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The Week In Russia: Poison And Geopolitics, Anarchy And Dictatorship

A protester attends a rally against the deepening of Belarus-Russia integration in Minsk in December 2019.
A protester attends a rally against the deepening of Belarus-Russia integration in Minsk in December 2019.

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As usual, there was talk to the effect that Russia might get through the month of August without any momentous events this year. After all, hadn't enough already happened in 2020, not just in Russia but around the world?

As usual, anyone who predicted a reprieve was wrong: Russia experienced at least two big August events whose repercussions will remain long after the summer is over -- one of them in Belarus.

That, of course, is a reference to the disputed August 9 election, in which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a sixth term with more than 80 percent of the vote -- a claim that seemed untenable given the massive show of support for opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the weeks before the balloting -- and to the harsh government crackdown that has followed as protests persist more than a month later.

Shortly after the election, some observers -- call them optimists, perhaps -- made an assessment that may be perfectly sound. One was that the Kremlin, which remained relatively silent for a spell after the Belarusian vote, is not wedded to Lukashenka: He has been a prickly partner for Moscow for years, seemingly resisting pressure for closer integration with Russia and often lashing out publicly at its government.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- heading in the same direction?
Vladimir Putin (left) and Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- heading in the same direction?

Plus, the personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and a leader who is his junior in age but has been in power since Putin was a virtually unknown local bureaucrat is said to be one of substantial mutual distaste. Moreover, none of Lukashenka's main rivals -- neither those who were barred from the ballot and jailed or pushed into exile nor Tsikhanouskaya (who was not barred from the ballot but was swiftly pushed into exile after the election) -- are anti-Russia figures.

Still Standing

So, the thinking went, Moscow might be happy with someone else in power in Minsk, and might even work with the West to find a mutually acceptable solution along those lines.

Nevertheless, weeks after the election, Lukashenka is still in power -- just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to whom the Kremlin was said countless times not to be wedded, is still in power.

How much power Lukashenka will retain if he stays on much longer, and how much sovereignty Belarus may cede to Moscow, is another question. Ahead of the election, analysts said that Russia wanted Lukashenka to emerge victorious but weakened, making him more susceptible to control from the Kremlin and pressure for closer integration of Belarus with Russia, a huge eastern neighbor with a population some 15 times larger.

On the surface, at least, that scenario seems to be playing out. Putin has spoken to Lukashenka several times since the election, repeatedly hinting that Russia could intervene with force on his behalf if and when it saw fit to do so, and is scheduled to host him in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on September 14 for their first known in-person meeting since the vote.

After seeming to waver, Russian state media outlets are lending Lukashenka support, and both Moscow and Minsk are casting the West as an aggressor out to engineer regime change in Belarus -- a substantial shift from the year or two ahead of the election, at least for Lukashenka, who had courted the United States and Europe and repeatedly suggested that Russia was a potential assailant eager to swallow up the smaller country to its west.

How much influence Moscow may gain over Minsk in the medium term and beyond remains to be seen -- potentially, Putin may be able to boast of roping the country of nearly 10 million into Russia's orbit for the foreseeable future. But he may not -- and already it's clear that in at least two ways, the the developments that have thrown a spotlight on Belarus are a blow to Putin and he Kremlin.

Minsk Messages Moscow

For one thing, Moscow's support for Lukashenka and the clampdown on hundreds of thousands of Belarusian citizens -- some of whom have been arrested, abused, and allegedly tortured has added to the already severe strains in Russia's relationship with the West.

Opposition activist Nina Baginskaya, 73, fights with police at a rally in Minsk on August 26.
Opposition activist Nina Baginskaya, 73, fights with police at a rally in Minsk on August 26.

More of a concern for Putin, maybe, is the signal sent by the widespread show of support for Tsikhanouskaya ahead of the Belarusian election and the persistence of popular protests -- in the face of a chilling clampdown -- in the weeks after the vote.

While the circumstances are different in Belarus, for Russia, and other former Soviet republics for that matter, the message is clear: If a leader overstays his welcome, he could face powerful pressure from protesters in the street.

It's hard to see the other big August event -- the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny -- outside the context of what's been happening in Belarus.

Navalny, an opposition politician who has harried Putin and the Kremlin by issuing reports on alleged corruption among numerous top officials, came in second in the race for Moscow mayor in 2013.

He was barred from the ballot in the 2018 presidential election -- in which Putin secured a fourth term, one fewer than Lukashenka had served before the August 9 election in Belarus -- on the basis of criminal convictions he and his supporters contend were fabricated for that purpose: to keep him out of electoral politics.

And now, it's unclear if he will be able to run in any future election.

'Major Turning Point'

On August 20 -- as the extent of anger among Belarusians over an election that many believe was rigged to give Lukashenka more than 80 percent of the vote and Tsikhanouskaya just over 10 percent was becoming increasingly clear -- Navalny fell gravely ill on a flight to Moscow after drinking tea at an airport café in the Siberian city of Tomsk.

On September 2, German authorities said toxicology tests provided "unequivocal evidence" that Navalny was poisoned with a substance from the Novichok group of military-grade nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union and Russia, a development that was widely seen as making Russian state involvement almost certain.

There are indications that the agent used on Navalny -- who is hospitalized in Germany -- may have been substantially more potent than the version used in the March 2018 poisoning of former Soviet intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury.

"Poison is the weapon of a woman, a coward, and a eunuch!"
"Poison is the weapon of a woman, a coward, and a eunuch!"

Another difference: Skripal and Aleksandr Litvinenko, a Putin critic who was fatally poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in Britain in 2006, were "former Russian security service members and could be seen by the special services as traitors who should be punished," Aleksandr Baunov, the editor in chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank's website, tweeted on September 3.

"Navalny is an opposition figure who acts openly. His poisoning eliminates the division previously admitted by Putin between enemies and traitors, according to which enemies should be treated with respect," Baunov wrote. "If this difference has gone, it means that the regime -- or the most hard-line parts of it -- feel more endangered than ever."

Like the Skripal attack, though, Navalny's poisoning has already done serious additional harm to already badly strained relations between Russia and the West, and the extend of the damage is not yet clear. Ties with Germany, which Putin appears to consider particularly important, could be among the hardest hit.

"Major turning point: German-Russian relations are fast going down the drain. Historical reconciliation is becoming history itself," Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter on September 9. "Marching back to the future?"

Authoritarian Anarchy?

With all that has happened since August 1, something that happened on July 1 may seem lost in the mists of the past. But that was the day Putin -- through a weeklong nationwide vote whose results Navalny denounced as "a fake and a huge lie" -- secured constitutional changes allowing him to run for reelection in 2024 and again in 2030 if he wishes, potentially keeping him in the Kremlin until 2036.

That's another piece of context framing the fate of Navalny, who has been his most prominent foe for at least five years -- since another opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.

And yet another is the situation in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, where the focus of protests that have persisted since July 9 has shifted from anger over Putin's dismissal of the popular regional governor to dismay at his continued rule.

An opinion poll conducted from July 13 to August 8 -- in the weeks between the constitutional vote and the Belarusian election and Navalny's poisoning -- casts a stark light on how Russians saw the state of affairs in their country. One journalist said the survey by the independent Levada Center gave off "last days of Rome vibes."

Asked to choose from several phrases to describe the situation in Russia, 38 percent of respondents picked "the loss of order and the growth of anarchy" -- the largest proportion and far more than at any time since Levada began conducting the poll in 2005.

Meanwhile, 17 percent said the country was headed toward authoritarianism and dictatorship, while 22 percent -- fewer than ever before -- chose "the development of democracy."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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