The blunder followed a flood of Russian journalists into Belarusian state media to fill posts left vacant by locals who have quit in droves in solidarity with protesters. The slip highlighted what is now perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko: They are no longer struggling against just their own president but also the Kremlin.
After more than a month of protests, there is still no clear endgame in sight for either side, with Lukashenko and his foes both insisting they can prevail but neither offering a clear and plausible path to victory — other than continued peaceful defiance by protesters and relentless repression by the government.
On Saturday in Minsk, the capital, burly security agents wearing masks to hide their identities arrested dozens of protesters attending what has become a weekly demonstration by women. Videos posted on social media showed women pulling off the masks of agents as they grabbed protesters.
But Lukashenko “will have to stop eventually,” said Ivan Kravtsov, the executive secretary of the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a body set up last month but now denuded of its leading members by a wave of arrests and expulsions.
Kravtsov was forced to flee to Ukraine on Tuesday, leaving Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, as the sole member of the council’s leadership now still at large inside Belarus. Unidentified men tried to enter her apartment Wednesday but she avoided detention, probably thanks to a visit by several European diplomats.
Lukashenko, Kravtsov said in a telephone interview from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where he is now sheltering, cannot possibly expel or jail everyone in Belarus who wants him gone, and so “does not know what to do anymore. Our strategy of peaceful protest really works.”
But the opposition does not seem to know what to do next either, beyond staging yet more protests and pleading, as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main rival to Lukashenko in a disputed Aug. 9 election, recently did from exile in Lithuania, for the United Nations to send monitors to Belarus to “document the situation on the ground.”
Confident that President Vladimir Putin of Russia will not, at least for the moment, let him fall, Lukashenko has no need to worry about the United Nations: Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and can block any move that might weaken his grip.
Nor does he have to worry much about pressure from the West generally. The United States and the European Union have both condemned the violence against protesters but have taken no concrete steps to punish Lukashenko and his security officials or to support his opponents.
European leaders agreed in August to set in motion new sanctions that would include visa bans and asset freezes on selected Belarusian officials, but that plan has been stalled by Cyprus, which has entangled the issue in separate quarrels with Turkey.
The United States is also preparing to impose sanctions against individuals and business entities in Belarus. A senior U.S. official said Friday that the measures should be ready in a few days, and that they would not be held up by any delays in European sanctions.
Reluctance to take stronger and swifter action has been fueled in part by fears that support for the protest movement in Belarus would only play into the hands of Lukashenko and Putin, who have both cast protesters as tools of a Western plot to bring about a “colour revolution.”
One way to break the stalemate that all sides, including Russia, say they could support would be constitutional changes to pave the way for new elections. But Lukashenko, having declared in August that “until you kill me, there will not be any more elections,” has shown no real interest in changing anything any time soon. He refuses to even talk with his foes, denouncing them as treasonous “rats” and “tricksters” who belong in jail, not at the negotiating table.
Instead, he has focused on rounding up workers who organized strikes and methodically dismantling the opposition, whose most prominent figures have, one by one, been forced to flee abroad or been thrown in jail.
Maria Kolesnikova, the last member still in the country of a trio of female activists who led an initial groundswell of opposition to Lukashenko, filed a legal complaint Thursday describing how, after being abducted Monday in Minsk by masked security officials, she had been warned that she would be forced to leave Belarus “either alive or in pieces.”
Having avoided expulsion by tearing up her passport at the Ukrainian border, she is now under arrest on subversion charges.
Protesters have defied expectations by turning out in huge numbers each Sunday for the past four weeks despite government threats, a feat they hope to repeat this weekend. But Lukashenko, emboldened by Russian support, has only grown more insistent that he is not going anywhere.
Speaking to state prosecutors in Minsk on Thursday, Lukashenko mocked those calling for him to leave office.
“They often reproach me saying ‘He will not give up power,’” he said. “They are right in their reproaches.” Power, he added, is “not given away.”
Maryna Rakhlei, a Belarusian researcher at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin who supports the protesters, conceded: “It is a total deadlock. It does not look as if either side is going to give up.” But, she warned, “at some point there will be a mistake by either side” that could turn peaceful protests into a dangerously violent confrontation.
With Russia on his side, Lukashenko seems confident he can win, either by waiting out the protesters or, in the event of a violent conflagration, crushing them with overwhelming force, as the Chinese Communist Party, the Belarusian leader’s only vocal foreign supporter other than Russia, did with protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
That his fate now rests with Russia as much or more than with the people of Belarus was made clear this past week when, for his first interview since his implausible election victory with 80% of the vote, Lukashenko chose to speak not to representatives of his own country’s media but to editors from Russian state television.
Telling the Russians that “only I can really protect Belarusians now,” he warned: “If Belarus collapses today, Russia will be next.”
His opponents, who insist they have no desire to see Belarus tilt away from Russia and toward the West, as Ukraine did after it toppled its president in 2014, are hoping that Russian support is far more tentative than Lukashenko has made out.
“Russia is giving only verbal support,” said Kravtsov, and “understands that a leader who does not have real support in his own country is not worth anything.” Russia, he added, would be “more comfortable with a leader who is supported by his people.”
But Russia has so far shown no inclination to dump Lukashenko in favour of a more popular alternative. Although many analysts believe that Moscow will eventually cut him loose, they do not believe it would do so under pressure from the street.
While initially lukewarm in his backing of Lukashenko, with whom he has long had testy relations, Putin announced at the end of August that he had formed a “reserve force” of Russian security officers ready for action in Belarus “if the situation gets out of control.”
About the last thing Putin wants, said Nigel Gould-Davies, Britain’s former ambassador to Belarus and a onetime diplomat in Moscow, is “to see the strongman leader of a neighbouring Slavic country overthrown by peaceful people power” because that would only set an example Russians might be tempted to follow.
“Now it is Russia and Belarus together. There has been a visible escalation of Russian support,” said Gould-Davies, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Lukashenko, according to the Kremlin, will visit Russia on Monday for talks with Putin on strengthening ties between the two countries.
The promise of Russian support has given Lukashenko breathing space to rethink his strategy against the protesters.
Instead of deploying wild police violence, an approach used last month that only inflamed public anger and encouraged more protests, Lukashenko is now using relentless but more targeted pressure to pick apart the protest movement. This has not stopped the protests but has stripped the movement of its leaders and also of its initial euphoric hopes that Lukashenko would fall swiftly.
Russian support, however, carries serious risks for Lukashenko, who has spent years trying to maintain a modicum of independence for Belarus from Moscow and keep Kremlin-favored Russian oligarchs from gaining control of his country’s prize economic assets, which include one the world’s largest producers of potash fertilizer.
Weakened by the protests, Lukashenko is likely to have a hard time resisting, as he has done in the past, Kremlin demands that he open his companies to Russian investors; agree to host a Russian military airbase; and implement a stillborn 1990s agreement that committed Belarus and Russia to form a so-called Union State, an entity that, if ever put into effect, would largely merge the two countries.
But Gould-Davies, the former ambassador in Minsk, believes that Lukashenko, while clearly desperate, still has some leverage left with Russia.
Lukashenko knows that Moscow has no obvious trustworthy alternative and does not want to see him toppled by pressure from the street.
“That is an example that would resonate very badly with the Kremlin,” the former diplomat said.
Moscow, however, clearly believes it now has the upper hand. Russia’s official news agency, Tass, stressed in a recent analysis of Belarus that the Kremlin still wanted to form the union state with Belarus. Lukashenko’s political troubles, it said, would “have a certain effect” on merger negotiations and on “his readiness to compromise on major issues.”
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