Lukashenka and Putin (Source: TASS)
The Kremlin is conducting a regime-change operation in Belarus, the first-ever Russian operation of this type in its “near abroad.” Belarus’s presidential election campaign from May to August and the election‘s aftermath have provided the launching pad for this operation. It is premised on the political objective to replace the disobedient President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with a weaker regime, more amenable to Russian interests in the political, economic and military domains.
Lukashenka had strongly and skilfully resisted integration with Russia in these domains for many years. He finally exasperated the Kremlin through his uncompromising stand on Belarusian sovereignty. Lukashenka’s government basically adheres to the terms of a 20-year-old grand bargain with Moscow: explicitly renouncing Belarus’s integration with the West in return for Russian economic subsidies and respect for Belarus’s state sovereignty. Lukashenka has based this resistance on impregnable political power in the country, the governing class’s ever-deepening stake in sovereign statehood, the population’s interest in preserving the advantages of the Belarusian social state, and an increasingly creative multi-vector foreign policy (the latter was never intended to presage integration with the West).
Those sources of regime strength help explain its resilience vis-à-vis the protest movement as well as vis-à-vis Russia. Only the rapprochement with the West has been wholly derailed by the unvarnished rigging of the August 9 presidential election, the unjustifiably harsh repression of post-election protests, and Lukashenka’s theatrical anti-Western rhetoric to appease Moscow. This has isolated him and his government from the West, playing in favor of Russia’s undertaking for regime change in Belarus (see EDM, September 10).
Planned ahead of the presidential election in Belarus, the Russian undertaking is designed as a soft variety of regime change. As such, it envisages easing out Lukashenka, securing or compelling his cooperation over a transitional period as part of a constitutional settlement that would turn Belarus into a parliamentary republic. Moscow aims to arbitrate this process and seize the key levers of influence over Belarus through controlled political parties and state property takeovers, preparatory to a “deeper integration” of Belarus with Russia.
As a collateral benefit, that kind of constitutional reform could be presented as Russia’s constructive contribution to peaceful stabilization and even a democratic opening in its neighborhood. This argument could then serve to support, or at least test, a new “reset” in the West’s relations with Russia.
Moscow had initially decided to use Belarus’s presidential election as an opportunity to undermine Lukashenka through the candidacies of Viktar Babarika, Valery Tsepkalo, and Siarhei Tsikhanouski (replaced by spouse Sviatlana Tsikhanouska). They could not be expected to win the presidential election in August but could have complicated Lukashenka’s situation in the election’s aftermath, launched political parties or movements, split Belarus’s ruling establishment, pressed for system pluralization and power-sharing, and set a regime-change process in motion from the post-election period onward. Coupled with drastic cuts in Russian economic subsidies to Belarus, this kind of controlled destabilization could have turned Lukashenka into a lame duck, and made room for successors more amenable to Russian interests (see EDM, September 16).
That advanced planning, however, was thrown off course (at least temporarily) by two factors: First, the magnitude of post-election protests in Belarus, far exceeding anything that Minsk, Moscow or the West could anticipate. And second, the resilience of Belarus’s governmental apparatus, holding out (thus far) confidently in a two-front struggle—against domestic protests and against Russia’s demands on Lukashenka to initiate his own abdication.
The Kremlin and the Belarusian protesters (or at least the political figures speaking for the protesters) share the common goals of removing Lukashenka from power and turning Belarus into a parliamentary republic. However, they differ starkly over the process of implementing such changes.
Politicians speaking on the protesters’ behalf deem Lukashenka illegitimate and call for an undelayed transfer of power to the opposition; they would then proceed with changing the constitution and preparing new presidential and parliamentary elections. This implies that the opposition would itself organize the constitutional reform and transition process (see EDM, September 30).
The Kremlin, however, treats Lukashenka as the legitimately re-elected president. It wants him to cooperate with the constitutional reform that would lead to new presidential and parliamentary elections in a parliamentary republic, within a transition period of one to maximum two years. Moscow needs Lukashenka’s visible cooperation (even if unwilling) with this process in order to preserve the formalities of Belarus’s sovereignty, constitutional continuity, and Russian non-interference in the country’s affairs.
Moscow, furthermore, needs the transitional period in order to peel off and coopt elements from Belarus’s governmental nomenklatura, security apparatus and top management of state industry (with the takeover of key assets undoubtedly in mind). And, as long as protest activities continue in Belarus, the Kremlin needs Lukashenka’s loyal security apparatus to deal with the street rallies and keep the situation (broadly if not fully) under control. All this plays in favor of Lukashenka’s government. It is gaining time, while Moscow finds it necessary to slow down the pace of political change in Belarus and consider prolonging the transitional period. Lukashenka is gaining some political counter-leverage vis-à-vis Moscow. Conversely, Moscow might consider a degree of instability in Belarus as useful in order to regain the leverage it enjoyed over Lukashenka in an earlier phase of the protest movement.
Russian FM Sergei Lavrov and Belarusian FM Uladzimir Makei (Source: BelTA)
For now, the Belarusian authorities are holding out confidently against regime change on both fronts: against the domestic opposition and against Russia’s initial regime-change project. The latter could be seen lurking behind the thwarted presidential candidacies of Valery Tsepkalo, Viktar Babarika and Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Those candidacies were designed not to win the August election but to launch opposition movements against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule after the election, coupled with drastic cuts in Russian economic subsidies to Belarus. The election’s rigging and subsequent mass protests, however, compelled all sides to shift gears (see Part One in EDM, October 7).
Moscow unveiled its next (or revised) regime-change scenario publicly on September 2 through its foreign affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov. He told his visiting Belarusian counterpart, Uladzimir Makei that Lukashenka should engage in a national dialogue on constitutional reforms that would dismantle the presidential system of government, redistribute state powers to ensure their dispersal, and mandate new presidential and parliamentary elections on this basis. Moscow envisaged a transitional period of 1–1.5 years for these changes to be introduced and Lukashenka to step down (Mid.ru, Mfa.gov.by, September 2; Facebook.com/belarusmfa, September 4).
The Kremlin claimed at that point and at each subsequent step that the constitutional reform initiative originated with Lukashenka himself, not Russia. This claim is accurate only in the most general sense that Lukashenka had proposed, well ahead of the presidential election, to amend the constitution in the sense of de-personalizing power. Moscow, however, envisaged at that point turning Belarus into a dysfunctional parliamentary republic open to Russian manipulation. Moscow had already vetted a proposal tending in that direction that Minsk formally presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (TASS, August 17).
Two weeks after the Lavrov-Makei meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated the same message about constitutional reform to Lukashenka at their meeting in Sochi. By that time, however, Belarusian authorities were becoming confident that they could weather the storm of protests. Lukashenka declined to mention the constitutional reform in his public remarks at the Sochi meeting, and generally held his own against Putin there (see EDM, September 16). Meanwhile the Belarusian authorities are preparing their own concept of constitutional reform and the format of a national debate in that regard.
The authorities have managed to reduce and roll back the protests through systematic repression, but also by capitalizing on state cohesion and resilience, (repression alone would not have sufficed). While the protests are still far from defused and the authorities under Western attack, the authorities are able to convert their precarious situation into defensive leverage vis-à-vis Russia. On that basis they can and do convincingly ask Moscow to provide political and economic support for Belarus under the incumbent authorities. As long as protests continue, and the economy deteriorates, Moscow would not risk adding to instability by pressing for its concept of constitutional reform (euphemism for regime change), nor for a definite transitional period (euphemism for Lukashenka’s departure). Instead of starting a countdown on these authorities, Moscow is now helping to stabilize and tide them over through the crisis period.
Recent telephone calls between Lukashenka and Putin (the former invariably initiating the calls) no longer mention Belarusian national dialogue, constitutional reform or transitional period in the official readouts on either side. They also avoid controversial matters of the “integration” of Belarus with Russia. Instead, the readouts underscore bilateral cooperation, trade, joint anti-coronavirus measures, and rebuffing “external interference” in their respective internal affairs (TASS, BELTA, October 2, 7).
The traditional Russia-Belarus investment forum—an annual event at the inter-governmental and inter-regional levels—went ahead on September 25–29 as pre-scheduled, despite concerns that it might be canceled. Contracts amounting to $700 million were signed. Minsk traditionally maintains direct economic relations with Russia’s federal entities. Those oblast-level governors are an important political constituency for Lukashenka in Russia. Addressing the Minsk investment forum by video, President Putin accentuated the need to stabilize Belarus’s economy at this time (BELTA, September 29).
For the time being, at least, Moscow refrains from inserting itself into Belarus’s constitutional reform process. On October 3, the Belarusian parliament appealed to citizens and public organizations to send in suggestions about changes to the constitution and reforming the political system (BELTA, October 3). Suggestions collected by October 25 are to be forwarded for debate to a specially convened forum, presumably an All-People Belarusian Congress, as one form of the “national dialogue” (see above). Such a procedure will be liable for criticism as top-down authoritarian, and lacking the benefit of Western advice. Yet nothing else can realistically be expected at this stage. From the standpoint of Russia-Belarus relations, however, what counts at this point is Belarus regaining sovereignty over its constitutional process.
The Kremlin is apparently holding its initial regime-change project for Belarus in abeyance at the moment. The reprieve may well be a temporary one, evidently dictated by internal and international circumstances unforeseen by all sides and escaping all sides’ control.
NB. The article was first published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 17 Issue: 140 (part one) and Volume: 17 Issue: 141 (part two).