GP Insights # 401, 23 August 2020
On 20 August, the European Union (EU) leaders spoke out in solidarity with the Belarusians. The latter has been protesting for their democratic rights and demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for the last 26 years and who was once referred to as 'Europe's last dictator.' The statement by the EU comes after its officials held a virtual emergency summit wherein it concluded that "we don't recognize the results presented by the Belarus authorities."
The EU also has threatened sanctions against "a substantial number" of Belarusian leaders linked to violence and election fraud. In addition, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated that the elections "were neither fair nor free," and condemned the "brutal violence" against peaceful protesters.
Simultaneously, on the eve of the meeting, in a telephonic conversation, the Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to discuss ways to encourage talks between the Opposition and the President. As the EU and Russia engage on Belarus, the external actors have determined the progression of the protest.
What is the background?
First, Belarus as the next sphere of influence between the EU and Russia. Belarus remains in a constant political space of negotiation where it risks falling under the Russian influence. Some believe, causing unrest with Lukashenko could drive Belarus into the hands of Russia, which has offered military help to Lukashenko. Drawing parallels with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the invasion in Crimea, it is believed that Russia could end up intervening during the unrest. In this backdrop, Belarus has emerged as the point of contention wherein the EU, in trying to support the Opposition, wants to sway the country's foreign policy dynamics with Russia. Even though the President of Belarus shares a close association with Russia, the Belarusians want only to secure a regime change and are not seeking a relationship with the EU, Moscow or NATO, even though these external actors have an influence in the outcome of the protest.
Second, the attempt by Russia to retain Belarus under its sphere of influence. With the EU seeking to take control of the narrative emerging from the Belarus protests, Russia has equally tried to engage with Belarus, offering support to the regime. While the Opposition receives support from the neighbourhood that includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia and the EU, Russia has extended support to the regime. The repeat of a Ukraine moment looms large in the region, but Russia has to take note - that unlike Crimea and Ukraine, the Belarusians share a common affinity with the Soviet culture. Anti-Moscow sentiment is not leading the protest movement within Belarus.
Third, the democracy deficit in Eastern Europe and the protests against strongmen. This is not the first instance where the proletariat has rose against a system inherited from the Cold War Soviet era in East Europe. In the post-Cold War era, even though democratization took place, the institutional transition is yet to gain ground leading to frequent protests like in Belarus and the rest of East Europe. Democracy from below, remains a challenge in the region, where autocratic rulers like in Hungary, Lavinia and Poland remain. The protest for regime change in Belarus has emerged in this backdrop and the strong leadership has been challenged as gaining legitimacy more from outside than from the people of the country.
What does it mean?
First, the presence of external support has strengthened the opposition voices to the protest movement. Ahead of the virtual EU meeting, opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya released a video calling on the EU to support the "awakening" and not recognize the "fraudulent elections" that have sparked the mass protests." Thus, one sees how internal protest is drawing on external validation to strengthen its voice against the President in this process of regime change.
Second, with equal and opposite support from Russia, the military clampdown to throttle the protest will remain contingent on how the neighbourhood reacts to the regime's relation with Russia. Poland being one of the NATO members has been strenthening troops on its borders with Belarus, but that could be interpreted by Belarus President and his alliance with Russia in the content of western Europes' effort to contain Russia's sphere of influence.