Belarus 2010: Another view.
Posted by democratist on December 3, 2010
3rd December 2010,
Democratist has been discussing the prospect of Lukashenko being overthrown by the Russians in the upcoming 19th December 2010 Presidential elections in detail with one of our many very clever, anonymous friends.
“I suspect it [overthrow] is not as easy as some would like to hope. The information war has produced a lot of noise but has limited impact in Belarus itself. There is no clear Kremlin candidate in the administration who could mount an internal Russia-backed palace coup – the siloviki are pretty much linked to Lukashenko junior (Viktor) now and the technocrats are allegedly more and more ‘economic nationalists’ who liked subsidised energy but fear an influx of Russian business interests. The Kremlin lobby in the elites was pretty much purged in the mid-naughties. Tacitly fostering a violent overthrow, as some claim was the case in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year is pretty much a non-starter (despite some of the cries from the national democratic opposition ranks). So far Russia has not particularly reached out to the opposition, although the leading candidates like Nekliaev, Sannikov and Romanchuk are the least anti-Russian (compared to the likes of the Popular Front and Christian Democrat candidates who seem to have rather low poll ratings so far).
Maybe if there are some big (by Belarusian standards) public protests after the election they might seek to help ferment them somehow. Despite all the talk of Russia not recognising the election results, I get the feeling they are not actually going to go that far. Obviously there is economic pressure, but it might require a step change from just charging market rates for energy to actively blockading or introducing sanctions against Belarus. Also Russia is entering her own election cycle in 2011-2012 – what are the risks in destabilising a ‘fraternal’ neighbour? I don’t think there will be a quick fix which sees Russia able to get rid of Lukashenko within a year or so, they probably need to nurture ties with potential forces/allies in the longer term or towards the next election cycle.
There is lots of chatter that the economic situation over the next 18-24 months as Russian tightens the screws will precipitate the endgame for Lukashenko – but similar predictions were being made in 2007 and 2004. However, Lukashenko’s room for manoeuvre is narrowing and the traditional game of muddling through is getting increasingly difficult to play. He has always been a consummate politician when it came to exploiting the little leverage he had over Russia – e.g. threats to withdraw from regional bodies such as the CSTO or SES could be embarrassing for the Kremlin (Russia’s closest ally turns against her?). The end of socio-economic stability was supposed to see the collapse of support for Lukashenko within the ruling elites and society at large, but although the economic situation has deteriorated over the past 3 years or so he has managed to avoid getting most of the blame. With more ad hoc western loans, limited liberalisation to appeal to the EU and others as well as ties to the likes of China and Venezuela, the regime might stagger on for longer than expected. However filling the gap left by Russia withdrawing generous economic support will be very difficult. The EU has limited influence in Belarus but does offer a potential (though risky) alternative – if Russia is seen as too aggressive/coercive could propping up Lukashenko be seen as a least bad option – ‘better the devil you know’?. Could Lukashenko step down early on his own terms, rather than be ousted – he is cunning enough that he might actually pull it off!
As always, lots of maybes! I think the usual balancing act (over a minefield)/tango of convenience (on a tightrope)/chess game (with ever-changing rules/players) is going to get more difficult, and Lukashenko may well be off the scene in a couple of years, but if anyone can pull off holding on somehow for a bit longer despite all the commentary on his inevitable fall, Lukashenko maybe the man who can get away with it! Having said that, I’ll no doubt be proved wrong and it will now turn out he will be voted out in the first round by such a margin that no amount of vote rigging and fraud can cover it up!”