By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Since the 9th of August Presidential elections in Belarus not a single day is passing by without mass protests all over the country. The opposition under the leadership of the newly formed “Coordination Council” led by the opposition figures Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, has declared the electoral result given to President Lukashenko as fraudulent, demanding that new elections be held and the President leave his post. Western politicians and in particular the EU foreign ministers have reacted by declaring the official election results as null and void, urging new elections and announcing the imposition of sanctions against leading personalities of the Belarusian government. The same reaction also has been echoed by the US administration.
There is however a dilemma which the West is facing. The danger exists that the Western elite once again (as was the case in Ukraine) is rushing forward in a reflex- like manner, thus ruining a political process which, if it was handled carefully by all sides, could be both beneficial for Belorussia’s population and for Russia, that since 1997 is in a “Union Alliance” with Belorussia. The West should not interfere as it did in Ukraine but, as Chancellor Merkel had told Putin by phone, insisting that “Belarus must be able to determine its own path;”i.e. the West must make an effort to solve the conflict peacefully and constructively in dialogue with Russia.
The options which Russia has
In a remarkable interview August 29th (FAZ), one of the leaders of the Belorussia “Coordination Council,” Maria Kolesnikova urged the necessity to have dialogue in the country, underling that “we understand that we are the majority, that we are strong and don’t any more want to live in a police state.” Kolesnikova was quite critical about the recent EU intervention which had told the “Coordination Council” to be active in the distribution of 53 Mio Euro EU-money that was given for Belorussia. According to Kolesnikova this action had significantly “harmed the opposition,” since for Lukashenko this was seen as a signal that the “EU would try to influence the situation from outside and interfere into the Belorussian internal affairs.” She qualified the recent EU move as “counterproductive” since “we never asked for money, we kept repeating that we ourselves can cope with our problems on our own.” If there was a “chance for dialogue” in Belarus, “the EU together with Russia could intervene as mediator. Both have an interest that Belarus is functioning as a normal state. This would help us.”
Kolesnikova furthermore underlined that as representatives of the majority they are convinced, “that we must maintain the pragmatic relations with Russia. The country is our most important partner. Nobody intends to change these relations. There is rather the idea to shape them in a more friendly way. Lukashenko would not be capable to enlarge them. “We want to preserve and develop these relations for the mutual benefit of both sides.”
German Russia experts pointing to the dilemma of the West
On this background it is worthwhile to study some discussion which is occurring on the level of Russia experts in the West, particularly in Germany. One is Professor Dr. Eberhard Schneider -member of the German –Russia Forum and expert of the West- Ost Institute Berlin-, who on 25th of August published a comment in “Russland-kontrovers”, entitled “Putin’s Belarus Options” in which the author stated that on a personal level President Putin is very much at odds with Belorussian President Lukashenko, who since 1997 is in a “Union Alliance with Russia.
Aside the very intensive intertwinement between Belorussia and Russia on the level of the economy, military and energy (2000 Belarusian organizations work with Russian capital etc.), on the military level, Russia is monitoring the Belarusian space. Both air forces have a joint high command. Furthermore there are two Russian military bases: an early warning radar against missile attacks and a communication station for the navy whose leasing contract runs out in 2021, which should be renegotiated. Schneider made particular reference to an article which was published August 20 by Dimitri Trenin – director of the Carnegie Moscow Foundation- who in “Moscow News” discussed about the options which President Putin had in respect to Belarus: Trenin emphasized that President Lukashenko’s regime “has definitely lost the country and its legitimacy is lost forever.” While not thinking that a “color revolution” like in Ukraine would take place in Belarus, Trenin emphasized that, while the Kremlin on the one side has “enough of Lukashenko,” it can on the other side “not allow Belarus to go the Ukraine way and become another anti- Russian, NATO- oriented bulwark at its border, close to Moscow.” The Kremlin can also not tolerate a rebellion that could lead to a bloodbath. Hence the options which Putin has, according to Trenin, are the following:
*A Russian “military intervention” in Belarus to destabilize its ally is considered as unlikely given its inevitable catastrophic consequences, and “should be at all costs avoided.”
*To do nothing is also not an option, since it carries the risk that a “shift could lead to a bloodbath and force Moscow to exert the first option (military intervention).”
*Lukashenko could look for a closer embrace. This option is judged counterproductive, since it would make Russia an accomplice of a regime that is doomed and it would create hatred against Russia.”
*Look beyond Lukashenko and “administer a transition of power in Minsk.” This option would mean that the political transition in Belarus would be made easier, by convincing Lukashenko that a pension in exile under present circumstances would be the least bad option for him, at the same time it would involve personalities of public life and help to have election at a given time. This also would imply that Byelorussians would be informed about the bilateral relations, including the nature of the Union State, including future parameters of economic and security relations between both countries. According to Trenin it is useful to look at the “peaceful power transition” which occurred in Armenia 2018 where Moscow did not intervene. The new Armenian president Nikol Paschinjan kept close relations to Russia, without which Yerevan could not stand against the pressure from Baku. On the other hand one must take into account that Armenia‘s and Belarus have a different geography.
“To intervene or not to intervene” – that’s the question
Another interesting analysis was also made by Professor Dr. Hannes Adomeit, a leading Russia expert and former Director of the Program on Russia and East Central Europe, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In the Netherland “RAAMOP RUSLAND” magazine, he published an article under the title “To intervene or not to intervene, that’s the question.”
On the basis of Adomeit’s arguments “it is unlikely that Russia will just wait and consent to a new government as it did in Armenia; so Russia might look for a Belarusian Jaruzelski or resort to hybrid intervention.” The attitude of the West, he emphasizes, has hardly any impact: domestic considerations will determine Russia’s behavior.” In a paragraph “Why allegedly Russia will not intervene”, Adomeit qualifies the present relations between Putin and Lukashenko as some which “have always been tense” and that Lukashenko has frustrated Moscow for a long time. He refers to Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov who had advised against ‘simplifying’ Lukashenko and equating the Belarusian president with all pro-Russian forces in Belarus, clearly implying that there are other leaders who could. ”
* Adomeit further emphasizes that the protests directed against Lukashenko “are not anti- Russian.” (…..)Polls have shown that 70% of the respondents are happy with the state of Russian-Belarussian relations, only 5% think differently. In another poll, 90% of the Belarussian wanted to be on some kind of friendly terms with Russia (10% preferred a more neutral relationship; just 0,2% wanted relations to be hostile). This fact stands in contrast to the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan uprising of 2014 which drew on a “nationalist sentiment.”
* He remarks that Belarus is an “orderly disciplined society with a highly educated population. Suppressing demonstrations of such large scales by force no longer appears to be an option. Lukashenko tried a crackdown, but it only spurred more demonstrations.”
* “A large scale occupation force may be required (from Russia) to suppress dissent. The leaders of the Russian military and internal security forces may not even be sure whether the Belarusian counterparts would stand with them.” Intervention would mean that Russia would “own” the Belarus problem. Rather than achieving its aim of bringing the perennial subsidization of the Belarusian economy to an end, it would have to pour resources into stabilizing political and economic conditions.
* Given the alienation and erosion of Putin’s Russia image even in a Russia- friendly Germany, “the cost of intervention that could be incurred in the West could be severe, exceeding by far the sanctions regime imposed on Russia by the European Union.”
There are however a number of factors, according to Adomeit, in Putin’s calculations and in the one of the Russian power elite, that could tip the scales towards intervention, including with military force. Adomeit refers to a statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, August 19, in an interview in TV Channel 1, in which he expressed that he was “troubled by the attempt to use the internal difficulties which Belarus, its leadership and its people are facing to interfere in these events – including sanctions which external factors consider advantageous to themselves.( …)Nobody is hiding that we are talking about geopolitics, about a struggle for the post-Soviet space,” Lavrov stated and pointed out that NATO forces are moving to the border and the script is to follow the path of the “color revolutions”.
In telephone conversations between Putin and Lukashenko (Aug. 14/15/16), according to Adomeit, “Lukashenko has in all likelihood used the same argument of external threat and direct interference by NATO countries to impress upon Moscow the necessity of providing strong support to him.” Tass had reported as early as August 16, that the two leaders had discussed the situation in Belarus, including external pressure on the republic. Russia confirmed its readiness to provide necessary assistance in ironing out emerging problems (in Belarus) based on the principles of the treaty on creating the Union State and also if needed in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Tass reported.
The argument of political necessity and treaty obligations to assist an ally to counteract alleged military intervention or threat thereof by NATO countries –Adomeit ambiguously emphasized, is “but a repetition of the justifications used by the Soviet leadership in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.” Putin confronted in 2014 with the Maidan revolution was equally aware of the very fact of internal changes shaping foreign policy and the risk of these “spilling over’ into Moscow’s self- declared sphere of influence. “Without any doubt he would be aware of it today in view of the erosion of the Putin- style system in Belarus.” According to Adomeit the conflict between Russia and the West, like in the Soviet era, has again assumed a “systemic or ideological quality.”
Adomeit makes explicit reference to the example of Poland 1980/81, which is instructive when we look at the dilemma that Moscow is confronted with in its responses today in Belarus. “The dilemma for the SU to intervene or not in Poland “was solved by what came to be known as ‘internal intervention’ that is the imposition of martial law by Polish defense minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski. This may be a pattern that Putin would like to follow,” Adomeit reasons. “A Belarusian Jaruzelski, however, is as yet not in sight. In the absence of a leader emerging to do the dirty work, Moscow will most likely find ways to maintain control and prevent the dismantling of the Belarusian power structures.” Yet on the other side he underlines that an intervention short of the use of military force is on-going. At the end of his analysis Adomeit states that Europe like Russia is facing a “dilemma”. But different from that faced by the Kremlin, it is linked to principles enshrined in the 1990 Paris Charter for a New Europe, the Council of Europe and the OSCE and it cannot possibly stand aloof and watch with benign interest what is happening in the country. Adomeit however qualifies the European dilemma as one of “powerlessness to influence the developments” and concludes: “What determines decision- making in Moscow, is not so much the ‘external factor’ but domestic political consideration , notably what impact international events , above all in neighboring countries, are likely to have on their own grip on power in Russia.”