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As Belarus's Strongman Seeks To Extend His Embattled Rule, Moscow Watches Warily

Vladimir Putin (right) and Russia will watch to see if cracks show in Alyaksandr Lukashenka's control over Belarusian security forces.
Vladimir Putin (right) and Russia will watch to see if cracks show in Alyaksandr Lukashenka's control over Belarusian security forces.

MOSCOW -- As election officials in Belarus claimed a landslide victory for incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his main challenger rejected that result as rigged, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his counterpart a congratulatory note urging continued cooperation that "fulfills the vital interests of brotherly nations."

Putin said nothing of the protests that unfolded across Belarus the night before, fueled by anger over evidence of vote-rigging and official numbers that flew in the face of an unprecedented show of support for opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. Nor did he mention the violent crackdown that followed.

Belarus's southern neighbor, Ukraine, cited the unrest and called for "dialogue," and the European Union denounced the police violence that left protesters bloodied.

But Moscow was relatively tight-lipped, apparently waiting to see what happens in the unfolding standoff between an authoritarian leader it has helped prop up for a quarter-century and the growing number of citizens opposed to his continued rule.

"Moscow, like pretty much everyone else, assumed that Lukashenka still had a good number of years in him," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told RFE/RL. "But this puts Moscow in a difficult situation. They're not making a big deal of it, because they're having to take stock."

Throughout Lukashenka's 26 years in power, Belarus's economic stability has been predicated on billions of dollars in de facto Russian subsidies, including a steady supply of cheap crude oil that Minsk has purchased at a discount and refined for onward export as petroleum products to Europe.

But pressure has grown on Lukashenka to offer more in return. In 2018, Moscow began raising energy prices to eventually match the market rate for exports, cutting off a lifeline that had propped up Belarus's economy and sending it into a precipitous decline that has taken Lukashenka's approval ratings with it -- a phenomenon compounded by public anger over what many citizens see as his inadequate response to the coronavirus.

Even before the current protest wave, the strongman president was under serious pressure from Moscow to integrate with Russia under a union state that has existed largely on paper since the 1990s, in exchange for compensation for the crippling energy price hikes.

Putin's congratulatory note called for closer integration in the union state and increased cooperation under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Moscow-dominated regional political, economic, and military groupings -- a scenario that a politically weakened Lukashenka may find increasingly hard to counter. Observers said the terse telegram read more like a to-do list on closer ties with Russia than a piece of warm praise.

Putin has not so much congratulated Lukashenko as presented him [with] terms of re-engagement," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter.

Testing The Waters

Tsikhanouskaya's supporters have mocked the official figures that gave her less than 10 percent of the vote share, and planned more protests across Belarus. But Moscow may be watching and waiting, in part to see how Lukashenka and the security establishment that backs him will respond.

Galeotti pointed to active contact between the security services of Russia and Belarus, with Moscow carefully monitoring the mood in Minsk and particularly the potential for an elite defection -- a situation in which armed representatives of the state might side with the protesters.

"I imagine at the moment [Moscow] is very carefully trying to test out the waters and get a sense of whether the security forces are going to stay loyal," he said. "Because that's going to be the absolutely crucial issue."

For the Kremlin, a familiar leader -- especially one embattled at home -- may be the lesser evil to a reformist replacement president wary of Russia's embrace and prone to integration with the West, even if Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition leaders allied with her are not anti-Moscow.

Meanwhile, Belarus's geographic position, sandwiched between Russia to the east and the EU and NATO to the west, could end up benefiting Lukashenka if he fails to gain real support -- or face a major challenge -- from either.

From his position atop a geopolitical fault line," political analyst Maksim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a commentary on August 10, Lukashenka "will weather every storm as long as Russia and the West mistrust him less than they do each other."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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