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August 17, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8897

Russia Grudgingly Congratulates Weakened Lukashenko, Critics See The Belarus Crisis As A Symptom Of Russian Neglect For The Post-Soviet Space

August 17, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8897

Alexander Lukashenko was declared the victor in Belarus' August 9, 2020 election and demonstrations against Lukashenko erupted in Belarus in response and are both continuing and gathering momentum. The demonstrators claimed that the results that gave Lukashenko nearly 80% of the vote were fraudulent.

Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his "reelection" on his Telegram channel: "I hope that your state activities will contribute to the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas, deepening cooperation within the Union State, building up integration processes through the Eurasian Economic Union and the CIS, "[1] Chechen boss Ramzan Kadirov also offered his heartfelt congratulations to Lukashenko for his "convincing victory". Lukashenko has bestowed on Kadirov Belarus' highest award for foreigners.[2]

A deputy from the ruling United Russia Party Konstantin Zatulin urged Russia to withhold congratulations and distinguished between maintaining relations with those in power and endorsing all their actions. He called the elections "a shameful event" [3]Putin, perhaps in solidarity, decided to stick with Lukashenko despite the recent tensions between Russia and Belarus over the arrest of 33 Russian nationals in Minsk[4] and despite a pre-election interview that Lukashenko gave to Dmitry Gordon the Ukrainian journalist where he made statements unflattering to Putin:

"Putin is a peculiar person ... One thing I don't like about him is that he doesn't trust anyone... I consider Putin to be my elder brother...But the elder brother should help, and not try to sweep the legs out from under the younger brother."

"Putin will never remain president until 2036, I guarantee you 100%. Putin will not hold on to power."

"Putin had a good trait, if [he] promises, he never backs down from what was promised. Now, these six months, I see, that one thing was being said, but then someone changes it, Putin promises, but then the government decides differently."[5]

The Belarusian opposition was therefore surprised that the Kremlin had  recognized the presidential elections in Belarus and sent congratulations to Alexander Lukashenko, said Valery Tsepkalo, one of Lukashenko's former opponents in the presidential race, who had fled the country prior to the vote.

Tsepkalo told Kommersant that he was certain that the Russian leadership had no sympathy for Lukashenko, and expected the Kremlin to observe neutrality in the clash between Lukashenko and the opposition.

"It seemed to me that this was the mood of those people with whom I communicated. But I was wrong. It turned out unexpectedly for us, and, to put it diplomatically, unpleasant after what happened in bilateral relations,"Tsepkalo said.[6]

Russian commentators were unsurprised by the way the elections played out and the demonstrations that they touched off. They had smelled even before the elections that old man Lukashenko had outworn his welcome. He could win only via fraud and retain power thanks to the support of the Belarus security services, but that support was becoming tenuous as well.  They also claimed that Lukashenk,o even if he managed to cling to power, would find himself in a weakened position, as he had managed to alienate both the West and Russia.[7] Another theme that emerges from the treatment of Belarus is dismay that Russia, which had shown itself so adroit in other corners of the world, should prove itself so inept in its own neighborhood. Why had Lukashenko remained the default choice leaving Russia with no plausible alternative, wondered the critics? A survey of Russian reactions to the crisis in Belarus follows below:


Lone protester confronts Belarus riot police (Source: Osw.waw.pl)

George Bovt: Lukashenko Did Not Understand That He Had Overstayed His Welcome

Weeks before the elections, the senior columnist and political scientist George Bovt predicted that 26 years in office and the need to staff his government with mediocrities, had sapped Lukashenko of popular support:

"And then suddenly the faithful vizier with a thin red folder stealthily and squintingly approaches the throne: 'Your Majesty, I dare to report. According to internal polls, you are no longer loved [by the people]. Well, there are still some amongst the people who idolize you, but more and more hate [you] and they even say that they are fed up [with your rule]. They say, "how long is he going to be on the throne?'"

"...And it already seems that the faces of the courtiers are not truly obsequious. Their eyes are shifting. Laughter at your stupid jokes becomes more and more nervous (before, they got belly laughs). 'But I gave them everything, took them from the street' the ruler might think. 'They’re nobody without me, if I disappear - they will fight among themselves, or all will find themselves behind bars!' But it's better not to turn your back, because they'll stick a knife in it. And it is not known who will be the first to betray you"

"As in the case of many authoritarian rulers, so for the Belarusian “last dictator of Europe” (as he was called once), the problem of a successor is always the fascinating one. But this issue is perceived by them as some kind of abstraction as the problem of a distant future."

"...Lukashenko stayed in power for too long and stopped making sense, he lost touch with reality, and along with it (may God forgive me for such words) he lost charisma. It is time for him to leave. Many hate him so much that they are ready to vote for some unknown woman."[8]

Political Strategist Pavlovsky: The End Of Lukashenko's Electoral Authoritarianism

After Lukashenko was declared victor by a landslide, political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky predicted in an interview with Mk.ru's Andrey Kamakin that Lukashenko "who was running amok in panic" had become an embarrassment to the bureaucracy that would depose him to ensure its own survival.

"... But the matter of fact is that Lukashenko, wanting to get guarantees, staged elections in whose results no one believes. Even those loyal to him in the [state] apparatus do not believe [in the election results]. With his hysterics over the past months, he has created complete confidence among everyone that the drop in his support is simply dreadful.

"He destroyed even Moscow’s confidence in himself via his toxic special operation with mercenaries. No matter how they [the arrested mercenaries] wound up in Minsk, it is clear that Lukashenko started seriously checking a variant of the anti-Moscow course. And I suspect that he has no choice but to continue it."

"Practically we are talking about the violent seizure of power. It is no joke for electoral authoritarianism to turn to rule by force, which means that this must be somehow justified. And how can this be justified? "

Pavlovsky doubted that Lukashenko would last out his term of office:" I don't think it’s possible to forecast five years ahead in this situation. For Lukashenko, in order to be the president in this situation for another five years, he needs to maneuver very delicately. And he does not look like a man who knows how to that. Lukashenko will be catastrophically weakened as a result of these elections, and the regime’s apparatus is not going to go to the bottom with him. Alexander Lukashenko has already become unhandy for the state apparatus; he interferes with its survival. Therefore, we can assume that the state apparatus will try to get rid of him in one way or another. This is totally possible."

A Weakened Lukashenko Creates A Power Vacuum On Russia's Western Border

Russia was also negatively impacted by Lukashenko's weakness and had to make a difficult choice said Pavlovsky: "- Moscow’s situation is also very bad. Moscow is losing its last strong ally. But the Kremlin must choose: to continue either to pay for such 'entertainment', and finance a regime that is no longer able to maintain itself. (And maintaining someone else's regime, as the history of [Ukraine's] Yanukovych has shown, is very difficult). However, Moscow should have a plan 'B'. Why not, for example, voice a doubt over the election results? After all, Russia didn't have official observers at them. Now Moscow may say that it can neither confirm nor deny these figures. This will already be a very strong blow to Lukashenko’s positions.

In a sense, it would even be better for Moscow if a revolution did happen. Or in other words - the transfer of power to another group. But so far it is obvious that there is no such other group in Belarus. This means that we will be dealing with an extremely weakened Lukashenko regime, which can receive a fatal blow at any moment (both from within the country and from outside). In fact, a gigantic power vacuum is forming at our western border.[9]


Gleb Pavlovsky (Source: Vnnews.ru)

Alexey Makarkin: Lukashenko Is Cornered And Has Lost His Confidence

According to Alexey Makarkin first vice president of the “Center for Political Technologies”, interviewed by Interfax, the improvised maneuvering of Alexander Lukashenko between Moscow and the West after the elections will have diminishing success for the Belarusian president.

"During the election campaign, Lukashenko created a unique situation for himself, in which, on the one hand, relations with Moscow were seriously damaged (especially due to the detention of 33 Russians at the end of the presidential campaign). On the other hand, Lukashenko was not and never will be 'one of our own' for the West. As a result: The West did not like the election campaign, and Moscow likes Lukashenko’s policy less and less."

 "...These were far from the first elections for Lukashenko. He always declared that he allows opposition candidates to enter the elections, and later emphasized in every possible way that he had won in a fair fight. Three opposition candidates who could count on some [votes] were removed from the last election race." - said the expert.

"All this indicates a great level of uncertainty by Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko] in his own capabilities. This very impressive result was achieved in the fight against those rivals, whom Lukashenko considered safe for himself. There was a certain consolidation of the opposition around Tikhanovskaya, but she is still not a politician. The voters didn’t consider her for role of the country's president."[10]


Alexey Makarkin (Souce: Gazeta.ru)

Two columnists, Kommersant's Maxim Yusin and Mk.ru's Oleg Bondarenko, both claimed that Russian policy had foundered in areas of the former Soviet Union because Moscow had failed to invest the necessary talent and resources. Yusin published his gloomy prognosis and criticism of Russian policy five days before the election:

Yusin: Moscow Sends The Least Talented People To The Post-Soviet Space

Kommersant columnist Maxim Yusin claimed that the Belarus crisis was symptomatic of Moscow's mishandling of the post-Soviet space:

"When I was in Kiev last year, I was deeply impressed by the line, which the ambassador of one of the G7 states related to me: ' Having observed your policy in Syria, and how clearly you achieve your goals, I am amazed at how deeply you, the Russians, understand the problems of the Middle East, at the competence level of your specialists. And [at the same time] I am surprised how poorly you understand Ukraine and the post-Soviet space in general.'

"Everything is clear about Ukraine. Both the first and second Maidan, and the subsequent events showed how disastrous Moscow's course in the Ukrainian direction was. And now, before our eyes, another drama is unfolding: the Belarusian one.

"And again, to our great regret, on the Russian side we see confusion, helplessness, the absence of a clear concept and backup options.

"In politics, as in war, only winners take it all. In the case of the Belarusian crisis, no matter how it ends, it is already clear that Russia in any case will not be a winner.

"If, after the August 9 elections, supporters of the opposition candidates will organize protests and overthrow Alexander Lukashenko, and the 'Belarusian Maidan' will be successful, the future scenario for Moscow is generally clear.

"This of course will be not the Ukrainian scenario, it will be less radical, but the outcome will still be extremely unpleasant for Russia. The new authorities may well embark upon course towards building a national state, towards 'Belarusianization'. They might strive for a neutral status, that is, for withdrawal from the Union State with Russia, and from the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization.

"And after that - the painfully familiar scheme from the same Ukraine: creating maximum distance from Moscow, building relationships with new partners and the appearance of advisers and reformers from Warsaw, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Washington (and now, by the way, from Kiev as well) in various official positions.

"The saddest thing is that even if Lukashenko manages to suppress the potential 'Maidan', nothing good awaits Russian-Belarusian relations. Too many things have happened in recent days and weeks that have left a deep scar in the two countries’ relationship.

"It is hard to imagine that the Kremlin will forget the accusations of Russian interference and of preparation of sabotage actions in Belarus.

"And most importantly, Moscow will not forget the talks about the possible transfer of detained Russians to Kiev, as fighters from Wagner Group, who supposedly fought in the Donbass.

"If this happens (I hope that Minsk will refrain from such a step anyway), relations with Lukashenko will be ruined completely and irrevocably. Moreover, by the way, this concerns not only the Kremlin, but also left-wing patriotic circles of Russian society for whom Lukashenko's state, based on the Soviet legacy, served as a role model.

"For Moscow, Lukashenko has never been an easy partner. But this time he outdid himself in what is arguably the riskiest game of his political career. Things have been said and done [by him] that are unthinkable and simply unacceptable in relations with the closest ally. This, unfortunately, characterize somewhat our union, which did not stand the test of elections. This is the result of the painful building of the union state.

"As it was in Ukraine, in Belarus as well, Moscow’s course turned out to be absolutely ineffective and failed eventually. Instead of systematic work with Belarussian elites, instead of creating influence groups interested in developing relations with Russia, everything was left to chance. This state of affairs was also affected the fact that the post-Soviet space in Moscow was and continues to be treated according to a 'leftover principle'. In contrast to Europe, the United States, and the Middle East, by no means the brightest, proactive personnel, often of retirement age work at this non-prestigious direction [of policy].

Nobody was seriously working on the Belarus direction, as it was with Ukraine. Instead, exceptional reports were written for show and good press releases, pretentious speeches and toasts about eternal friendship and unity were made. And in parallel, budgets were cut. It is no wonder, that we are now reaping the fruits of such an attitude."[11]

Oleg Bondarenko: If Russia Will Not Pay For Its Allies, Its Enemies Will

Oleg Bondarenko Director of the Foundation for Progressive Policy and a columnist for Mk.ru, claimed that Russia was in the unenviable position of having alienated both sides:

"Sadly, but true: these elections showed that Moscow clearly lost Belarus. When Russia becomes a negative example for both opposing camps, it means something. On the one hand, the red-white pro-Western opposition, operating under the Belarusian Popular Front era nationalist flag, demands: we do not want things to be like in Russia! On the other hand, an unknown colonel of the Belarusian militia, who entered into a dialogue with his opposition-minded fellow citizens in Mogilev, shouts back to them: 'go to the neighboring Russian regions, see how desolate and impoverished everything is, and compare this with what we have in terms of order and prosperity!' And, the saddest thing, he is right. This is called a complete failure...

"While the Russian elites were trying to persuade / break the Belarusian ones over their knee, no one thought of working with the kindred brotherly people. As a result, they did not break the Belarusian elites (I recall the well-known Ukrainian proverb 'lard has no cracks'), and they largely lost the people. The 'tough negotiator' Mikhail Babich did not match the temperament of his Belarusian colleagues, and Moscow was forced to change its ambassador [to Minsk]. Alexander Lukashenko remains a long-lived village elder of the post-Soviet space, which Europe has to reckon with. And this year, exactly on the eve of the elections, for the first time since 2002 the American ambassador returned to Minsk.

"But the main problem, of course, lies elsewhere - this is the inability of the current Russian Federation power set to pursue an attractive foreign policy that can interest, and not scare away, primarily the countries and peoples close to us. The absence of that very Russian 'soft power', of which so much has already been said, is especially noticeable on the near approaches: Ukraine-2013, Armenia-2018, Kazakhstan-2019, Belarus-2020 ...

"The largest global channeler of Russian policies, the Russia Today TV channel, operates in the Anglo-American, Arabic, Spanish and French destinations. Even the German edition comes out only in the Internet version. What can we say about the versions in Russian (for the CIS) or Serbian (for ex-Yugoslavia) languages! They are nowhere in sight. But it is in these countries that it is much more important to maintain Russia's attractiveness of Russia than in the distant USA or in Latin America. As a result, a vacuum of Russian information and influence is formed there, which leaves room for interpretation...

"Alas, it is about the residual humanitarian influence of our country that is relevant to talk in 2020. The point is that representatives of the Russian government are trying to work according to business schemes in the former imperial space. And this is not only counterproductive, but suicidal for Moscow. This was what Lukashenko had in mind in his last pre-election address when he said: 'Russia has turned allied relations into partnerships,' which encountered heated criticism in the Russian media. But in fact, he is right: well, what kind of partnership (balanced, mutually beneficial, etc.) can there be between Moscow and Minsk given the cosmic difference in resource base, its utilization methods, population, territory and everything else? Moreover, Belarus has managed to maintain in perfect order and successfully develop the largest state-owned enterprises remaining from the Soviet era. And there is not the slightest reason to give them to savage Russian capitalist public-private partnership...

"Russia does not want to pay for its allies, and at the same time it is terribly surprised that these same allies are beginning to look for interesting deals on the side. 'How so? We were betrayed!' - shout the proprietary Russian liberals in power when they understand that they have not succeeded in making money on their allies. And some experts are still amazed at the declarations of the multi-directional nature of the former fraternal republics. What is there to be surprised at: if Moscow does not want to pay for its allies, then our enemies will pay for them. Natural and logical. This model applies equally to all of the aforementioned countries of residual Russian influence - from Serbia to Armenia.

"The current example with Minsk may be relevant tomorrow in Belgrade, Astana and other capitals. I think that the Serbian and Kazakh leaders are carefully studying the Belarusian “case” and Moscow's reaction to it. Back in the 2000s, many in the post-Soviet (and not only) space still had illusions about the existence of a cunning plan, a secret imperial strategy, and the deep springs of Russia's return to the world stage. But illusions sooner or later disappear. Especially if emptiness lies behind them."[12]


Oleg Bondarenko (Source: Info-balkan.ru)

Kommersant Columnist Strokan: Moscow And Minsk Are Back Together In The Axis Of Evil

Sergei Strokan, Kommersant's lead columnist, believes that Moscow and Minsk are stuck with each other:

"...The rapprochement between Minsk and Washington took place against the backdrop of a protracted crisis in Russian-Belarusian relations, and Alexander Lukashenko made it clear that in case of new problems with Russia, he would count on US assistance.

"However, after the August 9 elections, there are good reasons to believe that a countdown has begun in Minsk's relations with the West: the situation is returning to square one.

"It will now be much more difficult to signal Moscow that if Russia does not support it, then there will be other countries that can do this.

"There is no doubt that after the August 9 elections, there will be a significant drop-off in the number of such countries. The world will again have to puzzle over how to deal with Minsk.

As a result, Moscow's closest ally runs the risk of returning to the Western list of rogue states, putting it together in a single Russian-Belarusian 'axis of evil'.[13]

 

[1] Rbc.ru, August 10, 2020.

[2] News.ru, August 10, 2020.

[3] Rbc.ru, August 10, 2020.

[5] Youtube.com/watch?v=R5UmsPFMUaw

[6] Lenta.ru, August 12, 2020.

[7] Iz.ru, August 10, 2020.

[8] Gazeta.ru, July 20, 2020.

[9] Mk.ru, August 10, 2020.

[10] Interfax.ru, August 10, 2020.

[11] Kommersant, August 4, 2020.

[12] Mk.ru, August 12, 2020.

[13] Kommersant.ru, August 12, 2020.

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