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The Week In Russia: Mercenaries, Media, And A Big Belarusian Election

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. The unprecedented election in Belarus hands Putin’s Kremlin a challenge and a potential opportunity.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. The unprecedented election in Belarus hands Putin’s Kremlin a challenge and a potential opportunity.

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You don’t get to choose your neighbors, usually.

Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly did not choose his Belarusian counterpart: When Alyaksandr Lukashenka was first elected in 1994, sweeping to power after promising law, order, and an end to corruption amid the upheaval that accompanied the Soviet collapse, Putin was the little-known head of external relations for the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and had himself been the subject of a corruption investigation by a city council commission.

Since Putin’s own first election in 2000, after he was made prime minister and then acting president by Boris Yeltsin, giving him a big advantage in the vote, he and Lukashenka have performed a sometimes not-so-delicate dance around what amounts to a single question: How much power can Russia have over Belarus?

At least theoretically, the scale starts at zero – Belarus escapes Moscow’s orbit and moves West, depriving Russia of what is arguably its closest or even its only ally, and goes to 10 -- Belarus, a landlocked nation with a population of about 9.5 million, is swallowed up by its far bigger neighbor to the east.

The latter extreme was implied by Putin back in 2002, in an exchange that set the tone for many more in the ensuing years, when he issued a thinly veiled warning to Lukashenka that putting meat on the bones of the Union State that Lukashenka and Yeltsin had created in the 1990s could make Belarus into little more than a province of Russia – and demote Lukashenka from president to governor.

Merger Madness

That seemed to put paid to any hopes that Lukashenka, a former state farm chief and a Soviet nostalgist, had of heading up a merged Belarus-Russia union. And he was certainly said to have had such designs for a decade or so during which some Russians yearning for stability saw him as the firm-handed head of a country that had preserved elements of a functioning command economy, even if that was possible largely by Russian subsidies, and was not plagued by separatist wars and terror attacks.

More than a decade later it was Putin who seemed to be hoping to use a more close-knit Union State as a possible path to remaining in power after 2024, when he faced a constitutional bar on seeking reelection.

But his repeated pushes for tighter integration had little apparent effect, and a flurry of seemingly fruitless talks toward the end of 2019 preceded what one analyst called Putin’s “flamboyant change of heart” – his decision to alter the Russian Constitution to give himself the option of running in 2024, and again in 2036, despite having repeatedly suggested that he would not do so and just as repeatedly emphasized that he was not the kind of guy who would cling to power too long.

And now, the emergence of strong popular support for a candidate seeking to unseat Lukashenka in an August 9 presidential election is both a challenge and, possibly, an opportunity for Moscow.

The potential opportunity lies in what may be the most likely outcome of the vote: a sixth term for Lukashenka, but one in which he is compromised from the start, with uncertainty about the future hanging over his head in unprecedented fashion.

That could leave Lukashenka more vulnerable, handing Moscow more potential influence – and, with a less confident leader formally ensconced for another five years, it could also give the Kremlin more time to adjust to the reality that emerges after the vote and formulate a strategy.

"Russia wants a win for Lukashenka but one that weakens him and a win that is also marked by protests, crackdown, and deterioration of relations with the West," Belarusian political commentator Artyom Shraibman told RFE/RL ahead of the vote.

Saw It On TV

Despite what seems to have become nearly constant tension between Moscow and Minsk in the past few years, there are substantial signs that the Kremlin is banking on Lukashenka to hold onto power, at least for now.

For one thing, there’s the coverage on state-run and state-controlled Russian TV, where talk-show hosts have been downplaying the significance of the big crowds of people who have turned out for rallies held by opposition candidate Svatlyana Tsikhanouskaya and her allies – the campaigns of other would-be candidates who were barred from the ballot in Belarus.

Francis Scarr, a journalist at BBC Monitoring in Moscow, described a state TV talk-show exchange in which a political analyst argued that opposition protests were the "sincere" impulse of people wanting "honest elections." The host, Vladimir Solovyov, interrupted him, claiming that a "thin pro-Western elite" was trying to "seduce" Belarus.

“In short,” Scarr wrote, Lukashenka “is still being backed despite the [Vagner] scandal."

That’s a reference to an occurrence that, on the face of it, might seem sufficient to ruin bilateral relations for quite some time: the arrest, outside Minsk in late July, of 33 men the Belarusian authorities allege are mercenaries with the Kremlin-linked private military company Vagner who were dispatched to “destabilize the country” ahead of the election.

In other words, the allegation – echoed and amplified by Lukashenka – was that the closest ally of Belarus was plotting a coup, or at least chaos, and sending armed men across the border to carry it out.

But Lukashenka stopped short of directly blaming Putin or the Russian state itself, and as days passed he softened the accusations by implying that the United States was also out to sabotage the election and that the mercenaries – who Russian officials contended had been on their way to a third country – were only following orders.

Moscow’s response, meanwhile, seemed less fiery than might be expected. And eventually, Belarus and Russia appeared to find a scapegoat: Ukraine.

Blaming Ukraine

A so-called investigation by the Kremlin-friendly media outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda asserted that the mercenaries were tricked by Ukrainian intelligence in order to sow divisions between Russia and Belarus. The claim was swiftly dismissed by analysts but was widely and prominently reported on Russian state TV channels, which Scarr described as going with the story “with all guns blazing.”

The notion that Ukraine was behind the arrests provided an off-ramp for Lukashenka and the Kremlin days before the election and seemed to reveal Russia’s thinking.

“A nonsense story, of course, but a pretty clear signal that the Kremlin doesn't want [Lukashenka's] current antics to cause serious RU-BEL trouble, and is willing to let him play the role of the upright defender against Moscow if it helps him win the elex,” Mark Galeotti, an author and analyst on Russian affairs, wrote on Twitter.

As the issue was being avidly discussed on social media, the Kremlin said that Putin had discussed it with Lukashenka by phone and voiced “certainty that the situation…will be resolved in the spirit of mutual understanding that characterizes the two countries’ cooperation.”

If TV coverage and the developments surrounding the mercenaries seemed to show how Moscow is looking at the election in Belarus, they also appeared to underscore the limitations that Russia faces in dealing with Lukashenka and the unpredictable events in a country the Kremlin counts on as an ally.

Regardless of how Putin and his government feel about Lukashenka, the unusual election next door presents a challenge to the Russian state because, even before the first ballot was cast in early voting this week, it has underscored the potential power of the people against a long-entrenched leader like Lukashenka – or like Putin.

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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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