Belarus – why it is different this time?

The former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski (1995-2005) has long been an advocate of regional cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. During his presidency, he not only oversaw his country’s accession to the European Union (2004), but only a few months later, when the ‘Orange Revolution’ in neighbouring Ukraine began, he became a mediator on behalf of the EU in Ukraine. As President, he had numerous occasions to get to know his counterpart from another neighbouring country, Belarus – Alexander Lukashenko –, on a political, as well as on a personal level.

Ania Skrzypek: What is happening in Belarus? What happened around those elections?

Aleksander Kwasniewski: Belarus has been in the shadow of the media for a long time. What explains the current political crisis? Firstly, the elections were falsified. The difference between this presidential election and previous ones is not very important, as previous elections were falsified too. However, this last election was not only falsified but Lukashenko effectively lost it.

Secondly, another critical element lies in the role played by the youngest generations: Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years, which means that all Belarusians under 26 have grown up under Lukashenko. And they are afraid that they might die while he is still in power. That is why the voice of the younger generations is very prominent. Young generations know the European Union better than older generations and they can effectively compare differences in quality of life between Belarus and the EU.

Thirdly, one of Lukashenko’s biggest advantages was the relative economic growth of Belarus’ economy in previous decades. But in the last three years, due to the economy’s structural problems, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the weakening of Russia’s economic support, the expectation of economic prosperity has significantly diminished. These are the three most important explanations of the eruption of such unprecedented demonstrations, and of the reinvigoration of a formerly weak civil society.

AS: Svetlana Tikanouskaya, has become a symbol of the opposition as the Coordination Council is trying to unify the opposition. How has a 37-year old English teacher become the symbol of the political break-through?

AK: Frankly speaking, Tikanouskaya ended up taking on this leadership position largely by chance. The real leader could have been her husband who is currently arrested. Such a movement needs a leader, and she tries to be this leader even though it is not an easy task for her as she lacks past political experience. I have been asked many times about the similarities and differences between Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and the current protests in Belarus. There are some similarities: a growing and energised civil society in both countries for example. However, Ukraine’s civil society, even back in 2004, was much stronger than that of Belarus today. Another similarity can be found in the role of young people.

But there are also numerous differences: firstly, one of the leaders of Compromise in 2004 in Ukraine was President Leonid Kuchma, who had just finished his second term and was extremely engaged in the quest for a political compromise for the next five years. We had a third round of presidential election in Ukraine and Yushchenko was elected. In Belarus, however, the most important competitor is the president himself. The second difference is the lack of opposition leaders. In 2004, in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the opposition movement was extremely strong and could count on very well-prepared and experienced leaders. In Belarus, despite the admirable courage of the opposition, most of the leading figures are not politically experienced. Tikanouskaya’s decision to set up the Coordination Council was a good idea, as she definitely needs such support. I believe this committee can produce leading personalities, also in the public eye. One of the members of the Coordination Council is Pavel Latushko – the former Belarusian ambassador in Warsaw while I was president. I hold him in high esteem. If Tikanuskaya surrounds herself with more experienced people, I see some chances to improve the organisation, structure and leadership of this civic movement. 

AS: Faced with peaceful demonstrations, Lukashenko’s response has been very aggressive, but there is an immense perseverance in these protests. And there are two specific groups of those protesters who are mainly being repressed: women and the movement of workers’ general strike. Do you think these new engines will eventually force Lukashenko to step down from power?

AK: This is a crucial question: In the old Belarusian society, however important, women’s stories have been silenced. The critical change we observe now is that women are not only organising to survive, but they are leading the fight, that is indeed incredibly inspirational! The second element that can be politically decisive is the role of the workers. A continuation of the striking movement in Belarus would be the worst news for Lukashenko. The Belarussian economy is mostly composed of state-run enterprises. If big factories stop operating in Belarus, that will have dramatic consequences on the economy.

The government has many instruments to pressure workers from state-run enterprises as opposed to the protesters on the streets: stop paying salaries for example, threaten workers with dismissal, arrest workers, etc. However, women and workers are the two elements of how the protests will pan out in the future.

AS: You mentioned the economy. Belarus has been strongly connected to Russia, but both countries have quite a strained relationship. Putin has announced that if the situation gets out of hand, Russian security forces might have to intervene. What should we expect from Russia in this situation? 

AK: Putin has repeatedly said that one of the main goals of his life-long presidency is to rebuild a great zone of Russian influence. He can name it differently –Eurasian Economic Union for example – but the idea that still underpins Putin’s foreign policy is to keep a sort of empire, of which Belarus is an extremely important part. For Russians, the Belarusian people are a sort of younger brother, part of the same historical and cultural family. For most of them, the prospect of Belarus joining the EU is unacceptable, even for very pro-Western individuals like Alexei Navalny. Putin wants to keep Belarus, just like Ukraine, Moldova and countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, in Russia’s sphere of influence. 

Putin is not particularly fond of Lukashenko. He would prefer to replace him by other pro-Russian figures – not as a consequence of the ongoing street protests, but as a result of some kind of negotiation. The new pro-Russia leader would be compelled to hold free and fair elections within one or two years. I believe that is Putin’s preferred scenario and indeed, he counts on many instruments to pursue this goal. I believe Putin, and not the West, or the EU, is the only actor that can effectively pressure Lukashenko to step down, as it was the case with president Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. Another scenario would be that the continued protests and civil unrest forces Lukashenko to request Russia’s military intervention to combat instability and alleged Western threats. Putin would then be faced with a clear question: how could he intervene militarily, without unleashing a strong anti-Russian resistance among the Belarusian people? Ukraine has taught him that each military action there sparks strong resistance against Russia. Therefore, Ukraine meant the end of military measures from Putin’s side.

I think the idea of Russian military support for the Belarusian regime has certainly been discussed, but I see Putin’s statements more as a warning, than as a real proposal. Most importantly, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Stephen Biegun, the US Deputy Secretary of State that the plan to reform the constitution might be a sign of Lukashenko’s willingness to negotiate some kind of compromise. However, he warned that the West cannot be too active in this crisis to support this possibility. 

But the problem is that the opposition has very little reasons to trust Lukashenko. However, I could envisage a roundtable between Lukashenko and Tikanouskaya’s Coordination Council, together with representatives from Russia and the West – like in 2004, in Ukraine. There, a timetable for a Constitutional reform and fresh elections could be discussed. 

Without Russia, or against Russia, no change will happen in Belarus. That is something the West should understand. If the determination of the people on the streets gradually declines, I am sure that Lukashenko and the different actors backing him will be resiliently clinging to power. That is Lukashenko’s scenario: to survive the ongoing political turmoil with a limited use of violence. Lukashenko trusts that protests will eventually die down because of fatigue among the population.

AS: There is the question of Lukashenko’s authority. Until now, election after election, Lukashenko has been the undisputable dictator of the country. That is no longer taken as a given.

AK: I know Lukashenko as I worked with him when I was president. We are almost the same age. He loves to come across as a macho leader. However, if you meet him privately, he is a rather realistic and pragmatic person. He may not be as realistic as before, but I would be curious to ask him how he envisions his end and whether he wants to end like Yanukovich. A part of his personality is quite realistic and pragmatic, and we should appeal to this aspect of him. 

AS: How far should the Western neighbours interfere? We see a lot of support from Lithuania, where Tikanouskaya has fled. Poland has expressed its willingness to support the protesters financially, medically, and logistically. However, when we look at the EU, the media assessing the position of the EU is at best prudent when it comes to Belarus. There is also a lot of discussion about what the OSCE should be doing. What do you think the EU’s position and particularly the position of European progressives should be?

AK: The situation is indeed very sensitive, and the actions undertaken by the EU should be very clever. Putin and Lukashenko are waiting for an excuse to say that they have to implement military force as a consequence of the West’s attempt to destabilise the country. There are not many European flags on the streets of Minsk, as in Ukraine, in 2014. That shows that the Belarusians are very responsible. Today if the main demands of the Belarusian opposition were membership of NATO and EU, the situation would be even more explosive. We would give Putin and Lukashenko the strongest reason to act. And this response would be supported by a majority of Russians and even Belarusians. The EU’s attempts to liberalise visa regimes, support free media and NGOs is okay. Exerting political pressure upon Lukashenko is very important. I deeply respect the role played by Lithuania and its Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, a Social-Democrat. He is, in my view, the most competent EU politician who understands what is going on in Belarus, especially within Lukashenko’s camp.

One of the weaknesses in EU decision-making is that we do not have enough information. We have been very passive towards Belarus in the last years. European leaders have met Lukashenko, but we do not even know the people surrounding him. We do not know, a more moderate leader who could potentially replace Lukashenko. This is my first advice: listen carefully to what Linkevičius has to say!

The European Union is doing well. It is necessary to support the ongoing protests. Of course, the main expectation should be to hold free and fair elections. Perhaps not within the next few months, but we should lay the foundations for them in the near future.

With regards to the role of the OSCE, the EU should activate all organisations of which Russia is a part. That is our only chance to have Russia around the negotiation table. In a nutshell, the EU should be active, and try to control the situation carefully, keep the relatively low profile as until now, and include other organisations such as the OSCE in the mediation.


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