Russia Considers Life After Lukashenko in Belarus
(Bloomberg) -- While Russian President Vladimir Putin is publicly supporting his besieged ally Alexander Lukashenko after disputed elections, some around the Kremlin leader are starting to imagine life without Belarus’s longtime ruler.
Lukashenko may not be able to survive the backlash against him and Russia may gain more by reaching an understanding with the opposition than by intervening to prop up his regime and risk a social explosion in Belarus, according to two people with access to Putin’s inner circle, who asked not to be identified because the matter is sensitive.
Russia isn’t interested in preventing Lukashenko’s downfall though it won’t seek to hasten it either, said an official with knowledge of Kremlin policy discussions. Even if he weathers the storm and survives in power, the Belarusian ruler has lost credibility as a partner capable of delivering on agreements with Moscow, which views him as toxic, according to another person close to Russian foreign policy thinking.
Lukashenko faces the biggest threat of his 26-year rule after protests erupted across Belarus to demand his resignation following the Aug. 9 presidential election in which he claimed to have won a landslide. He has turned to Putin for support amid U.S. and European Union condemnation of a violent police crackdown on protesters, with nearly 7,000 detained and allegations that some in custody were tortured.
After Lukashenko resisted Moscow’s demands last year for closer integration with Russia, the Kremlin was betting before the election that he would emerge weakened but in control of Belarus for a sixth term. That would have left him vulnerable to a renewed push for tighter political and economic relations with Russia.
The pendulum may have swung too far, however, after hundreds of thousands joined rallies and strikes against Lukashenko in the biggest protests in Belarus’s history.
There’s little appetite for military intervention to support Lukashenko under a defense accord between Russia and Belarus, according to the people close to Putin’s inner circle. That would risk turning ordinary Belarusians against Russia and threaten a conflict worse than the one in Ukraine, they said.
To be sure, Russia isn’t abandoning Lukashenko yet. Putin has spoken to him by phone four times in recent days, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin held phone talks on prospects for cooperation with his Belarusian counterpart for the second day in a row on Thursday, the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported.
The EU is treading a fine line in trying to move more aggressively to assure geopolitical stability in the region without inciting a strong reaction from Putin, who has warned the bloc not to interfere. Lukashenko has placed his military on “full combat readiness” on Belarus’s EU borders, complaining of unspecified security threats.
While its leaders called for “dialog” between the two sides Wednesday after an emergency conference call on the crisis, they held back from asking for fresh elections even as they urged a peaceful transition of power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel later told reporters that Lukashenko “has denied every phone call” from her in her attempts to mediate between the sides.
Attempts by the Belarus opposition to follow Ukraine and move the country closer to the EU would be unacceptable for Putin, one of the people close to his circle said. While it’s not certain that Lukashenko’s ouster would be bad for Russia, Moscow knows too little so far about the Belarusian opposition, according to the official with knowledge of Kremlin policy discussions.
The opposition that united against Lukashenko and behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who’s now in exile in Lithuania, has begun to try to reassure Russia about a change of power.
“I don’t see any gain for Russia in supporting a weak dictator who’s hated by his own people,” Maria Kalesnikava, who campaigned alongside Tikhanovskaya, said in an interview Thursday. “Lukashenko always had a lot of difficulty in building relations with Russia. Our task is to reach a dialog.”
Lukashenko, who insists he won 80% in the vote, shows little sign he’s willing to go quietly. He ordered the Interior Ministry to clamp down on protests on Wednesday, saying “People are tired, people demand peace and quiet,” according to the state-owned Belta news service.
On Thursday, Belarus prosecutors opened a criminal probe against a national coordination committee set up in support of Tikhanovskaya to negotiate a transfer of power and new elections.
The committee represents an unconstitutional attempt “to seize state power,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement announcing the investigation.
Russia built good relations with the opposition that came to power in Armenia, another close ally, after the ouster of a pro-Kremlin leader in the peaceful 2018 revolution, said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.
“There’ll be no more need for Lukashenko” if Russia concludes he can’t survive, Vingradov said. “It’s possible to maintain the status quo in relations with Belarus even without Lukashenko.”
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