The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In tense Belarus, strongman Lukashenko turns back toward Moscow for help

Belarusian opposition supporters hold cellphone lights and wave an old Belarusian national flag during a protest rally in front of government buildings at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 19. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

MOSCOW — In his 17 years in the closed and coddled world of Belarusian law enforcement, Ruslan Lyasovich was careful never to let slip any remark that might be construed as opposing the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

Lyasovich finally had enough. The lieutenant colonel and senior crime investigator resigned in disgust Aug. 15 over the police violence against peaceful citizens protesting a presidential election earlier this month widely seen as stolen by Lukashenko.

“It’s an incorrect world,” he said, “a misplaced or disfigured world.”

Belarus — led by the former Soviet collective farm director Lukashenko for 26 years — is also one of Europe’s last wild cards between the Kremlin and the West.

The protests themselves, which continued Saturday, are confined to the domestic issues around the contested election result — and there are no pro-Russian or pro-Europe movements riding the wave. But Russia’s determination to push forward a union with Belarus could suffocate protesters’ aspirations for a more open, democratic society.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told his police to quash protests, as the European Union said it didn't recognize the result of the Aug. 9 election. (Video: Reuters)

Lukashenko’s widely derided claim to election victory with 80.1 percent of the vote has knocked holes in his legitimacy. His regime’s future hangs on interlaced questions: how much violence it is willing to use to cling to power, how much staying power the protests have and whether Lukashenko can depend on help from Moscow.

The leader is facing the most serious groundswell on the streets ever seen against his rule. For the first time, there are signs of cracks from within: defections by some members of the security forces, strikes at state enterprises and state TV journalists who say they are tired of lying.

That may not be enough to topple the authoritarian edifice Lukashenko has built for more than a generation in a nation wedged between Russia and the European Union.

'Harsh' warnings

Lukashenko vowed Friday to tough it out and foreshadowed more aggressive crackdowns.

“You can either condemn me or not. But, as long as I’m president, I will be pursuing a harsh policy in order to stabilize the domestic situation,” he said according to state news agency BelTA.

On Saturday, Lukashenko ramped up his anti-Western rhetoric, accusing NATO of “seriously stirring” tensions on the nation’s western border and announcing he had deployed military forces there and put troops on full combat readiness. He blamed Poland and Lithuania for fomenting the protests, adding that he was confident of Russian security support.

But the unrest has seen unprecedented dissent, leaving Lukashenko isolated after U.S. and European leaders rejected the election result. That leaves Russia as Lukashenko’s only hope.

Russia has long sought to absorb Belarus into a “union state,” an idea Lukashenko initially embraced, apparently thinking he would be the leader of a united entity.  

Putin faces the choice of propping up Lukashenko — which might trigger a backlash both in Belarus and Russia — or trying to manipulate events to install a new pro-Russian leader.

The Kremlin has called the crisis an internal affair and called for “necessary dialogue” to resolve it.

“They’re no longer wedded to Lukashenko, but what would an alternative to Lukashenko that supported their goals look like?” said Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said the Kremlin was “not passive at all in this, but they’re not sure how to do it and there are different considerations that pull in different directions.”

U.S. outreach

Washington recently invested a big effort into splitting Minsk from Moscow.

The U.S. outreach — led by a move to sell oil to Belarus — has been left in tatters. Lukashenko got the oil. But, fearing for his survival in the post-election crisis, he turned back to Putin, begging for his support.

Since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko has fashioned Belarus as the kooky Soviet throwback, where state media lauds the nation’s tractor production and wheat harvests.

He maintained statues of Lenin, the KGB, Stalin-era buildings, Soviet-style palaces of culture and sanitariums, and behemoth state factories — all thanks to billions in energy subsidies from Russia that took away the need to modernize the economy.

Moscow sees Belarus as a crucial sphere of interest bordering NATO and will not tolerate a tilt to the West.

So Lukashenko’s February meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk was a poke in the eye for Putin. The first U.S. oil shipment to Belarus, announced in May, sharpened the insult.

In return for Russian oil and gas subsidies, Putin expected Belarus to fulfill a 1999 union treaty creating a single economic system and shared institutions. Lukashenko stalled for years, hedging his bets as he flirted with the West.

Several recent crisis phone calls between Lukashenko and Putin highlighted the Kremlin’s clout.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Wednesday called Belarus “our union state” and Belarusians “our fraternal people.” He denied any Russian plan to influence events there but accused others of interfering.

“Belarusian events are an internal affair of the country,” he said, calling for dialogue and adding that “in the current situation, the main thing is that there is no external interference, no interference from outside.”

Some cracks emerge

Belarusians are demanding a new election, an end to regime violence and the release of political prisoners. They want democracy and a free media.

“This is a piece of territory that particularly under Putin, Russia has long wanted to reel in to some kind of subordination,” said Gould-Davies. “But Putin’s demands, again greater subordination to Russia, are not demands that most Belarusians would support.”

Lukashenko has maintained power by quashing dissent, jailing and disappearing opponents and running fraudulent elections.

“The more I think about it all, the more I come to the conclusion that the biggest trouble is not the person who rules our country but the entire system that has been built during all these years,” said Lyasovich, the police investigator who resigned. “It’s a very strict system where you can’t voice your opinion because that can be very dangerous.”

In a sign of further cracks in the Belarus elite, other police and military officers have ripped off their badges in protest and made videos throwing their uniforms into trash dumpsters.

For Lyasovich, 41, the moment that curdled 17 years of service was seeing the videos of beaten protesters released from prisons in the capital Minsk earlier this month.

“It’s very sad that I know that many of my colleagues support my point of view, but they do not want to lose their jobs, they do not want to lose their pay,” he said. “That is why they don’t speak out.”

'How could this happen?'

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who fled to Lithuania after the election — pledged to forgive members of the security forces who defect to her side. Wooing moderates in the regime is a key for the opposition to prevail, according to analysts.

“That is something that’s a recipe for success,” said Gould-Davis. “The elites are making their choices.”

Tikhanovskaya plans a meeting Monday with a senior U.S. envoy, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, in Lithuania, the Reuters news agency reported.

Gould-Davis warned, however, that any effort by Western powers to try to tip Belarus toward Europe and NATO could be counterproductive, only intensifying competition for influence with Russia.

One police officer who resigned, Lt. Col. Yury Makhnach of the western city of Lida, described a pre-election propaganda effort in the Interior Ministry preparing for what he called “a war against the people.”

“The ideology was this: If the current government loses, then each of us will be hanged on trees along the road. Therefore, this power must be protected by any means and ways,” he said in a video posted on independent Belarusian media.

One of the first to publicly resign over the post-election violence was a captain of the Interior Ministry police, Yegor Yemelyanov, 36, who was then jailed for two days before a judge acquitted him of wrongdoing.

He said he watched videos of riot police beating people up “through tears, crying like a little girl. I realized I couldn’t help. I couldn’t do a thing. And I knew I was could not do my job anymore.

“I was scared and confused. But the main feeling I had was bitterness. I was angry. How could this happen in our country?”

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