World·Analysis

Why Russia's Vladimir Putin has difficult decisions to make on Belarus

With the crisis in Belarus entering its fourth week, Russia faces a quandary — do nothing and risk an outcome it can't control and may not like. Or directly intervene and risk a nasty backlash. For the moment, President Vladimir Putin appears content to wait and watch.

Russia says it's ready to intervene with force to stop protests but it won't — yet

Yuliya Palanetskaya, far right, joins with other women in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Aug. 14 to protest the violent response by security forces to street demonstrations following a presidential election critics considered rigged. Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country for more than a quarter century, says he received more than 80 per cent of the vote. (Yulyia Palanetskaya)

In the capital of Belarus, Yuliya Palanetskaya has become an unlikely foot soldier in the fight to oust a dictator. 

Almost every day for the past three weeks, the 31-year-old café owner from Minsk, who says she has never done anything political before in her life, has been out on the streets with thousands of other demonstrators trying to force an end to the 26-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. 

"Not me or my friends ... were politically involved — why should we do anything because nothing will change [under Lukashenko]?" she told CBC News in an interview.   

But she says when she heard credible opposition candidates talking about how their country could be better, it was inspiring.

"We are young. We want to live in Belarus, but we do not want to live under a dictatorship. We are a majority now."  

Palanetskaya has linked arms with others to form a long human chain in defiance of police and also joined with hundreds of other women dressed in white to lay bouquets of flowers at the feet of Belarusian security forces.

Protesters shout as riot police block them in front of a Catholic church in Minsk on Thursday. Police in Belarus have dispersed protesters who gathered on the capital's central square, detaining dozens. (Dasha Sapranetskaya/The Associated Press)

Reluctant revolutionaries

"We are not revolutionaries," she said. "We don't have guns. We light our iPhones to show we support each other. [We have] flowers and telephones with a light."

Much of the world — with the notable exception of Russia — accepts that the results of the Aug. 9 election, which Lukashenko claims he won with more than 80 per cent support, were rigged. 

In the aftermath, police and state security forces inflicted grisly injuries on those who disputed the outcome.

Thousands of people were arrested with many viciously beaten before being released. The government confirms at least two people were killed, but opponents say the actual casualty count is much higher.

Three weeks later, however, Lukashenko is still in charge. If anything, he's digging in.

At a demonstration in the capital, Minsk, Palanetskaya wraps herself in the old nationalist red and white flag of Belarus that has become associated with the opposition. (Yuliya Palanetskaya)

He couldn't have made that position any clearer when he stepped off a helicopter at the Presidential Palace in Minsk on Sunday sporting a bullet proof vest and an AK-47 machine gun, suggesting he'll go down with a fight — if he goes down at all. 

But with tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of protestors coming out yet again this past weekend, the opposition is also showing that it's up for a long struggle. 

War of attrition 

Belarus's political crisis has settled into a war of attrition — and the man who could decide which way the pendulum swings is Russia's Vladimir Putin.     

"What is happening in Belarus — especially if it leads to a successful conclusion [for the opposition] would set a very unwelcome precedent for the Kremlin," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus who's now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

For Putin, the worst scenario would be a repeat of Ukraine's 2014 Maidan revolution that saw people-power overthrow a pro-Russian president and initiate a major tilt toward Europe and NATO.

Russia responded by taking over Crimea and launching a military intervention in Eastern Ukraine that continues to this day with the loss of more than 11,000 lives.

People in Minsk take part in a protest against the presidential election results, demanding Lukashenko's resignation and the release of political prisoners on Aug. 16. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

"Russia's goal is to keep Belarus within its traditional sphere of influence," wrote independent commentator Tatiana Stanovaya, head of R.Politik consultancy, in a social media post.

Free elections could be very dangerous for Putin, she said, as it could lead to Russia "losing" Belarus.

The notion of a peaceful street protest movement forcing the resignation of a long-serving strongman would also send a troubling message, says Gould-Davies. 

There are many parallels between Lukashenko's rule in Belarus and Putin's in Russia, analysts said. 

"Here you have the example of an Eastern European authoritarian leader being peacefully removed by a population that seeks change against a background of declining economic standard of living," said Gould-Davies.

Like Lukashenko, Putin has already led his country for a long time — 20 years in Putin's case. And Putin, who is 67, just gave himself the right to keep running for re-election until he's well into his 80s.

Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Sirius Educational Center in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, last February. (Sergei Chirikov/Pool via Reuters)

Putin's options

On Thursday, Putin shared his most-detailed thoughts yet on the Belarus crisis in an interview on state TV, where he suggested that while Russia has the right to intervene with force, it has no plans to — yet.

The key revelation was that Russia has formed a reserve of "law enforcement officers" prepared to deploy to Belarus if the "situation gets out of control." Putin suggested the red line could be crossed if protestors start to burn cars or destroy buildings.

His statement could be seen as a warning that Russia is prepared to prop up Lukashenko —  with force if necessary —  but for the moment is keeping its options open.

Lukashenko gives a thumbs up to law enforcement officers standing guard outside the Independence Palace after an opposition demonstration against the election results in this still from a video taken on Aug. 23 and posted on the Telegram channel Pul Pervogo, believed to be run by Lukashenko's press team. (Handout/Pul Pervogo/Reuters)

Given the high stakes, Kremlin watchers have been keenly parsing commentary on state TV programs for clues about how deep the Kremlin's loyalty is to the Belarussian leader.

In his influential prime-time program, host Vladimir Solovyov praised Lukashenko's tough-guy, machine gun stunt and condemned the leaders of Belarus's opposition as "imposters" who "should be dealt with accordingly."    

On the other hand, there was mostly positive reaction to an interview Tuesday by the most prominent member of the Belarusian opposition, former English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who's now waging her fight from exile in Lithuania. 

Tikhanovskaya ran against Lukashenko in the disputed presidential election.  She claimed protesters are not interested in tilting Belarus away from Russia, only replacing a tired authoritarian ruler with a fresh face. 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya challenged Lukashenko for the presidency in the Aug. 9 election but is now in exile in Lithuania. Here she speaks to supporters in the town of Baranovichi. (Sergei Grits/The Associated Press)

Belarus's economy is deeply integrated with Russia's and while the two states have an open border, Lukashenko has played hot and cold with the Kremlin in recent years.    

He has resisted Putin's efforts for greater political integration and instead invited stronger ties with Western nations, including the United States.

'Anti dictator, not anti-Russian'

"There is nothing anti-Russia in these protestors," insists Palanetskaya, the Minsk café owner.  

"There are only anti-dictator protests."

Canada's foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, released a joint statement with the European Union on Wednesday urging Belarus's government to work with the opposition to hold a "national dialogue" and to hold a "genuinely democratic election."

Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, Maria Zakharova, has characterized such calls as "meddling."

An elderly protester speaks to a policeman as riot police block Independence Square in Minsk. (Sergei Grits/The Associated Press)

While the Kremlin continues to watch events play out, it has other levers it can pull short of overt military intervention, says Gould Davies, the former ambassador.  

"That's the last and catastrophic resort."

Sending in Russia's military runs the risk of alienating a Belorusian population that remains generally positive about its much-larger neighbour.

When Belorusian journalists walked off their jobs to protest the rigged election, their roles were taken over by members of Russian State TV who were flown in to take their place. 

Social media posts have also shown Russian government aircraft landing this week in Minsk, including some identified as belonging to Russia's secret police, which may suggest its agents are already at work in the country.

Gould-Davies says Russia could try to discredit the protest movement by infiltrating it with violent elements.    

"Russia is practiced in the dark arts of influence and manipulation. It will do as much as it needs to try to bring about an outcome that it can control or is tolerable to its interests."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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