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Belarus And The Ghosts Of 2014

  • Brian Whitmore

A protester holds a portrait of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka upside down during a protest in Minsk.

A protester holds a portrait of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka upside down during a protest in Minsk.

There's a specter haunting Belarus -- the specter of Ukraine.

And there's another specter haunting Belarus -- the specter of Russia.

As Belarus witnesses its largest antigovernment protests in years and as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka tries to weather the worst political crisis of his 23-year rule, nightmare visions of revolution, coups, annexations, and Kremlin-sponsored hybrid war are increasingly being invoked.

Fears of a Minsk Maidan. Fears that Lukashenka will use lethal force on demonstrators. Fears that Lukashenka will be forced from power like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Fears that Russia will use the chaos to seize Belarus.

In the minds of many, Belarus's 2017 can easily become Ukraine's 2014.

And what one specifically fears about that speaks volumes about where one stands.

And which fears one is trying to stoke about "the Ukraine scenario" also offers a rare glimpse into apparent palace intrigue in Lukashenka's famously opaque regime.

According to one narrative making the rounds, Lukashenka is being manipulated by a cabal of security service officials who are trying to frighten him into a harsh crackdown on the protesters.

The faction, led by Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich, is reportedly telling Lukashenka that the protests are being orchestrated by revolutionary elements from Ukraine who seek to export the Maidan to Belarus.

A report released this week by the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research called the effort "complete disinformation" designed to push Lukashenka to "commit more gross political mistakes."

The authors of the report, Arseny Sivitsky and Yury Tsaryk, write that if Lukashenka does crack down forcefully, "it would lead to a full-scale domestic conflict in the country."

And that would open the door to Russian intervention.

"We may be on the verge of an attempt to implement a hybrid aggression against our country," journalist Dzmitry Halko writes on the website Belaruski Partizan.

"The Donbas scenario," Halko adds, "is being prepared. Don't be naive."

Shunevich, of course, is an easy bogeyman for those fearing a crackdown and Russian intervention. He famously showed up at a Victory Day parade back in 2015 in a vintage NKVD uniform.

But if Shunevich is the favorite scarecrow of Belarusians fearing a crackdown and a Moscow-backed hybrid war, those afraid of a Minsk Maidan and a pro-Western turn have unmasked their own villain: Foreign Minister Uladzmir Makei.

Just days after the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research report and Halko's article in Belaruski Partyzan were published, Yury Baranchyk, a Belarusian journalist residing in Moscow, weighed in with a piece on the Russian nationalist website Regnum.ru that turned this narrative on its head.

Baranchyk claims that a faction led by Makei is trying to persuade Lukashenka to negotiate with the protesters and cozy up to the West.

The reason, Baranchyk argues, is that Makei is scheming to be Lukashenka's successor and is attempting to undermine the Belarusian strongman's grip on power.

"Makei's propagandists are pushing Lukashenka down Yanukovych's path," he writes.

It is hard to judge -- let alone confirm -- any of this.

But adding to the air of intrigue, the day after Baranchyk's article was published, police in Moscow detained him at the request of the authorities in Minsk, who requested his extradition. But a Moscow court later ordered that he be released.

Regnum had long been publishing articles accusing Lukashenka of betraying Belarus's traditional ally Russia by seeking better relations with the West.

In December, police in Belarus detained three journalists -- Siarhej Shyptenka, Yury Paulavets, and Dzmitry Alimkin -- for inciting ethnic hatred in the articles, one of which referred to Belarus as a "mad pseudo-state."

What this little information war appears to point to is an online effort to influence how Lukashenka handles the current crisis.

It also points to something we have rarely seen in Belarus: clan warfare and palace intrigue in Lukashenka's court.

And it is indicative of the tough spot Lukashenka now finds himself in.

"Lukashenka’s advisers are also whispering in his ear about the dangers of a 'Ukrainian scenario,' meaning a real popular uprising. But a crackdown on mass protest would also play into Russia’s hands -- and perhaps give it the excuse it needs to intervene," Andrew Wilson, author of the book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, writes in Politico.

"If the Belarus president is to survive, he will have to walk a narrow path, with his citizens pushing him from below and the Kremlin watching for its opportunity from outside."

(A big thanks to my colleague Alyaksey Znatkevich of RFE/RL's Belarus Service for his helpful comments and advice for this post.)

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on March 17, where I will discuss the issues raised in this post with Alyaksey Znatkevich of RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Maryna Rakhlei of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshal Fund.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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