If there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s that Belarus is heading for a very hot spring.
In a message posted on Telegram on February 22, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Belarusians to go out in the street for mass demonstrations on March 25, accusing the country’s strongman, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, of having caused a “terrible crisis in Belarus”.
Tsikhanouskaya also called him the “main threat to the independence of the country” which “was trying to sell Belarus piece by piece in exchange for loans and support,” a clear reference to the $ 1.5 billion loan that the Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to Lukashenka during their recent meeting in Sochi.
A week later, Tsikhanouskaya predicted in an interview with Bild am Sonntag that pressure from the West will force the fall of the Belarusian dictator. “The Lukashenka regime will fall this year. I think he will be leaving in the spring, ”she said.
Likewise, Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian Minister of Culture currently living in exile in Poland and leading member of the Belarusian Opposition Coordination Council, told Deutsche Welle that a “decisive battle” was looming this spring and called on the West to impose tougher and more comprehensive sanctions against the Lukashenka regime.
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The looming Belarusian Spring clash promises to be a high-stakes, multidimensional chess game. While the Belarusian opposition calls for the removal of Lukashenka and sincerely aspires to the establishment of a more humane and pluralist political system in his country, Russia seeks either to hijack this democratic uprising or to exploit it to achieve its goals. own geopolitical goals that have little to do with the hopes of the Belarusian street.
For its part, the West must thread a difficult needle. It must support the democratic aspirations of Belarusian civil society while protecting its own security interests. This means preventing Russia from tightening its grip on its neighbor and using Belarus as a military platform that could threaten NATO members, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Political analyst Arsen Sivitsky, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, says Belsat that with the faltering Belarusian economy, “Moscow will limit financial support to Belarus”. This, he added, “will lead to socio-economic destabilization and protests, which Moscow will attempt to use” to force Lukashenka to be a more obedient client or to facilitate his deportation.
One of Putin’s main targets in Belarus is a new air base in the eastern Belarusian city of Babruysk that would park SU-27 fighter jets piloted by Russian pilots. Lukashenka has been resisting for years, but now perhaps she is ready to nod.
Citing a partial transcript of the Putin-Lukashenka summit in Sochi last week, Bloomberg reported that Lukashenka could be ready to welcome new Russian fighter jets and pilots as long as Belarusians have access to the plane as well.
Lukashenka was less docile and less submissive to Moscow on other issues. Russia look for force Lukashenka to agree to constitutional changes transforming Belarus into a parliamentary republic which Moscow would then be able to dominate and control through political parties and media friendly to the Kremlin.
Such a result would effectively end Lukashenka’s reign. On March 2, Lukashenka seemed to reject this, to say bluntly that there would be “no transfer of power” in Belarus. Instead, he stressed that Belarus remains “a sovereign and independent state”.
Both messages seem to indicate that in his desperation to cling to power, Lukashenka is ready to give in to Russia’s quest for a new military base on Belarusian territory, as long as Moscow does not put pressure on him to do so. he resigns.
Given this emerging reality, and in light of the security threat posed by a new Russian base in Belarus, the West will need to adjust its sanctions policy in order to achieve its goals in Russia and Belarus simultaneously.
Pavel Slunkin, guest researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told World Politics Review that Russia seeks to take advantage of Lukashenka’s vulnerability to strengthen its footprint in Belarus. As a result, some commentators are now suggesting that the West should consider sanctioning Russian companies and officials involved in these efforts.
Such a policy would keep the West on the side of democracy in Belarus, while deterring Moscow and increasing the cost of Russian machinations.
The looming hot spring in Belarus indeed promises to be a high-stakes showdown. For the country’s pro-democracy movement, this represents a chance to end more than 26 years of dictatorship. However, the geopolitical implications mean that Russia and the West will also be very engaged as events unfold over the next few weeks.
Brian Whitmore is a non-resident Principal Investigator at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, Adjunct Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical podcast.
Fri Feb 19 2021
A Minsk court sentenced journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova to two years in prison on February 18 in a case that highlights the war on free speech that accompanies Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s crackdown on the pro-uprising. democracy that lasted six months in the country.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, via Russia and Central Asia to the East.