It’s a tough one for President Putin.
On the one hand there’s a certain schadenfreude in seeing a person he intensively dislikes being in such a bind with his own people. In a perverse twist of events, Lukashenko is turning to Putin for help and therefore now risking his come-uppance for outsmarting Russian’s President.
For the past twenty years Belarus’ President Lukashenko has been able to get Russia to prop up its mishandled economy by getting cut-price energy. He has done this by flirting with the West and playing Russia against its rivals. This is a sensitive spot for the Russian president. Like a macho lover, there is nothing worse than his erstwhile partner, Belarus, being courted by another. However, it’s payback time now and he would like nothing better than to see Lukashenko fall flat on his face, metaphorically or literally.
On the other hand, he cannot afford to lose Lukashenko or, at least, not by a national uprising. Having the Belarus President ousted in the face of popular demonstrations would set an unfortunate example to his own people in Russia. It would embolden Russian citizens, to say, ‘If the traditionally passive people of Belarus can get rid of their President, why can’t we?’
So, the decision of the Kremlin is clear. Keep the President of Belarus on a (political) life support machine for a while to bring back the status quo with a sullen, but acquiescent population. Even better, have a President of Belarus who is dependent on the Russian information system in the media and in cyberspace, and on his security forces in the background. The population will eventually settle down and Putin can eventually ritually humiliate his ‘frenemy’ at his leisure.
Thus has the Russian narrative swung firmly behind Lukashenko with messages such as ‘The Belarusian people are being exploited by those who seek to overthrow the government’ or ‘The West is orchestrating the activity and they are encouraging people to move away from Russia and join the West’; ‘a second Maidan – a repeat of the Ukrainian Coloured Revolution.’ Add into the pot a few ‘right wing fascists’ and the white red white flag ‘that was used by the Belarus government under the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War, therefore the protesters are fascists.’ It might work. Such messages might resonate to the Russian people or even to some Westerners who are susceptible to this kind of information. At this very moment, the trolls are desperately trying to find incriminating evidence to support these narratives.
However, reality is spoiling their attempts. For example, how is it possible to describe spontaneous mass protest in negative terms? It is, after all, a textbook example of what the Soviet history books used to call a ‘people’s revolution.’ Moreover, there is a complete absence of European Union flags and no obvious rhetoric against Russia to support the ‘New Maidan’ theory. Many Belarusians are of Russian origin and most Belarusians in general prefer to speak Russian, so it is difficult to prop up the ‘anti-Russian sentiment’. The White red white flag predates t-he Nazis and was used in for the first – short lived- Belarus Republic.
On top of all this, the Belarusian economy is in freefall. State company employees are on strike and even working people are not as productive as they usually are: they are demoralised and resentful. Many of the protesters are young, intelligent and forward-thinking employees of the hitherto growing and profitable IT sector here. Not only are they now seeking to work outside their country, the IT company management themselves are considering moving some or all their resources away from Belarus. This is a big blow for the economy, already struggling from the effects of Covid 19, the Russian squeeze on energy process and reckless spending by the government.
In this case, Putin can add Belarus to its list of Russia’s financial commitments. Future monetary support to Belarus may well dwarf their current financial burdens of Chechnya, the Donbass, the Crimea, Transnistria and Syria, not to mention the global dis/information campaigns that the Kremlin is currently running along with the need to project ‘hard’ power. While authoritarian governments have placed self- survival above economic buoyancy, the lack of the latter may sabotage the former.
Putin has seen all this as a great opportunity to get more concessions from the President of Belarus. But from the president of What, exactly? The Belarusian President’s support base is rapidly becoming a small and exclusive group of unrepentant loyalists and paramilitaries who are prepared to club their compatriots either out of a misplaced sense of duty or for large amounts of money. Even if the large middle ground moves away from protests to grudging acceptance, the emphasis will be ore on ‘grudging’ rather than ‘acceptance’ and even the latter is dependent on a minimal standard of living or the avoidance of more slip-ups from the President. For them, Lukashenko is still on probation.
Those around the Belarusian leader may well be scratching their heads to decide what to do next. If they dump the President before a Pro-Russian replacement can be put in place, the Russian president may well find he has backed the wrong horse and alienated Belarusians in the process.
So, from both the authorities in Minsk and Moscow, will there be the usual knee-jerk reaction to events and punish those who disagree or will there be more balanced and calculated strategy that might involve some negotiation? Time will tell.