International attention to Belarus has recently acquired a peculiar angle. The reason for concern this time, is the fate of its dictator Alexander Lukashenka, who is seen as being threatened by the Kremlin. Forget about the never improving human rights situation and the ever-increasing repression against the independent press. Forget about the never-ending arrests of opposition activists for their peaceful protests, the absence of free elections and the assault on every right and freedom in Belarus. All of this has become irrelevant in the light of a looming danger of a Kremlin takeover of Belarus.
Some observers claim that this could be a possible solution for Putin’s looming 2024 problem: the year that Putin will have to leave the Kremlin but could formalize a “union state” with Belarus which would allow his indefinite rule of both Russia and the newly incorporated Belarus.
Others point out that Moscow is getting ready for yet another military escalation in the region and for this purpose, might need not only to control the territory of Belarus (and Lukashenka eagerly allows Putin to do whatever he wishes from the military point of view) but to possess it.
Head of the Ukrainian security and national defense council, Alexander Turchinov, is convinced that Moscow is preparing for a large-scale war in Europe and has in mind Ukrainian territory as a strategic springboard for its offensive. According to such logic, Belarus is the natural and primary target of Moscow. In February, NATO’s former general secretary, Anders Rasmussen, warned of a “repetition of the Ukrainian scenario” in Belarus.
This concern is not unfounded. The Kremlin is definitely more active in Belarus, both publicly demanding deeper integration, and through non-official channels, using propaganda, misinformation and lies, methods that are well known from Russia’s behavior in Ukraine.
According to independent studies, there is a visible increase of Internet resources that disseminate “Russkiy Mir” kind of content directed at ethnic Russians. About 40 of them became visibly more active.
There is also a noticeable growth in activity of pro-Kremlin groups of all kinds, from pseudo-religious patriotic clubs to paramilitary organizations led by pro-Russian ultranationalists in orientation who are keen to recruit youth in Belarus.
The Kremlin may move quite quickly to formalize the “union state” with Belarus since all the necessary documents were signed long ago. Hence the international concern that Belarus is in danger.
While all of this is true, it doesn’t mean that helping Lukashenka survive will mean that it will help Belarus.
Vice versa. Belarus is in danger because of Lukashenka and his regime.
There are several myths that the West has to deal with if it is really concerned with the situation in Belarus.
Saving Lukashenka will not save Belarus. The only strong pro-Kremlin factor in Belarus is Lukashenka himself, who will eventually accommodate Putin’s interests and continue to oppress those in Belarus who do stand for independence.
Lukashenka’s rhetoric that he would not have much choice but to yield to the Kremlin if he is not helped by the West, is a lie that he uses each time to get western money when he is failing economically. Moreover, this lie is approved by the Kremlin because it doesn’t have the resources it used to provide Lukashenka.
Lukashenka allegedly can be used as a buffer against Putin, and this security concern seems to overrule all other policy options. The best argument against such logic is NATO is visible in the region. After the seizing of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbass, NATO has redoubled its military presence in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic states and Poland since it considers Belarus to be part of Russian military preparations.
Lukashenka just announced his plan for yet another period of rigged elections. This year he ordered to have “parliamentary elections” and next year – “presidential elections”. During these elections he relies on the system of falsification, which has been solidly in place in Belarus for almost a quarter of a century. He can have his obedient parliament and re-appoint himself only after rigging the election, using repression against the opposition, independent trade unions, civil society, independent press, and the use of violence against the citizens.
The independence of Belarus is of crucial importance for European and international security, and it can only be ensured by not appeasing and supporting a dictator who is hated in Belarus but also by standing with the people of Belarus with its pro-democracy forces in defending their country and common values.