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Belarus's Almost Revolution

  • Brian Whitmore

No fear

Europe's last dictator ain't what he used to be.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka usually prefers sticks to carrots. It isn't really his style to back down in the face of street protests.

But that is exactly what the Belarusian strongman did -- not once, but twice -- in just over a week.

He backed down on controversial plans to build a business center near a site where thousands were killed during the Stalinist terror, and this week he walked back a deeply unpopular tax on the unemployed.

Ever the gamer, Lukashenka has apparently calculated that he cannot afford to have simultaneous conflicts with both Russia and with the Belarusian street.

This month's climb-downs are just the latest example of how Belarus's politics have been transformed in the three years since Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in the Donbas.

Initially, those changes favored Lukashenka.

He defied the Kremlin by refusing to recognize the annexation of Crimea and rebuffing Russia's efforts to build a new air base on Belarusian territory.

He made it clear he wasn't interested in being part of Vladimir Putin's "Russian World."

He cozied up to the West and carved out a role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine.

And at home, he talked up Belarusian statehood and the Belarusian language, presenting himself as the best defender of the country's sovereignty.

And while Belarus's pro-Western opposition didn't really believe the pose, they initially played along anyway. Challenging Lukashenka and taking to the streets, the logic went, might create the kind of instability that could lead to a Russian intervention.

Even if they pulled off the impossible and toppled the regime, they would -- in all likelihood -- then have to face the prospect of Moscow's "little green men" instigating a hybrid war.

But now that logic has suddenly been turned on its head.

The protests that broke out in Minsk and other cities in February were, by all appearances, driven not by Belarus's traditional opposition but by genuine grassroots anger.

But the opposition was quick to piggyback on them.

And as the protests grew, the Belarusian authorities showed rare restraint in not suppressing them.

And now, with the authorities suspending both the unemployment tax and the plans to build a business center near the Kurapaty preserve, it appears that Lukashenka prefers to placate the protesters rather than cracking heads.

With Minsk and Moscow at odds over gas prices, oil deliveries, food exports, Belarus granting visa-free travel to Westerners, Russia imposing border controls, and the Kremlin's push for a new air base, it appears that Lukashenka fears that suppressing protests could also lead to instability and provide a pretext for Russian intervention.

Political analyst Andrei Sudaltsev called what has happened in Belarus in recent weeks "almost a revolution."

Almost a revolution, because the traditionally passive Belarusian public was moved by economic deprivation to take to the streets.

Almost a revolution because the opposition was following the public, rather than leading it.

And almost a revolution because Lukashenka didn't respond with his usual iron fist.

"The population by some sixth sense understands that the authorities can’t control them and are afraid of the protests," he said.

And this puts Belarus in uncharted waters.

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

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About This Blog

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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