What's right with Russian society

Russia and the revolution in Belarus

After the elections on August 9, 2020, Russia kept a relatively low profile for the time being. Although Vladimir Putin congratulated the Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko the next day, his congratulations were rather reserved. A clear sign that Russia still stands behind Lukashenko came on August 27, when the Russian President promised him military support should the situation in Belarus worsen. On September 3, the Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met with Lukashenko. On September 14, Lukashenko traveled to Sochi to speak to Putin. At this meeting, Putin pledged his support for the constitutional reform announced by Lukashenko and promised Belarus a loan of 1.5 billion, partly to cover old loans.

There are several reasons why Russia decided to stand by Lukashenko for the time being. First, in Russia, while not very popular, it is widely known. Although he was clearly weakened by the protests in Belarus and he has lost his legitimacy among the majority of Belarusians, he has so far managed to stay in power. Not least by relying on the close circle of his high-ranking supporters and the security forces. Lukashenko, who has been weakened both domestically and externally, has no choice but to rely on Russia. Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the opposition leader, and other members of the opposition have also stated several times that they want a good relationship with Russia. Nevertheless, they are hardly known in Moscow and therefore represent a greater degree of uncertainty than the long-time ruler Lukashenko. In addition, should the opposition benefit from a power transformation, it would also have greater legitimacy in the West, which in turn could run counter to the assertion of Russian interests in Belarus. At the moment, the chances that the West will enter into a dialogue with Lukashenko at all are very slim. Also because Lukashenko, like Putin, is perceived as an authoritarian politician who also represents values ​​other than European ones.

Another reason for Russia's support for Lukashenko is the perceived danger that the overthrow of a long-standing ruler will be seen as a precedent for their own country and therefore endanger their own political system. Ultimately, Lukashenko is unlikely to stay in power much longer, but he could be part of a transition process that includes Russia's interests and has therefore not completely lost its importance for Russia.

The Belarusian crisis from Russia's perspective

Russia sees the protests in Belarus and the associated political crisis as an attempt to carry out another "colorful revolution" in a former Soviet republic, as was the case in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. From the point of view of Russian political elites, these colorful revolutions are the result of Western influence and are also instigated and financed by it. This goes hand in hand with the idea that societies in post-Soviet countries are incapable of self-organization and therefore need external help in order to bring about political upheaval. This type of political unrest is perceived as an existential threat to nation statehood based on the Russian model. This perception is based on the assessment of Russia's own experiences with radical political transformations in the last century. Today, Russia’s political elites regard both the 1917 (Russian Revolution) and 1991 (collapse of the Soviet Union) events as catastrophes in general and as collapses of nation-statehood in particular.

So demonstrations in Belarus are seen primarily as foreign interventions led by Poland and the Baltic states. The evidence cited is that Tichanovskaya and other opposition activists are currently mainly in these countries. In addition, the well-known independent online platform Telegram Kanal Nexta is run by Belarusians who manage their business from Warsaw. The Belarusian television station Belsat is also located in Poland. The fact that the European Union and its member states received Tichanovskaya - a hitherto unknown opposition leader - at all the highest levels - she met Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Austria in November - serves, in the eyes of the Kremlin, as further proof that the EU is trying to destabilize the political situation in Belarus and to force a split between Belarus and Russia.

This portrayal of the events in Belarus is reinforced by the Russian state media and statements by some Russian politicians. For example, the statement by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that the USA, EU and Canada are helping to finance the protests.

This goes hand in hand with the fundamental perception of Russia in relation to its neighboring countries, namely that these former Soviet republics only achieved their independence through their dissolution. The legitimacy of the existence of a sovereign Belarusian state is therefore called into question in principle. It remains to be seen whether this "formal" sovereignty can be transformed into real sovereignty. From this perspective, Europe's support for Belarusian society is seen as an outside intervention, while Russia's support for Lukashenko is legitimate. To make this attitude clearer with a metaphor: As the "Slavic brother" - certainly the older one - Russia wants to prevent the breakdown of the family. This is the lesson the elites in Russia have learned from the Ukrainian case.

Constitutional Reform and Russia's Plan for Belarus

In response to the protests, Lukashenko called for constitutional reform. To date, however, there are few details about what exactly this reform should include. As early as 2018, when Lukashenko's position of power was still very strong, he mentioned such a reform, which should include a handover of power to a selected successor. Today, however, a constitutional reform under Lukashenko could only contain cosmetic changes. In addition, the protesters and the opposition do not take this initiative seriously, as it could not meet one of their main demands, namely fair and free elections without Lukashenko.

Moscow supports the constitutional reform in principle. Putin has already confirmed this in Sochi, and Foreign Minister Lavrov reminded Lukashenko of this when he was in Minsk on a state visit in November. However, Lukashenko's vision of reform does not match that of Moscow. Lukashenko wants to stay in power, even if not necessarily in the role of president. Moscow, on the other hand, sees Lukashenko as a suitable actor who can facilitate a controlled political transition without staying in office himself.

Russia's main interest in constitutional reform is decentralizing the political system. Several centers of power could facilitate negotiations in different sectors if these are occupied by Russia-friendly people. This would not only affect the government or parliament, but also state-owned companies that could be privatized (media, training, etc.).

Belarusian society will not necessarily be in favor of a stronger Russian presence in the country, even if the general attitude towards Russia in Belarus is rather positive. This goes back to the shared history, language, but also personal and family relationships. In the 30 years of independence, Belarus has developed a clear national identity, and this has been reinforced in the last few months, after the elections. The fact that Russia is on Lukashenko's side in this political crisis alienates the Belarusians even further. According to a survey, the number of supporters of a union with Russia fell by eleven percent in November 2020 compared to September. According to the well-respected Belarusian sociologist Andrei Wardamacki, this could herald a new trend.

Geopolitical dimension

As already mentioned, the Russian political elites see the crisis in Belarus as another front in the geopolitical conflict with the West. The general distrust in international politics plus greater tensions between Russia and the EU since the Ukraine crisis 2013–2014 have prevented a constructive dialogue on the political future in Belarus. In addition, Russia has significant influence in Belarus. The EU, in turn, is in a far weaker position. The sanctions came late and were also significantly weaker than in previous years, despite the much more brutal repression of the Lukashenko regime against its own people. Other reasons for the limited influence of the EU are the problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic within the EU, but also a traditionally relatively weak EU presence in the country even before the crisis. Brussels also learned a lesson from the 2013-2014 Ukrainian case and tried to avoid a confrontation with Russia this time.

However, as the political analyst Arkady Moshes rightly pointed out, the crisis in Belarus has "so far" hardly affected EU-Russia relations. However, this could happen in the future if Russia were to increase its presence in Belarus so that the EU would be directly influenced by it (for example through the establishment of a new Russian military base in Belarus). So the EU seems to be in a wait and see position at the moment. It will have to react if Russia takes specific steps. It would be sensible to use this time to be better prepared for possible future developments. (Marylia Hushcha, December 23, 2020)