Belarus: Whose Provocation?

There will be no Maidan in Minsk. Hence, no need for regime change. There was further a self-serving message to the West: do not support the opposition to try to kick out “the last dictator of Europe” or else there will be a Russian intervention. Get it? Loud and clear.

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By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l April 24, 2017

Whose Provocation

“Europe’s last dictator” Oleksandr Lukashenka, blasted Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union as the main sponsors of the so-called “Fifth Column” of Belarusian dissidents, who not only fomented mass demonstrations in Belarus in February and March, but also, allegedly, prepared a coup d’etat against the Minsk regime. Most observers see this as the end of the latest bout of liberalization in Belarus. It is also possible, however, that the calumnies shouted publicly, although phrased in an anti-Western manner, were intended for the Kremlin.

After all, destabilizing Belarus is in Moscow’s interest, and not the West’s. The U.S. and EU are still in a state of shock following Ukraine’s Maidan revolt and the consequent Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula as well as the war in the Donbas and its environs. Why would they wish another violent conflict on NATO and the EU’s fragile eastern border? Russian president Vladimir Putin, however, wants to reintegrate the post-Soviet zone. Destabilization in Belarus must be turned to his benefit, in particular if the local dictator Lukashenka cannot keep order himself. Even if the Kremlin did not foster the current bout of demonstrations, as it almost certainly did not, Russia is ready to take advantage of them. If there is to be a regime change in Minsk, it will be in line with Moscow’s scenario, and not in accordance with the wishes of the Belarusian dissidents and their domestic and Western supporters.

Let us look at the context. According to the alternance paradigm, Lukashenka oscillates between repression and liberalization at home to handle his business abroad. Repression usually means cozy relations with Russia and China to enjoy their largesse. Liberalization signifies a rapprochement with the West to solicit Western technology and credit.

In 2015 and 2016, the Minsk regime switched to a full liberalization mode. It freed political prisoners, it substituted fines for jail for dissidents, and it stopped treating non-violent pickets and demonstrations as acts of terrorism. Brutality by the secret police and the riot squad deescalated sharply. The dictator even coopted two anti-government activists to the rubber stamp parliament. He staged a non-violent “democratic” election which reconfirmed the strongman as president. Last but not least, to lure investors, citizens of 79 countries, including the U.S., were granted visa free access provided they travel by air business class directly to Minsk.

As a result, the European Union lifted all sanctions on Belarus imposed in 2004. The U.S. sounded equally optimistic. Tangible benefits accrued in terms of investments, trade, and increased employment. All seemed rosy. Then, unexpectedly, demonstrations against taxation broke out in February 2017.

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Introduced in April 2015, “the parasite tax” targeted in particular Belarusians working abroad and those employed in temporary jobs or small private businesses. Also, the “parasite tax” seems to have been the final straw reflecting the abysmal state of the economy of Belarus and widespread penury of the population. The 1990s social contract of “a vodka shot and a bacon bite” (чарка і шкварка) in exchange for stability and order would no longer do.

Thus, a mass protest occurred in a dozen places from Mołodeczno, Brest, and Grodno/Hrodna through Pinsk and Minsk to Orsha and Babruisk. The demonstrations attracted hundreds of participants each not only at the capital, but also in provincial cities. The numbers involved – large but passive by Belarusian standards – made them quite respectable. What was initially an economic protest quickly turned political. The participants hoisted the banned white-red-white flags of Belarus.

Lukashenka correctly judged them a threat. A carrot and stick approach followed. He promised (but later rescinded) to defer the “parasite tax” for a year. And he cracked down firmly on the demonstrations. He arrested the ringleaders and intimidated their followers. Perhaps 900 people were seized throughout Belarus. Most were promptly released. Over a hundred received mild fines or detention sentences, not exceeding two weeks.

More seriously, however, twenty seven suspects allegedly connected to the émigré anti-post-Communist White Legion outfit were caught and put on trial for attempting to overthrow the government. The KGB reportedly found arms caches, training camps, and secret hiding places. The secret police bragged that it had prevented violent action just in the nick of time. A leading American expert on non-Russian, post-Soviet nationalities, Paul Goble, suggests a Russian provocation; he plausibly suspects in particular that Moscow’s agents impersonate “Belarusian” ultranationalists to stoke the fires of radicalism and compromise non-violent resistance against the dictatorship as well as, perhaps, provide a pretext for the Kremlin’s intervention in Belarus. The suspects stand accused of the West and even Ukraine. The streets predictably emptied. Order reigns in Minsk.

Despite the anti-Western rhetoric, the signal was clearly intended for Moscow. Post-comrade Putin, there is no need to intervene. Stop your “tin can” GRU officers; call off your “little green men.” Post-comrade Lukashenka can handle himself well. There will be no Maidan in Minsk. Hence, no need for regime change.

There was further a self-serving message to the West: do not support the opposition to try to kick out “the last dictator of Europe” or else there will be a Russian intervention. Get it? Loud and clear.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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