The Protest in Belarus Will Not Win on Its Own – Liberal Article
Belarus, a dictatorship of 26 years, has recently erupted in protest. However, protest alone, cannot secure the democracy of Belarus. International actors must add to this momentum. All whilst treading a fine line, however.
Although bubbling under the surface for some time now, discontent boiled over due to the fraudulent nature of the most recent election. This is part of an established trend: no Belarusian presidential election has ever been voted free and fair by international observers.
Thousands are arrested, hundreds are injured, and there have been at least 2 deaths. There has also been an informational blackout; websites, messaging apps, and social media platforms have all gone dark. Belarusians are being physically and virtually asphyxiated. Democratic states cannot merely play pretty parlance, and stand idly by.
So, why is protest not enough?
The first and most obvious reason is Lukashenko. He has been in power since 1994 and is not looking to change things up. He has vowed to “crush” protests, successfully blackmailing Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya into releasing a message of support. She is his biggest opposition and her husband, very conveniently, is in Lukashenko’s custody. Lukashenko, as evidenced by his consistent use of police brutality, is not going anywhere in a hurry.
Second, is the Kremlin. President Putin is a very, very efficient operator. He will not take kindly to free and fair elections in his next-door-neighbour. The reason? Influence. Strongmen lean together for reasons of similitude, and democracies do the same.
Similitude may make a (truly) democratic Belarus look to the West, the EU, NATO and unilateral influences. All of the above are sure to make Putin uneasy, the perception would be that the West is tightening the noose. Russia has always, strategically, wanted buffer-zones to the West of the heartland. This is a continuation of that saga.
So, what must the international community do?
This is not like trying to create a democracy out of a theocracy (Iran), nor a monarchy (Saudi Arabia). This is entirely about fulfilling an extant democratic mandate, lost to the clutches of a strongman. We should not impose our ideas on different political cultures. However, Belarus shares our democratic tradition and is consistently defrauded.
Public avowals of support, sanctions and some back-channelling with Russia would all go a long way in unsettling Lukashenko. The first is self-explanatory: back the dictator into a corner in terms of international opinion, making his situation seem untenable.
Second is sanctions. The EU placed sanctions on Belarus in 2004 but mostly lifted them in 2016, hoping to induce some moderation of Lukashenko’s authoritarian tendencies. With those aspirations dashed, these sanctions should come back with full force. I highly doubt that these sanctions will work in removing Lukashenko directly. He does not strike me as a man that would put country before self. However, I do feel that they will tighten the squeeze that the Belarusian public has on the current administration.
Thirdly, and most importantly, is back-channelling with Russia. This is for two reasons: One, Lukashenko is far more likely to desist without violence if he perceives that there is no one in his corner. No one starts a fight, they know they cannot win. And two, to avoid the Union State Treaty, that Russia has unsuccessfully proposed since 1999.
Examples of this back-channelling could be: a promise not to admit Belarus to NATO, a reduction of sanctions in return for cooperation, or greater trade of core Russian exports (oil & gas).
However, there is a fine line that we must tread. If the international community pushes too hard, Belarus (and any possibility of a functioning democracy) will be lost to the Kremlin. As previously mentioned, Putin has attempted to push the Union State Treaty for some time, yet has been rebuffed. The Belarusian people will hardly be pleased, trading one dictator for another.
Putin may make the continuation of his support for Lukashenko’s premiership conditional on this treaty. The worse his position becomes, the better the leverage of the Kremlin. This is why the international community has a tightrope to walk.
In short, the situation is a difficult one. Don’t push, and that is tacit approval of Lukashenko’s actions. Push too much, and this may result in Belarus being subsumed by Russia. The response has to balance two elements: punish Lukashenko, & getting Russia to stay out of it.
Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Alexander Dennis
Point of Information
We need to get the balance right for Belarus – a Labour Response
I largely agree with the main premise of Alexander’s article; protest alone often has little effect. However, it is not totally useless. Particularly when combined with some international involvement. The real question for Belarus and Lukashenko, I think, is how much international involvement is too much?
International involvement on any scale has great potential for things to go wrong, as Alexander indicates. Humanitarian intervention, in particular, is often described as “a solution from hell”. And this does not solely come from sceptics. The Belarusian situation is no different. With Lukashenko consistently pushing back against any opposition, it is extremely difficult to consider what the next course of action should be.
Let’s unpack Alexander’s suggestions of how best to attack this tightrope situation.
He first proposes a rise in international opinion against Lukashenko to back him into a corner. This is seemingly the most prudent option. Well-considered global media coverage would have a significant impact and influence over the Belarusian situation, as it now does with anything political. Even just greater coverage of the current protests would push Lukashenko further into this metaphorical corner. So, while protests alone may not be overwhelmingly successful, it’s a completely different story when combined with sound media coverage.
The second suggestion of sanctions works on paper. Sadly, it is not as simple as this. Alexander correctly asserts that Lukashenko is unlikely to let any sanctions affect his position. While it may ‘tighten the squeeze’, I am sadly rather pessimistic towards the success likelihood of such sanctions.
Finally, Alexander’s ‘back-channelling’ suggestion is certainly important to consider. It is in everyone’s best interests to avoid war; the costs are often a lot greater than the benefits. Questions can similarly be raised about the proposed Union State Treaty.
Ultimately, the international community needs to get this balance right. The people of Belarus deserve free and fair elections. To get these, Lukashenko needs to be pushed further into a corner. And to do this, we need to improve media coverage of the issue globally. Protests, when combined with media attention, can be enough. A well-considered approach is needed to utilise the power of the media in today’s world.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
By winning the peace first, we can avoid having to win the war – a Conservative Response
As I read Alexander’s piece, I found myself largely agreeing with what he had to say. I think it is undoubtedly true that Lukashenko will not give up without a fight (literal or metaphorical). He has held onto power for too long and with a too tight iron grip to let go at the first sign of trouble.
I do, however, believe that the Belarusian people can remove him without the need for the West to get too involved. In fact, I think that this is very much desirable. The West effectively has three options. One, to conduct military operations against the Lukashenko regime; two, to impose economic sanctions on the country; or three, to do nothing directly to Belarus.
Option one is not something that would have any support at home, and China and Russia would veto it at the UN, it’s a non-starter.
Option two is something that the EU and the UK could do quite easily. Sanctions would likely be the straw that would break the camel’s back. The beleaguered Lukashenko regime would likely be overthrown. Success, right? Well, not really. Success is not simply the removal of one dictator, but the establishment of true democracy, and the securing of a more pro-western Belarus.
Imposing sanctions almost invariably affects the poorest in society the most. These people are not the perpetrators of the crimes that the regime is accused of. The Belarusian working class is Lukashenko’s traditional support base, and he would use any sort of western imposed sanction as a way of saying “look what the west is doing to you and your families”.
While this may not be enough to save the Lukashenko regime, it would be enough to turn the Belarusian people more firmly anti-western, and pro-Russian. This is not success. Lukashenko would likely be replaced with another Putin puppet and this opportunity for democracy would be wasted.
So, if sanctions aren’t the answer, what is? Well, I think the Belarusian people are the answer. They can, and I think will, overthrow the regime by themselves. And the West can do what it can to persuade Putin to keep his fingers out; while offering financial and diplomatic support to the pro-democracy sections of any new administration.
In this way, we can win the peace without having to have the war.
Written by Guest Conservative Writer, George Myers