The Fight for Democracy in Belarus

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By AUGUST LILJENBERG

Following the disputed re-election of President Lukashenko, protests have dominated the country’s socio-political landscape since the spring of 2020. The critical actor in this opposition movement is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was the opposition candidate of the election, following the arrest of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, then the main opposition candidate two months before the election.


Currently residing in Lithuania after the political persecution of the Lukashenko regime, Tsikhanouskaya remains a strong symbol of the opposition movement, encouraging hope for Belarus’ political landscape. However, it is more crucial in predicting Belarus’ future to place it in a geopolitical context.


Moscow sees central Europe as both a vital buffer and a strategic zone to launch operations against potential NATO aggression. Russia’s military alliance with Belarus also shortens its distance to the Kaliningrad, Russia’s significant semi-exclave between Poland and Lithuania. In any potential military conflict between Russia and NATO, Belarus will be vital to entering the European theatre of warfare.


Despite close military and economic ties, the camaraderie between Minsk and Moscow has been waning to a great extent. For the past few years, lawmakers in Minsk have been exploring ways of releasing the Kremlin's grip, especially in the economic landscape, where Russian oil refineries dominate Belarus, and 40% of Belarusian trade is tied to its eastern neighbour.


Moscow’s support of the Lukashenko regime amid the protests should be viewed as haphazard and momentary, a preventative choice to avoid a situation similar to the pro-Western Ukrainian revolution in 2014, allowing Putin time to make up his mind on Belarus.


On the opposing side of geopolitical fault lines is the West, which is more fractured regarding its approach to Belarus. The West's principal actors are the new Biden administration, the EU, and countries that share cultural ties with Belarus, such as Poland and Lithuania. After the Trump administration’s much-criticised reluctance to engage in the Belarusian election, Biden has vowed to back opposition movements, with Tsikhanouskaya expressing support for the President and “looking forward to future cooperation” with the administration. Moscow will have taken note of this development, considering the anticipation that Biden will be more prepared to intervene with Russia than the Trump administration was.


The EU has had a particular admiration for Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign against Belarus’ human rights abuses during the protests, simultaneously stressing the importance of maintaining democratic integrity within Europe. The EU understands that Belarus is not comparable to Ukraine in 2014, where protests were motivated by strengthening ties with the EU. Therefore, advocating closer EU-Belarus co-operation would likely be punching, rather than poking, the Russian bear.


Instead, intervention in Belarus has taken the form of the delegation of democratic and human rights issues to Lithuania and Poland. The latter’s historical and ethnic ties to Belarus have made Poland a significant front for the idea of nationally liberating Belarus through all means - an idea that might be more unifying in its scope than choosing between the East vs. the West. The popularity of such ideas amid the political stalemate will only grow as time passes.


All these seemingly simple factors combined - geopolitical security concerns in Moscow, increased liberal internationalism in the US, and rising Belarussian nationalism - creates intricacies for Minsk and Moscow. Protests have dwindled amid the brutal winters of the Belarussian plains. Lukashenko’s promise in late November to step down either during an (improbable) new constitutional reform or when the sixth term of his Presidency ends can be viewed as an attempt to appease the hibernating and exhausted opposition groups in the country.


However, Moscow and Washington will not be convinced with ease. Given the military necessity of Belarus for Russia, any potential replacement of Lukashenko must be, at minimum, neutral in Russia’s foreign policy. This renders the backing of Tsikhanouskaya implausible given her recent statement about cooperation with the Biden administration. However, officials in Moscow won’t rush to continue the policy of backing Lukashenko, a leader who has been both disloyal to Russia and lost the trust of Belarus.


Along with the prospect of Biden taking a more active approach in supporting the pro-Western Tsikhanouskaya and, perhaps, financing the opposition groups, Washington and Moscow are at odds regarding Belarus’ destiny. What is clear is that its political fate will be decided as the winter chills moderate, and the public emerges onto the streets once more. Whilst decisions made in Moscow and Washington will be important, It will be those that started the movement, the citizens, who will have a crucial role in the resolution of this political crisis.


Image: Flickr (Fernanda LeMarie / Cancilleria del Ecuador)