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Blood And Special Operations In Belarus Politics

A protester's head bleeds after clashes with riot police in Minsk on December 20.
A protester's head bleeds after clashes with riot police in Minsk on December 20.
Presidential candidates severely beaten. Almost 700 protesters arrested. Criminal charges filed, and some recantations issued by protest participants that are reminiscent of Stalin's 1930s show trials. Ongoing arrests. House searches. These are the results of this year's presidential election in Belarus.

The official elections results were no less scandalous: 79 percent for incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. That, however, has been overshadowed by what has become a symbol of this campaign -- snow colored with blood on one of Minsk's main squares.

Why? Who would have thought this was necessary? Days before the election, Lukashenka managed to achieve an understanding with Russia after a long-running political conflict that briefly erupted into a full-fledged "information war."

The campaign, which was more liberal than usual for Belarus, made some headway toward possible recognition of this election by the West. After all, all the would-be candidates were registered. Conditions for their registration were not restrictive and, most importantly, all of them had a chance to address the electorate on state television. The fragmented opposition -- Lukashenka was opposed by nine more-or-less opposition-minded candidates -- posed no serious electoral danger to the incumbent.

Of course, even without the bloody election-night crackdown, this poll, like all Belarusian elections, fell far short of democratic standards. As one local political analyst aptly put it, free elections in an authoritarian country by definition are a defeat for the authoritarian regime. Lukashenka's regime in Belarus is far from collapsing.

Nonetheless, the bloodstains in the Minsk snow offset whatever liberal advances the authorities tolerated during the election campaign.

Even more puzzling are the numerous accounts indicating that it was agents of the authorities -- provocateurs -- who began the assault on the government building that was the official pretext for the bloody crackdown. By all indications, it was the authorities -- or at least some faction within the ruling elite -- that consciously sought a violent outcome.

Some have even charged that the provocation was pushed by outside forces. After the postelection violence, there is no chance the West can recognize the ballot. Lukashenka has been left alone in the company of his Moscow counterparts.

Behind The Scenes

Since the current cease-fire between Minsk and Moscow is most likely just a breather before the next wave of political and economic confrontations, the last thing Lukashenka needed was to lose any hope of support from the West. That, however, is exactly what happened on December 19.

But such "who benefits?" analysis does not always lead to the correct conclusions. For one thing, it is still unclear what the final reaction of the West will be or how that will change as time passes. Despite diplomatic talk of a "reset," relations between Russia and the West in the former Soviet space remain very much a zero-sum game.

Simultaneous strategies of promoting democratic development, on the one hand, and defending sovereignty of these authoritarian states from Moscow's influence, on the other, look good on paper. In practice, however, it is often hard for the West to avoid choosing between the two. One way or another, pursuing the latter policy requires some sort of dialogue with these states' leadership, no matter how authoritarian they might be.

Second, even if the crackdown was the result of a foreign provocation, what about the continuing repressions, arrests, and searches? This already looks like a conscious policy by the Belarusian government.

Some experts and politicians think that the reason for the repression is that Lukashenka did not actually win the election. That is, he failed to get the 50 percent of the vote needed for a first-round victory.

However, the only evidence of that takes the form of exit polls conducted by unreliable companies, some of which have dubious reputations. It is likely that those findings are the same sort of statistical propaganda as those presented by pro-government agencies, which were nearly identical to the unrealistic figures endorsed later by the Central Election Commission.

The best opinion polls conducted before the vote indicated a victory for Lukashenka, although not as compelling a win as five years ago when official results gave him more than 84 percent of the vote.

But for an authoritarian leader like Lukashenka, a narrow victory is practically the same as a defeat. Moreover, the comparatively liberal campaign may have raised fears inside the regime that the docile Belarusian nation might be losing its fear. This is something the authorities cannot risk.

Such concerns could easily be exacerbated by authoritarian leaders' inclination toward conspiracy theories. Such people view politics as a series of "special operations." When Lukashenka looked out on Minsk that night, he might have actually been seeing Bishkek in April, when a crowd stormed the presidential palace and ousted authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Back then, it shouldn't be forgotten, Lukashenka provided refuge for Bakiev and publicly approved of his order to security forces to open fire on demonstrators. At that time, he warned that he would show even more determination in defending his own power.

Disguised Weakness

Although the opposition in Belarus clearly had no comprehensive plan for a "colored revolution," the rhetoric of its leaders was quite radical. Long before election day, they had predicted the results would be falsified and declared that "the square will decide everything." Presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich said: "Give us the election or we will come and take it."

Two days before the vote, candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu said the goal of the campaign was "to overthrow the dictatorship." All nine opposition candidates said they would act "decisively" on the square. If such pronouncements were intended to scare Lukashenka, they appear to have worked.

Lukashenka cannot afford to look weak. That was the error of Bakiev and of former Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, who tolerated a close election and then allowed protesters to ransack the seats of the executive and legislative organs.

Perhaps Lukashenka feared the postelection demonstration could turn into a continuous protest, a campaign of psychological pressure against the government. The reality of that prospect is debatable. Minsk is very cold these days, and people might well have stopped coming to the square at some point. The lack of clear leadership within the opposition also did not help. Lukashenka, however, apparently decided not to take any chances.

What happens next is not easy to predict. The repression has stifled the current wave of protest. It also made Minsk's international stance much more difficult; improved ties with the West, if they ever come, will take quite some time.

What's least clear, however, is how these events will play out in Belarusian society. The crackdown of December 19 has already been labeled “Bloody Sunday” -- a reference to an infamous episode in Russian history. In January 1905, Tsarist troops dispersed a peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg with bullets. In December of the same year, Russia burst into revolution.

Yury Drakakhrust is a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL