Belarus crisis: Alexander Lukashenko’s strategy for winning the stalemate.

Belarus society has been divided and stuck in a stalemate over the recent presidential elections result. Peaceful protests continue at an unprecedented scale for Belarus for more than a hundred days now. Current president Alexander Lukashenko aims to exhaust the protesters by employing certain tactics – most of which are known from the Russian case.

After more than one hundred days of protests, Belarus citizens still remain unbroken and continue protesting against the incumbent president and his regime, which is considered corrupt and is accused of disrespect towards human rights and freedom of expression in the country. Lukashenko remains the only historical Belarus president and has been in this role since 1994. The evidently rigged elections of August 9th sparked an unprecedented wave of protests. The scale of the protests can be understood as a release of broader social conflict and suppression of self-determination of the citizens. For decades, it has been brewing under the lid since the early days of independent Belarus, finally achieving critical levels after the recent presidential elections.

While the protests are accompanied with police brutality and violations of human rights from the side of the government, they still remain in a state that can be considered as peaceful. There is little radicalization amongst the protesters and the leadership of people demanding a change urge them to refrain from taking a harder line against the regime. In other words, the crisis has so far been a “staring contest” between the protesters and the police lines guarding governmental buildings and squares. This did not, and still does not prevent the “Militia” (Belarus police still carries the name from the Soviet era) from committing crimes against the protesters, in hopes it would deter others from joining the opposition on the streets.

 

Police brutality and division of the society.

Alexander Lukashenko was always a man who could switch the gears swiftly – balancing between Russian influence and expectations of unification on one hand, and the EU and the prospect of one day becoming an EU member on the other. However, the recent protests have put Belarus even farther away than Turkey was on the EU extension list. Numerous covered murders, political abductions, maiming, property destruction and other human rights violations have been committed by the police since the protests became nation-wide. For better or worse, there is no direct evidence that most of it was sanctioned by the president himself.

After almost three decades of being elevated as the most important caste of the country, many policemen have become numb and careless. Arguably, most gruesome violations end up being a result of personal failure, instead of being a part of the official strategy of how to terrify the citizens into submission. Lukashenko is not new to the business of civil subjugation and knows where to draw a line. However, Lukashenko has refused to hold the police accountable for the transgression. After all, protection from law makes more people willing to keep serving the regime as no fear of retaliation is present. His militant rhetoric and constant threats are, however, included in his official strategy, and, alas, do not lessen the degree of violent fervor when dealing with the protesters, which many policemen fall victim to.

 

Russian know-how: fifth column and foreign intervention.

But since Lukashenko cannot realistically aim for Europe anymore, he has instead chosen to ally himself with Russia and incorporated many of the strategies of information manipulation and civilian subjugation that Russia has long employed. It is impossible to tell just how effective they are; however, it does not stop people clinging to power from employing them without confirmed scientific evidence as to their efficiency. Namely, since the “shift” towards Russia happened, Lukashenko began accusing protesters of being misled or outright paid to protest, as well as blaming certain neighboring countries for funding the unrest.

Namely, the diplomatic relations with Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic have plunged since Lukashenko began accusing these countries of fomenting civil unrest and sending provocateurs to Belarus. This tactic was widely employed by Russia, previously, and by blaming foreigners for conducting anti-state activities, they found justification to pass civil right curbs and crack down on protesters and critics of the regime. 

The same is now an official policy of Lukashenko and Belarus government – by trying to limit violence against the citizens and still allowing peaceful protests to be held, they are aiming at delegitimizing the protests in the eyes of other Belarus citizens, slowly wearing the protesters out. Lukashenko realizes he is not going to stay in power should he give the “order to shoot”.

The situation develops at a slow rate and mostly repeats itself - protesters gather on the streets and squares, the army and the militia roll out their vehicles and bring shields. In the background, the Kremlin is providing financial aid to the regime, as well as advisors and “security agreements” that it is not going to fulfill, realistically speaking. 

For Russia, destabilizing Belarus even further is actually not profitable and the feared invasion has implications way beyond possible gains. Already crippled by sanctions Russia cannot risk any further complications on the international level, and possible occupation of Belarus is insurmountable and brings no merits to Kremlin. Merely observing and trying to prevent further escalation is the only way for Russia not to “lose” there, as Belarus opposition does not endanger the existing Belarus-Russia relations. The aim for change is primarily internal, however, it is also impossible to say whether Russia will not be blamed for keeping Lukashenko’s regime afloat for the previous decades.

Alexander Lukashenko’s only bet right now is to rely on Russia, which needs Belarus as a buffer state, as well as it being one of the last societies in the region not predominantly hostile to Russia and Russian influence. Lukashenko may win the stalemate by eventually forcing the population to disperse out of desperation and exhaust, rather than fear and harm. Which would still be a better alternative to a possible civil war. 

This would mean Lukashenko and his regime could hold extremely tight to the power they have amassed during his 26-year reign. Radicalization of the population and open hostility against the police could however lead to further destabilize the region which Russia could use as a justification for sending an army into Belarus. This would be a serious humanitarian catastrophe right next to Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

About author: Danila Naumov

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