- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Months of demonstrations calling for the ouster of longtime authoritarian strongman Alexander Lukashenko had raised hopes for a democratic uprising in Belarus, a country of roughly 10 million people located in the tense geopolitical battleground between Russia and the West.

Despite reports of his imminent ouster, Mr. Lukashenko clings to power in the face of ongoing popular demonstrations and in defiance of opposition leaders who say their movement won’t quit until the man known as “Europe’s last dictator” is driven from office.

Regional analysts compare the dynamic in Belarus to Ukraine’s political struggles over the past two decades, although the battle in Minsk is seen to be less about whether another former Soviet republic turns against Russia than it is a measure of the difficulties democratic reforms face in the post-communist Eurasia.

Mr. Lukashenko, a 66-year-old former state farm director, has made a career out of playing off Russia and the West as a means of holding on to power. Over protests of the opposition, he now suggests he will stay in office until, if ever, changes are made to the Belarusian Constitution to prevent instability.

“What worries me in this situation is that you cannot hand over such a constitution to an unknown president,” he told the state-run news agency Belta last month. “I am not making a new constitution for myself. With a new constitution, I will no longer work with you as president. So calm down.”

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who many outside observers say was the legitimate winner of the Aug. 9 presidential election, said Mr. Lukashenko is offering voters a damagingly false choice.

“The protest in Belarus is not about geopolitical choices. It’s about human dignity and willingness to live in a country with respect for the rule of law,” Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya told a virtual forum hosted by the Atlantic Council this week.

She said the mass demonstrations demanding that Mr. Lukashenko step down are not targeted at Russia, even though the Kremlin recently signaled support for Mr. Lukashenko’s constitutional arguments.

“Russia is and has always been our close neighbor, and we don’t have another choice than to work with it,” she said. “The only thing we ask from Moscow is to withdraw support from Lukashenko. The longer Moscow silently approves the actions of the dictator, the more it loses credibility with the Belarusian [people].”

Mr. Lukashenko seemed to be on his way out the door in the weeks immediately after the August election, even as government security forces began cracking down on protesters contesting the election in which he claimed to have won 80% of the vote.

But the government has detained or exiled key opposition leaders and has arrested some 27,000 protesters in the past three months, according to the United Nations. At least four protesters have been reported killed in street clashes with police, and Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya herself has been living in exile in Lithuania since August, citing fears of safety for herself and her family.

Vexing for Moscow

Mr. Lukashenko has been an on-again, off-again ally of the Kremlin throughout the post-Soviet era, but the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at first uncertain of whether to back its difficult Belarusian ally.

Mr. Putin in recent weeks has toed a delicate line on Belarus, even as the U.S. and Western European powers side heavily with the opposition.

On one hand, the Russian president has said the Lukashenko government must engage in dialogue with the opposition. But in an apparent jab at the U.S. and the European Union, which the Kremlin accuses of meddling in Belarus, Mr. Putin has asserted that Mr. Lukashenko should stand strong in the face of unprecedented pressure by “external” forces.

Despite his offer, Mr. Lukashenko has given no indication that he will be pushing through the constitutional changes he seeks anytime soon, and the country’s security forces have shown few signs that they are ready to abandon the president.

Hundreds of protesters were detained in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Sunday during the 18th consecutive weekend of demonstrations against Mr. Lukashenko.

While U.S. officials watch with concern, analysts say the situation is most vexing for Russia.

Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said developments other than the Belarus crisis have put the Kremlin on edge. They include major protests in Russia’s far eastern Khabarovsk territory over the firing of a popular governor there in July.

Ms. Conley also noted in an interview the case of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist who fell mysteriously ill in August after someone slipped him what his supporters say was poisoned tea. Many analysts say Russian intelligence targeted Mr. Navalny to send a message that the Kremlin will respond harshly should mass anti-government protests erupt in Russia.

“In some ways, you can draw a dotted line between the ongoing protests in Belarus and the ongoing protests in Russia’s far east and the Navalny poisoning, and you start to see this fear of allowing choice,” Ms. Conley said.

At the same time, she said, there is a perception that the Kremlin would tolerate new leadership in Belarus as long as it is not anti-Russian. But Moscow is likely to work for now to keep Mr. Lukashenko in power as long as he “continues to be useful” by yielding to Kremlin pressure for “greater military and economic integration” between Minsk and Moscow.

The catch is that Mr. Lukashenko has long been reluctant to embrace such integration, which the U.S. and NATO have long pressured him to resist. Neither has the Belarusian opposition led by Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya, a reality that has likely kept the Kremlin on Mr. Lukashenko’s side for the time being.

The toll of the past few months has clearly sapped Mr. Lukashenko’s once-unassailable power base.

Olga Oliker, who heads the Europe and Central Asia program at the International Crisis Group, said in an email that “the continuing protests make it very likely that even if [Lukashenko] did genuinely win the majority of the vote back in August (and we will never know who really won), he wouldn’t [win again] if voting were held today.”

“I think everyone is thinking about a transition, but in different ways,” Ms. Oliker said. “Lukashenko wants to avoid it for as long as possible. Moscow isn’t opposed to change, but wants to make sure that it’s not seen as a response to the protests: that it’s not ‘the street’ forcing a change in government.”

A test for Biden

Ironically, Mr. Lukashenko came under crisis just as the Trump administration was trying to nurture a new diplomatic outreach to Minsk.

The Belarusian leader long ago drew the ire of Western powers with authoritarian tactics while securing power after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But the West’s hard line softened over the past decade as Mr. Lukashenko freed many political prisoners and allowed some opposition activities.

The Trump administration has been eager to improve long-strained ties in a bid to wean Minsk from its economic and political dependence on Russia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February became the first top U.S. diplomat in more than 25 years to travel to Belarus, bringing with him an offer to sell U.S. oil and gas to the Belarusians to help reduce their dependence on Russian energy.

Many analysts say Mr. Lukashenko cleverly embraced the American overtures while bluntly exploiting them. He attempted to use the prospect of warmer ties with the West, including the possibility of hosting NATO operations on Belarusian soil, to extract lucrative oil and gas subsidies from the Kremlin.

Moscow initially offered such subsidies but has since stripped them. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s posture toward Mr. Lukashenko has soured over recent months.

U.S. officials have not explicitly called for Mr. Lukashenko’s ouster but have expressed growing solidarity with the opposition. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya in August and recently told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the Lukashenko government “must release political prisoners, journalists, and all those unjustly detained,” and engage in “meaningful dialogue” with the opposition.

In her own comments to the Atlantic Council this week, Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya voiced support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, and approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October, to support media freedoms in Belarus and for the incoming Biden administration to sanction officials carrying out opposition crackdowns on Mr. Lukashenko’s behalf.

But presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is likely to walk the same tightrope that the Trump administration has on Belarus.

“How do you support the Belarusian opposition and support democracy there without antagonizing the Russians?” said Donald Jensen, who heads the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.

“There is a tendency to analogize the opposition in Belarus to that in Ukraine,” Mr. Jensen told The Washington Times. “But the Belarusian opposition is less experienced in democracy-building than what you have at this point in Ukraine, so I think one aspect of U.S. outreach that could help the situation would be to really step up technical assistance and training of opposition people.

“The optics of how we respond and the content of how we respond will make a big difference here,” Mr. Jensen said. “How do you help out the opposition without being overly provocative? That’s a clarification the Biden people have to make and have not yet made, but it’s coming.”

Ms. Conley said she anticipates a “more active U.S. government and State Department engagement with the European Union” on Belarus under a Biden administration, although she is skeptical about the prospects for serious policy developments. “You will see more activity,” she said. “Whether it will be more productive activity, that we don’t know.”

Added Ms. Oliker: “The Biden administration will probably want to show solidarity with the protesters, but in terms of changing Lukashenko’s views, Russia holds far more of the cards.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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