News

Europe Analysis

Belarus Interview: The EU is not coming out against Lukashenko in full force

  • Share:

Numerous articles have been published regarding the political situation of Belarus: the elections, the Presidency and the general crisis. There has been speculation over an imminent Russian military intervention, a NATO incursion, and an imminent Russian annexation.

Tactics Institute discussed the situation with Ina Kardash, a journalist working in Minsk. Ina is an accredited journalist for the 112 Ukraine TV Channel in Belarus. She specialises in features that reflect the interplay of foreign policy with socioeconomic developments ranging from business to relations with Russia and Ukraine to the management of the region around Chernobyl. Her recent work has focused on management of the Pandemic, while in the past she covered the activities of the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group that managed the conflict in the Donbas.

EU analysts raise the specter of Russian military interference in Belarus. Do you agree with this assessment?

I don't think that Russia is seriously considering the scenario of any military intervention in Belarus.

First of all, there is a legal aspect. Belarus and Russia (as well as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). CSTO’s Charter stipulates that no military force can enter the territory of a member-state without the fait accompli of third-party intervention.

Strategically, there is no need for Russian military forces to counterbalance NATO forces in Lithuania, Poland and Estonia. No one expects NATO invasion in Belarus. Even if they did, the Russian air force would reach the country in minutes and the artillery in a few hours. Ultimately, the deployment of Russian troops is expensive and would destroy regional stability. Neither Russia or NATO need an additional hotbed of instability.

Vladimir Putin recently said that Lukashenko invited him to send a military force in Belarus to help suppress domestic opposition protests, should these evolve into riots. From a legal point of view that is impossible. His statement should be seen as a message to EU leaders that do not recognise the electoral result, questioning Lukashenko’s legitimacy. Putin is in effect telling the EU to moderate its tone towards Belarus. There is no real threat here.

There is another logical fallacy.

The picture that dominates media is that of hundreds of thousands of opposition protestors marching through the capital. For Belarussian standards, the scale of the protests is not actually that impressive. Some media estimates the participation in Sunday demonstrations in the region of 300-400 thousand people. That is 3-4% of the population, which the opposition claims is the electoral influence of President Lukashenko ("Sasha 3%").

The Ministry of Internal Affairs suggests the numbers are multiple times lower, although their estimates may be politically biased. As a rule of thumb, any given weekday 10 to 15 thousand demonstrators take to the streets according to media reports (4-to-5 according to the ministry). None of that shows the kind of escalation that would require military intervention.

Finally, in the era of information-warfare, there is no need to fight physically. Information-wars have proved to be effective. Why should Russia dispatch military personnel if it is possible to fight this on the level of media. Everyone knows Russia has a special information war HQ.

Belarus does not have serious tools to resist information attacks other than blocking online content, which is ineffective and fairly easy to circumvent. Against the backdrop of protests in Belarus, {Twitter’s} Telegram gained unprecedented popularity. The only effective method of the Belarusian authorities against the application was blocking the whole platform at the peak of the protests.

EU officials have stated that they will not allow “A second Ukraine” again. Given that the Ukrainian ceasefire was dependent on the Minsk process, do you see a scenario of regional instability in a region the Russians refer to as “the Near Abroad”?

Such statements are peculiar, reflecting either a failure to understand the essence of the political crisis in Belarus or just posture-rhetoric reflecting a political and diplomatic confrontation between the two power blocs.

To be honest, I rule out the scenario of regional instability in Belarus, comparable to Ukraine. In Ukraine the geopolitical rift, pro-Russian and pro-EU, became a social cleavage, underpinned by a geographic rift. The absence of a strong central government has a destructive effect on the ideological unity of the people of Ukraine.

The political crisis in Belarus is based on the opposition's demand for Lukashenko's resignation, a call for new elections, and a demand for the alleviation of a state of repression. Belarusians do not choose between alliances with Russia or the EU, they don’t wear either Russian or European symbols. Belarus is an independent state with strong central government, and no separatist regions.

Belarusian society is a split between for-and-against Lukashenko forces, a reality reflected on online forums.

Furthermore, Russia does not need to undermine Belarusian sovereignty. Belarusians are loyal to Russia, although they are against annexation. The Belarusian economy has been entirely dependent on Russia since the days of the USSR. Russia is the main investor and creditor, while the country’s main export markets are the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union.

A repeat of Maidan, Donbass and the Crimea is unlikely in Belarus.

Incidentally, when EU officials say they will not allow a "Second Ukraine", I would like to ask them: what are they doing to stabilize the situation in the "First Ukraine"? Let me remind you: the conflict in Donbass is already 6 years old, and people are still dying there ...

Moving on, one should reflect on who would really benefits from instability in Belarus and why they are working out the scenario of a color revolution in the country. The media landscape now is very reminiscent of certain elements of the Ukrainian Maidan: clashes with the police who are presented with flowers, women's protests, naked feminists, sacred victims, and so on.

President Lukashenko claims that NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania are moving near Belarus’s borders. The transatlantic organisation has made clear it is a collective security organisation that poses no threat to anyone. What is the perception in the streets of Minsk?

People in Belarus do not think about or debate this topic. Several times I saw posters "WE ARE AGAINST NATO" in the hands of Lukashenko's supporters. But I don’t think they are really concerned about NATO’s invasion. Lukashenko's supporters merely reiterate the official position; the only one who cares about the movement of NATO troops near the border is Lukashenko because of his constitutional role as the commander-in-chief of the army.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the people of Belarus have expressed their desire for political change. At the same time, 100.000 campaigners have started a campaign aiming at boycotting state-run companies. To what extent do such initiatives affect everyday life in Belarus?

Firstly, Tikhanovskaya is in Lithuania, where she is hailed as the winner of the elections.  But reports of Tikhanovskaya being “expelled from Belarus” are inaccurate. She told the Lithuanian press that she left Belarus of her own accord. She was not expelled.

Secondly, Tikhanovskaya speaks as the winner of the elections in Belarus. But her views are more reflective of a well-funded opposition. On the eve of the elections, the "supporters of change" launched an unprecedented information campaign aimed at preventing election fraud. This was in part run on the Golos platform, where voters were encouraged to send pictures from polling stations where they saw violations of protocol. The system was used by just over 1 million voters in a 10-million people country.

However, even with reference to the results validated by the opposition, Lukashenko secured a 61% share of the vote. There are approximately ten stories that document election fraud, showing a divergence between the data sent and the data published by the central electoral commission. This data does confirm that Tikhanovskaya did win in these specific polling stations, even by small margin. But there were about six thousand polling stations in Belarus.

I think that if the people of Belarus want political change they can affect it. It's not about fear of reprisals.

Doctors, scientists, artists, teachers, athletes, workers of the largest state factories went on strike. They warned of a complete lockdown if their demands were not met. Even journalists working in state-owned TV channels were fired. The question is whether one finds the images of mass strikes and thousands of dissatisfied people completely credible.

For example, there were multiple media reports of a strike in the Minsk Automobile Plant with over 15 thousand employees. But participation was limited and many returned to their jobs. True, that is because they feared dismissal or feared for the future of the plant amid an economic crisis. The point is different: the majority of the population is accustomed to the stability and predictability of Lukashenko's policy. Objectively: he managed the post-Soviet transition maintaining control over strategic enterprises, agriculture, while guaranteeing employment, healthcare, and expending welfare support.

The opposition’s self-proclaimed Coordination Council has yet to develop a counterbalancing political narrative for a sustainable political future and limits its calls to slogans such as “Lukashenko resign”. The Coordination Council’s programme originally envisaged limiting contacts with Russia and mass privatisation. The reaction to both these objectives were negative and the oppositions’ manifesto was reviewed.

Protests continue into their second month, mostly by young people. They gather in columns and chains of solidarity. They are not afraid because their actions go unpunished. I think this is the euphoria stemming from a feeling of freedom of street gatherings, which previously required permission. Nevertheless, participation is falling and the government controls the situation.

Educational institutions, enterprises, shopping centers in Belarus are now in operation. Mass protests are now taking place only on Sundays. Central metro stations and the city centre {in Minsk} are still closed and walking around is difficult. I often hear from people that it is really disruptive and there is a backlash.

The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said in a statement “the people of Belarus deserve better,” discrediting the elections as “neither free nor fair.” What has been the impact of the EU’s position on Belarus?

Let me remind you that the EU has not validated the results of any election in Belarus since 2001. This did not prevent Lukashenko from establishing himself as the head of state for the sixth term. After 26 years, the effect is limited.

As a rule, European states respond more to brutality against protestors than lack of electoral transparency.  The economic effect is also limited since Minsk is not dependent on the EU.

Interestingly, the big three – Germany, France, and Italy – have not imposed personal sanctions against Lukashenko. This may indicate that they want to retain communication channels in the future or they realistically asses that the President’s economic ties with Russia and China make the regime more resilient to pressure.

Against the backdrop of harsh repression in Belarus, including the use of light and sound ammunition, the EU has tempered its sanctions against individuals linked with the regime. Only 20 people were targeted. Compare this to the 160 political functionaries and the management of state-owned enterprises sanctioned in 2010, following a similar wave of protests.

For many EU firms it is business as usual with the country’s oil refining and mineral fertilising companies, prioritising access to a valuable product in competitive prices while Minsk replenishes its foreign reserves.  No Belarusian company has been targeted this time and EU member states diverge between them as to the extent of sanctions they deem appropriate, perhaps due to Putin’s warnings against foreign interference in Belarusian internal affairs. 

Also, although there are open channels facilitating an exodus for asylum seekers to neighbouring EU member-states, very few people are leaving.  

 

 

Ina Kardash is a  Minsk-based journalist at the 112 Ukraine TV Channel in Belarus.

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis is Project Manager at Tactics Institute @AKaskanis

 

Angelos Kaskanis holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Black Sea Studies of the Democritus University of Thrace. His field of research is Security Studies and the impact of International Terrorism in Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus. He has worked as a Research Assistant with the Municipality of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, in Komotini; as a Project Assistant in Youth NGOs in Ankara; as a Project Coordinator for Youth NGOs in Athens and as a Project Coordinator with Save the Children/under UNHCR mandate in the islands of Kos and Leros, during the Humanitarian Crisis. He has also participated/co-organized several workshops in more than 20 countries that focus on Religious Extremism, Radicalization, Safety, and Security in Southeastern Europe, European Identity and Greco-Turkish Relations. Awards of academic excellence include scholarship from the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation. He speaks Greek, English, Russian, German, and Turkish.