August 13, 2020

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Belarus?

Demonstrators with a placard with an image of Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko protest against the results of Belarusian presidential election outside the Belarusian embassy in Moscow on August 12, 2020.
Demonstrators with a placard with an image of Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko protest against the results of Belarusian presidential election outside the Belarusian embassy in Moscow on August 12, 2020.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may remain in power, but the election and its aftermath leave no doubt that he is ruling by force and fraud. The West will need to adjust its approach to Minsk accordingly.

Ahead of the 9th August presidential election, President Lukashenko had a brief and possibly unique opportunity to do the right thing for his country.

After years of an apparent trajectory towards better relations with the West and with its own people, tentatively rewarded by warming relations with the EU and the United States, it would have been possible to take the initiative and transform Belarus’s ossified political system at a stroke by suspending the election-rigging apparatus and ensuring that the poll was seen as free, open and genuinely reflecting the votes cast.

Instead, by reverting to default behaviours of artificial election results and savage repression of protests against them, Lukashenko has done the opposite, and proved right those who always maintained that Belarus’s flirtation with human rights was no more than a cynical facade for the sake of improved treatment from the West.

Abandoning Pretence

For large sectors of the Belarusian population, he has also swept away the last vestiges of a social contract, and with it any pretence at legitimacy of the current government. The vicious and often random brutality of the security forces responding to public protests has sparked revulsion across a wide range of ages and backgrounds – not limited to those too young to clearly remember the last rounds of serious repressions a decade and more ago. The statement extorted from opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calling on Belarusians to respect the official election result resembled those read by prisoners of war under duress precisely because that was what it was: Tsikhanouskaya had been taken captive in the war waged by the Lukashenko regime against its own people.

Belarus’s friends abroad must therefore adjust their relationship with the country based on this regression and loss of legitimacy. The immediate reactions from the West have been entirely predictably limited to ritual expressions of “serious concern”, and it remains to be seen whether Poland and Lithuania, the most active members of the EU regarding Belarus, will have any success in pushing the organisation into action. If they do, the most likely response will be new or renewed economic and travel sanctions – which, unless carefully planned, will hurt ordinary Belarusians as much as Lukashenko.

But not all growing relationships with Belarus were driven by the EU. The UK had taken a leading role in developing direct bilateral military contacts, an important component in the relationship given the presence of British troops forward deployed on the Belarusian border. The experience of cutting all military contacts with Russia in crises shows this is counter-productive, and some lines of communication do need to be maintained. But the UK and other Western militaries must by now have left their Belarusian counterparts in no doubt that if they take part in repression then all support and joint activities – and Belarus’s limited cooperation with NATO – will cease.

Will and Endurance

While Russia watches closely, and Belarus’s Western neighbours and partners fumble for a response, what follows in the coming days will be a test of endurance for both government forces and the Belarusian people. Those calling for sustained opposition will find it increasingly hard to maintain strikes by day, and protests by night, both in the face of increasingly savage and indiscriminate repression. Meanwhile the state will have to assess whether it has sufficient numbers of security forces to maintain this level of repression without bringing in the armed forces, which would be an effective admission of loss of control. With protests continuing across the regions, security forces in some areas are reportedly stretched thin as reinforcements are sent to the capital. Improvised curfews and makeshift detention facilities for holding thousands of protesters suggest a system already under pressure.

The internet is key terrain in this battle. Internet outages across Belarus began on election day, initially blamed on cyber attacks from abroad. While many Belarusians have proved adept at finding workarounds for the “jamming”, ongoing interdiction of messaging services makes it harder for protesters to communicate, coordinate and organise, and in particular to form a clear picture of what is happening across Belarus’s regions. It is also more difficult to assess the situation with confidence from outside the country. Initiatives for delivering information into Belarus, such as Radio Free Europe restarting broadcasting in Belarusian, will have only limited impact.

All this together makes it easier for government forces to deal with protests in isolation, and harder for protesters to gauge how much support they have across the country – both of which will be major factors in bringing the protests to an end. But substantial and sustained internet blockages are impractical without crippling the economy and in particular Belarus’s relatively thriving IT sector; and when services are restored, opposition activists will once again be able to share information, including details of the security forces’ behaviour.

Another peak of protests can be expected for Friday 14 August, when the “official” results are announced. But even if after that protests subside, their scale and extent so far show the roots of discontent will remain. Lukashenko will still enjoy a core of support from his traditional base, whose government-backed salaries he has protected over decades against demands for economic reform. For much of the rest of the population, however, it is now clear that Lukashenko only remains in power through the overt and unrestrained use of force and fraud.

Poor Alternatives

The options facing many ordinary Belarusians remain bleak. Passivity means acceptance of continuing rule by Lukashenko, extended indefinitely. Active opposition means a very real risk of detention with or without serious injury. Unsuccessful protest means the cause will once again soon be forgotten by the outside world; too successful protest holds with it the small but ever-present risk of Russia stepping in with an offer of “fraternal assistance”, and Belarus becoming effectively a province of Russia rather than an independent country with the potential choice of a future.

But in all of these circumstances, Western policy must be founded on recognition that the current government of Belarus has now, irrevocably, forfeited the right to be treated as legitimately representing the Belarusian people.