Here is a scenario that the European Union may face immediately along its entire Eastern border on Sunday, August 9, after the closing of polling stations in the presidential election in Belarus.
For the first time in 26 years, judging by this turn of events, the poll conducted in Belarus does not indicate unequivocal support for the power of authoritarian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who rules the country with an iron hand. As usual, he still claims victory by once again jailing or forcing his most prominent and important rivals to leave the country, rigging the system and counting the official majority of votes in his favor. But this time events unfold differently.
The wives of three opposition candidates who were disqualified from running in the election entered the presidential race in place of their husbands and formed a convincing three-way group that was attractive to voters. Before the election, tens of thousands of Belarusians went to mass rallies that resembled rock concerts and expressed their dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s corruption and his ridiculous claims about the coronavirus — just drink vodka, work on a tractor, and everything will be fine, he said.
Now, after the elections, these enthusiastic Belarusians are taking to the streets, defying even the very threat from the Lukashenka thugs, who, as usual, are thrown to disperse the demonstrators in large numbers. What will happen next?
Lukashenko is considering his options. He is tempted to deal with the crowd, as is usually the case. He knows that this will provoke new sanctions from the EU and pathos about human rights and democracy from Brussels, Berlin and other Western capitals. But Lukashenko has been dealing with these annoying and meddling Western Europeans for many years and has always been quite adept at holding them back, turning to his Eastern ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for support.
But now, looking at Moscow, Lukashenko feels uneasy. Yes, technically, he is still a Pro-Russian leader. In 1999, in a fit of nostalgia and paying tribute to the Soviet Union, he even agreed to the fact that the huge Russia and small Belarus were United in a new “Union state”. But he did it with the expectation that the head of this state will not be the weak at that time Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but he, Lukashenko.
But these plans are in the distant past. These days, the Kremlin is ruled by Putin, like a modern Tsar who has just changed Russia’s Constitution to rule forever. In the new Union state, Putin would be the chief, “alpha male”, and would demote Lukashenko to the status of regional Governor or worse. So now Lukashenko does not like his previous idea of creating a Union state.
This has led to an increase in tensions with Moscow. Therefore, in order to keep Putin at a distance, Lukashenko seeks to detente with the EU and seeks support from Europe, betting that Putin cannot afford to give another reason for confrontation with the West in addition to his ongoing provocations in Ukraine. Lukaschenko would prefer not to endanger this fragile rapprochement with the EU for its overly harsh measures against the protesters.
And Putin, for his part, looks at Minsk and sees both risks and opportunities. If the Belarusian protests intensify, they may turn into another “color revolution”. And this will lead to another post-Soviet satellite state moving even further West — away from the” Russian world ” that Putin wants to revive.
In this sense, Lukashenko is beginning to remind Putin of Viktor Yanukovich, the helpless and corrupt but formally Pro-Russian former President of Ukraine who was ousted during the 2014 revolution that broke out in his country, making him useless to Moscow. These events contributed to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and undermining the foundations of Ukrainian statehood by continuing to wage war in the East of the country.
Putin could do the same with Belarus. Its population is generally Pro-Russian and mostly speaks Russian. However, the country was already showing some signs of forming a new and own national identity, attempts were made to revive the use of the Belarusian language and evoke the “Golden age”, a period of prosperity under Lithuanian rule. Putin may come to the conclusion that he should intervene soon — and the sooner, the better.
He could also use another dose of the” Crimean effect ” at home, where he has recently been losing popularity and is facing protests in the far East. In 2014, Russians on a wave of patriotism supported him after he sent his “green men” (Russian soldiers in uniform without identification marks) to the Crimea, which led the West to confusion. In order to be able to do this in Belarus, it seems that he has already sent dozens of Russian mercenaries from the PMC “Wagner Group” to destabilize the situation. Lukashenko arrested 33 of them in July.
Thus, EU leaders face a familiar dilemma in principle. They know that Lukashenko, no matter how dubious his reputation, is the best guarantor of Belarus ‘ independence from Russia, and thus of Belarus as a buffer zone. For the sake of the EU’s geopolitical interests, they should support it-at least tacitly.
At the same time, they will not be able to cynically ignore the democratic protests against Lukashenko, since this would mean a betrayal of European values and a loss of trust in the entire region and beyond. So the EU should support the opposition. But if the demonstrations turned into a General revolution, it would probably force Putin to engage in another stage of hybrid war and geopolitical escalation, in which the EU would ultimately look powerless.
This likely scenario directly at the borders of the EU once again shows that it is difficult to conduct foreign policy, using only soft power “values,” when for the sake of “interests”, you need to act differently based on realism, it is not peculiar of the EU diplomacy. For now, EU leaders can only hope that things will turn out differently in Belarus after Sunday.