Since protests erupted in Belarus over an election widely-regarded as fraudulent, many have been wondering if Moscow would come to Lukashenko’s aid. Such questions were answered recently in an interview with Russian state television on August 27th, in which Putin let it be known that he had created a “law enforcement reserve” to be deployed if the situation in Belarus were to become untenable.
The reserve was created, according to Putin, at Lukashenko’s behest and would not be used unless the situation were to spiral out of control and “extremist” elements did not return to their homes. Until recently, he had not publicly discussed his views of the crisis, causing doubt as to whether or not he would intervene. With Moscow prepared to get involved, supporting the Belarusian opposition has become a riskier venture. European leaders have so far been very vocal in favour of the opposition.
The United States, on the other hand, has made little comment about Belarus. Aside from an August 18th comment in which Trump stated that, “It doesn’t seem like there’s too much democracy there,” he has not discussed the issue at all. U.S. officials, while encouraging of the opposition movement, have not strongly committed to supporting it for fear of angering the Kremlin. Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, confirmed to Russian officials: “this is not a contest between East and West, and certainly not a contest between Russia and the United States.” However he stressed the need for violence against protesters to stop, saying those who were “unjustly detained” must be freed and that there should be “a truly free and fair election under independent observation.” He has promoted the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe as a vehicle to manage dialogue between Russia, Belarus, Europe, and the United States. In addition, he met with opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to discuss “the situation in Belarus and how civil society can strengthen democracy and human rights in the country,” per a statement from the State Department.
Still Biegun fights an uphill battle, with many fearing that pushing too far could incite Moscow to intervene as it has previously in Ukraine. Russia stands poised to suppress any dissent that it feels may sneak up to its borders; memories of 2014 are still fresh in the minds of Europe’s leaders and few want to risk miring Belarus into a similar conflict for free elections. Putin will not allow a neighbouring country, especially one as close geographically and culturally as Belarus, to slip from Russia’s sphere of influence. Yet it is clear that Lukashenko must go. His popularity has waned over the years, with these protests being clear evidence of that. He has repeatedly demonstrated disregard for human rights, fair elections and freedom of speech. European Leaders should put what pressure they can on Putin to remove Lukashenko, and the United States should be willing to support the European Union. This does not have to be a contest between East and West. Rather it should be a dialogue between countries concerned by the state of Belarus and wanting to see new leadership. They should reassure Putin that this is not an attempt at regime change but rather a necessary part of respecting the wishes of the people of Belarus.
Relations between Belarus and Russia go back far, into the days when the state was a province of the Russian Empire. It briefly flouted its own independence after the Russian Revolution but was brought back into the fold by force. It regained its status as a sovereign state after the fall of the USSR. Since then, Lukashenko has led the country and won every election. With the exception of the first, all subsequent elections have been declared not free by international monitors. For now Lukashenko walks a difficult line between appealing to Russia without sacrificing much of Belarus’s sovereignty.
Ties between Belarus and Russia have been somewhat strained since Lukashenko rejected Russia’s proposition for closer ties last year, and just recently arrested members of Russia’s Wagner Group to charge them with attempting to “destabilise” the country ahead of the elections. Perhaps now would be a perfect time for new leadership; however, all parties must take care to ensure that a change in leadership does not result in a new, more Kremlin-favourable dictator. Above all, the sovereignty of Belarus must be respected. Most of its existence has been under the boot of Russia. It is time for it to pursue its own future.
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