overcrowded clinics, resembling Medicare For All, “free” education, and so on—are to be found there. Even the agriculture is mostly state-owned, based on Soviet-style collective farms—earning Lukashenko yet another brownie point with the Western Left.
Belarus even joined the Paris climate accords. I doubt many on the Left bothered to read its “nationally determined contribution”—Belarus actually plans to keep increasing its greenhouse gas emissions until 2035. But joining the Paris deal earns dictators respectability points with the Left. It costs nothing, and gives them more opportunities to be received in polite society.
A side note: in stark contrast to almost all Paris signatories, especially the Europeans, U.S. emissions have dropped by 10 percent since 2005 despite a growing economy, earning America zero gratitude from the global warming crowd. Virtue signaling trumps actual greenhouse gas reductions.
After 26 years on the throne, former collective farm chairman Lukashenko sees the country as his own personal fiefdom. The West, which rarely speaks with one voice on these matters, is of two minds about Lukashenko. The regime can be distressingly brutal towards its opponents, including arrests, torture, disappearances and murders. It’s the sort of thing that makes even lefty progressives squeamish. Half-hearted sanctions are occasionally imposed after some particularly egregious misdeed. On the other hand, Lukashenko has no global ambitions. He may be a dictator, but Lukashenko is scrupulous about being a good European neighbor.
In contrast with Putin, Lukashenko has no territorial disputes with any country, nor has he meddled in his neighbors’ internal politics. European leaders appreciate the contrast with his big eastern neighbor. With occasional overtures toward the West, accompanied by some short-lived pretense of “democratization,” Lukashenko moves back and forth over the very-distasteful-but-maybe-we-can-shake-his-hand line.
Given his leftish-socialist credentials, criticism of Lukashenko has been less than vocal. Then again, it is hard to expect the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes, the Bernie Sanderses and their Euro-brethren, who find much about Fidel Castro to admire, to speak ill of a kindred spirit. Someone who honeymoons in the USSR is unlikely to criticize a socialist authoritarian.
What Belarus Means to Putin
Belarus under Lukashenko has become a resource rent economy. But Belarus has no oil or gas. The resource it does have is its geographic location. And that location is vital to the one country that matters in that particular neighborhood.
Viewed from the Kremlin, Belarus is a critical buffer state that cannot, and must not, orient itself towards the West. In the thinking of Putin and the dour-faced military and security men who surround him, a loss of Belarus would mean NATO tanks poised 350 miles closer to Moscow, just 25 miles from Smolensk, a major city that sits on the east-west axis to Moscow. Moscow itself is just 250 miles further east. With Belarus in the enemy camp, their thinking goes, NATO’s armored spearheads could be knocking on Moscow’s door hours after launching a surprise blitzkrieg from Belarus as the launching point. The absurdity of this entire paranoid scenario is irrelevant—nonexistent NATO tank armadas form the rhetorical bedrock of the siege mentality that pervades Russia today.
Russia has a ballistic missile early warning radar station southwest of Minsk. A large VLF antenna complex, for communicating with submarines in the Atlantic, is near Belarus’ northwest border. Both facilities are of vital importance to Russia. In theory, given time and money, both could be relocated to Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. In practice, if Belarus even suggested such a thing, “polite men in green” might show up in Belarus, just as they showed up in Ukraine’s Crimea six years ago.
It is estimated that Russia has given Belarus $150 billion over the last 20 years, as loans, subsidies, and outright gifts. That isn’t pocket change, even with oil at $100 per barrel. Lukashenko’s periodic song-and-dance “democracy” routines with the West are designed to remind Putin of what might happen should he fail to cough up the money.
Every so often, Lukashenko would try a new trick, from private flattery to public blackmail and bluster, from public pronouncements of eternal love to private refusals to sign this or that “deeper integration” scheme, to squeeze more money out of an irritated and royally pissed off Putin, while offering only meaningless declarations about unity, brotherhood, friendship, and military cooperation and alliance.
Putin is said privately to detest and despise Lukashenko. But Putin is a patient man. This isn’t personal, this is about geopolitics, and geopolitics is the only game Putin cares about. For Lukashenko, Putin’s money is a matter of survival—all those socialist money-losing state-owned collective farms and factories stay afloat because, ultimately, Russian money keeps them that way.
So, What Changed?
For 26 years, the people of Belarus tolerated Lukashenko. They didn’t love him, but they were indifferent enough towards him, and didn’t see a clear alternative, acquiescing to his continued rule.
The election of August 9 was supposed to be more of the same. After a poll showed Lukashenko with 3 percent support, polls were banned. Opposition leaders were in prison, if they were lucky to still be alive. A handful of alternative candidates who were even remotely plausible were arrested on trumped-up charges. The only “real” candidate running against Lukashenko became the wife of jailed blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who—being in jail—could no longer go and file papers himself as a candidate. So his wife went instead, and on a spur-of-the-moment-inspiration, filed papers with her own name on them.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (the accent is on the “o”) was a 37-year-old apolitical housewife until a few weeks ago. Her entire political platform consisted of a promise to hold free elections six months later. Hundreds of thousands of people waited for hours to sign petitions to register her as a candidate.
Lukashenko’s campaign brought in music bands and singers for his rallies, and they performed before deserted town squares. Meanwhile, even in small towns, thousands came out to meet Tikhanovskaya. Predictably, Lukashenko dismissed her, commenting gruffly that “a broad can’t be a politician.” Women’s liberation hasn’t yet reached the higher echelons of power in Belarus, notwithstanding its leftist credentials.
On August 9, many expected an official figure of something like 52-53 percent for Lukashenko—as fake as any other number, sure, but just barely plausible to allow Lukashenko declare victory. Right-wing EU politicos would make the usual noises about voting irregularities, and move on. Left-wing EU politicos would criticize Trump or Israeli West Bank settlements instead—anything to get off the subject. Belarus is hardly at the top of anyone’s agenda in America, so nobody expected anything from America. In Belarus itself, the people would sigh and say “we came so close . . . we’ll have to try a little harder next time.” And life would go on as usual.
But then Belarus’ Central Election Commission announced preliminary results: 80 percent for Lukashenko, 7 percent for Tikhanovskaya. Real numbers were the reverse: probably something like 70-80 percent for Tikhanovskaya, at most 20 percent for Lukashenko (and most likely much less, possibly in the very low single digits). This shameless, naked, in-your-face fraud became Lukashenko’s illegitimacy Rubicon.
No political scientist can predict when a dictatorship will start crumbling. Will the regime collapse this time, or will it eke out a “victory” to live another day? Year after year, decade after decade, the population accepts a tyrant’s rule, his omnipresent face on a million posters and TV screens, his brutality, his corruption, his nepotism. And then, suddenly, something undefinable feels different. Something in people’s eyes tells the regime’s enforcers that they fear them less than they used to. Some wind of change is in the air—and the old magic is gone. The dictator becomes a fish bone in everyone’s collective gullet. Yesterday, they tolerated him, but today, they just can’t take it anymore.
That happened on August 9.
Democracy is in the Streets of Minsk
The next day, the people who felt cheated started coming out on the streets, at first in small numbers, then in ever larger ones. Lukashenko responded, predictably, with force—forgetting that, in the digital age, one needs to be mindful of what the smartphones capture. Riot police (nicknamed “cosmonauts” because of their helmets and spaceman-looking gear) were out in force, beating and arresting anyone they felt like, often for merely walking down the street. Within hours, countless images and videos of shocking brutality filled Twitter and Telegram.
Forcing Tikhanovskaya to record what resembled a hostage video and then ejecting her from the country on August 10—it is widely assumed that Lukashenko’s people threatened the lives of her children and her husband—didn’t help. The effect was the opposite: more people showed up on the streets the next day. More brutal beatings by regime thugs were captured on video, often four-on-one or five-on-one.
Buses transported arrestees to police stations—many of them random people grabbed by the riot police on the street. The buses were occasions for more beatings—again, captured on video. The police’s orders were to identify and arrest the ringleaders—except there were no ringleaders.
Yet more videos of blood-curdling brutality appeared online. The riot police used metal-cored rubber bullets and flashbang grenades—the Minsk nighttime skyline was lit up by countless flashes of exploding flashbangs. These things are referred to as “nonlethal ammunition”—though they can, and did, kill and maim.
Of note is the initial reaction (or lack of one, mostly) from the Western press and most political leaders. One can always count on widespread critical coverage of an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas missile factory in Gaza, with crocodile tears over the death of austere Islamic scholars. But for the Left, Lukashenko is one of them, sort of. Sure, he can be a little eccentric, and maybe he didn’t get the claimed 80 percent, but criticize him? Only very gingerly did the press at first cover the subject, if at all—almost every story had the “on the one hand, on the other hand” take.
Most Euro-politicos, outside of Belarus’ immediate neighbors, at first had little to say about the brutality next door. Former vice president, foreign policy maven and presidential wannabe Joe Biden waited 10 days before he mumbled something semi-coherent about Belarus. In all fairness, given his near-vegetative state, it’s a miracle Biden mumbled anything at all.
As the anti-Lukashenko crowds kept growing, Lukashenko must have realized that the graphic videos of the riot police beating up helpless citizens were counterproductive, and ordered the police to restrain themselves. Being a dictator is harder than it used to be, when anyone with a smartphone can post videos that make you look bad and enrage otherwise passive bystanders. Shutting down the internet also proved unworkable—Belarus is no South Korea, but its economy still needs the internet to function.
With fewer beatings to film, reports describing what was happening in police holding cells started coming out.
The stories were harrowing—cells meant for four people holding 40, prisoners forced to kneel motionlessly for 10 or 15 hours, electro-shockers used as torture implements, sadistic beatings that went on for hours on end, people taken to hospitals with fractured skulls, broken arms, legs and ribs, gang rapes of men and women by police guards, internal organs rupturing from the harsh beatings, people taken to hospitals after passing out from abuse and torture (those were the lucky ones; at least they were now in a hospital)—few of these details were making it into the English-language media, which was still reluctant to unambiguously part ways with a fellow leftist traveler.
Minsk police stations and prisons have room for perhaps 7,000 arrestees in normal times—but this time, the cells were packed like sardine cans, with new arrivals forced to lie on top of layers of bodies of prior arrivals. Nobody can even guess how many people went through the police meat grinder.
To read these things in Russian, and to see pictures of people whose entire bodies are covered with purple-and-black bruises and hematomas, is to enter a world of the macabre. Except that nobody who speaks Russian doubts Lukashenko’s willingness to go to any length, to keep his grip on power.
Approaching a Tipping Point?
Slowly, reluctantly, Western mainstream media began shifting its narrative, and featuring Lukashenko’s abuses more prominently. The Brussels Eurocrats began to wake from their slumber. There is an increasing sense that Lukashenko has become too toxic even for the European Left, at least for now. But no amount of outside criticism or sanctions can smoke Lukashenko out—only Belarussians themselves can do it.
A week after the election, 200,000 people came out against Lukashenko in Minsk—a city of about 1 million people. Demonstrations continued in other cities. Factory workers—the foundation of Lukashenko’s supposed support—began announcing strikes. The riot police by now knew better than to interfere.
Lukashenko himself seemed uncertain how to respond. Bluster? Force? Delay? Talk? Threats? More arrests? Promises of this or that? Fire some people? More beatings? His attempts to show himself to people at factories looked pitiful. The pro-Lukashenko counter-demonstrations, organized by the government, looked desultory, their few participants appearing to wish they were anywhere else but there.
Behind the scenes, and for all his erratic pronouncements, his strategy had three clear components: 1) Play the Russian card and get Putin and Russian security troops to directly prop him up; 2) Prevent any split among the elites by making the personal consequences clear should they switch sides; 3) Wait and hope that time is on his side, and the euphoria of the moment and the large demonstrations fades, without concrete progress.
The first component has been a dud—Putin hasn’t taken the bait, at least not yet—though there are scattered reports of small-scale Russian involvement that seems to be of a more logistical nature.
Lukashenko’s hysterical claims of NATO interference and threats of impending NATO invasion are too risible to take at face value—even for Putin, who sees Western conspiracies behind every popular uprising. Most likely, he perceives the risks as outweighing the rewards, and is playing a longer game than Lukashenko. But Putin is not a one-trick pony, and there is no reason to assume that he will simply replay the Crimean/Ukrainian scenario.
Belarus is too tightly tied to Russia economically, logistically and militarily, and anyone occupying the presidential palace would face the same constraints vis-à-vis Moscow. Should there be another election in six months (as Tikhanovskaya promised), or some kind of election do-over in two or three months, that is the election Putin wants to make sure his candidate wins.
As distasteful as the idea of a popular uprising removing a “friendly” president is to Putin, Lukashenko is the one such president he won’t miss. But the reverse is also true—as sick and tired as he is of Lukashenko, the only thing worse is having Lukashenko removed by a popular uprising.
There have been some public defections, but mostly of low-level figures. The people close to Lukashenko may be wavering in private, but in public they are still loyal—and arrests of “ringleaders” are continuing. Over 100 people are missing since August 9, and it is not too soon to presume many of them dead and buried in unmarked forest graves.
For the opposition to succeed, some of the military or police generals must publicly abandon Lukashenko. And so the revolution exists precariously, on the edge of being born, but not quite born—mere demonstrations cannot dislodge the dictator, but the critical mass of defections hasn’t been reached.
Lukashenko is an experienced and ruthless tactician. Tikhanovskaya is not. The opposition, such as it is, hasn’t had a chance to coalesce around a meaningful, positive program, beyond wanting Lukashenko out and new elections—so Lukashenko fills the empty political space with himself. The longer the delays, the better his chances.
The Razor’s Edge
To succeed, a revolution needs momentum—something visible achieved, some prominent defections, some cities and towns swearing allegiance to Tikhanovskaya and opposing Lukashenko. There has been some movement, but not enough. And so the revolution balances on a razor’s edge.
Putin is also watching. And the main lesson for Putin is that he needs more and better equipped riot police. He has his Praetorian Guard—RosGvardia (Russian Guards)—a quasi-military force of about 350,000 “cosmonauts” for suppressing popular demonstrations.
Expect the Praetorian Guard’s budget to spike, the cosmonauts’ pay to increase, and their personal gear to improve even more. No expense will be spared for more water cannons, more teargas auto-cannons, more riot control gear, more armored riot control vehicles, more riot suppression vehicles, more lasers that blind, more sonic cannons. (Links are to Russian sources—“militarized American police,” eat your heart out.)
Expect the Praetorian Guard to buy more military transport aircraft for their own use, for rapidly shifting troops from one hotspot to another. Expect Putin to put an even greater emphasis on their indoctrination.
Dispersing demonstrations is serious business—and so is the hardware for it. Who is to say Putin won’t loan some of that hardware to his “friend”?
When mass arrests take place in Moscow during public protests, a surge of 1,500-2,000 arrestees can overwhelm the available short-term holding cells at police stations—so expect a construction boom of holding cells all over Russia. Expect even more laws restricting public assembly and giving the police even more leeway in arresting anyone anywhere.
For America, the Long View
For the United States, Belarus represents an opportunity. Without Lukashenko, Belarus is likely to start drifting away from Russia, gradually reorienting itself towards the West, or at least towards neutrality. This will not be a simple, short or linear process. Russia cannot maintain the level of subsidies of the past 20 years. Should Lukashenko stay, buying the population off with “stability” will be that much harder.
Lukashenko can only survive as either a Putin marionette or a puppet of his security generals. And since he will keep accusing his opponents of being American stooges regardless of facts, there is little harm in a closer relationship with opposition figures.
The United States has no direct mechanism for affecting outcomes in Belarus, but it needs to stay engaged with the opposition. More importantly, America needs to take the long view—world attention will shift, but American policymakers need to stick around—with their presence, money, logistical support.
In the longer run, should Lukashenko be forced to exit, the United States has a chance to alter the strategic equation in Eastern Europe, at little cost to itself. That is a prize worth working for.