Belarus authorities have arrested dozens in the wake of demonstrations protesting a law against “social parasites,” RFE/RL reports. The 2015 law took effect earlier this year, sparking protests that have broadened into general dissatisfaction with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 23-year rule.
Lukashenka, in office since 1994, is probably having the toughest time in his presidential career, and his recently favored tactic of pretending to balance between the West and Russia—to receive loans and accommodations from both and save the failing Belarusian economy—is not working anymore. People are exhausted by Lukashenka, but still remain shocked by horrifying pictures from the crackdown on the 2014 uprising in Kyiv and the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. They are not eager to see that sort of violence in Belarus.
But the story is more complicated than opposition protests against an autocratic government, says The Economist’s Edward Lucas.
The Belarusian authorities claim to have uncovered a plot by Western-backed Ukrainian nationalists to mount a Maidan-style insurrection. That seems highly unlikely. Many observers also think that some parts of the ostensibly pro-democracy opposition are Kremlin puppets, he writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis:
That is hard to prove, but a clearer sign of Russian involvement is the growing numbers of “Cossack” paramilitary groups, of shadowy funding and orientation: they claim to be “patriotic,” but what that means is unclear. The American analyst Paul Goble believes that Russian intelligence officers are presenting themselves as Belarusian radical nationalists in order to promote disorder. Moreover, Mr. Lukashenka has only wobbly control over of his own power structures, which have been heavily infiltrated by Russia.
What happens next? Chatham House analyst Keir Giles asks:
President Lukashenka’s position is not easy. Maintaining a degree of freedom of movement for his country by attempting to reduce dependence on Russia and build ties with the West runs the constant risk of a damaging Russian reaction. A heavy-handed response to March’s demonstrations may have bought more time by heading off Russian accusations of dangerous instability, but at the likely cost of a backlash from the EU setting back Belarus’s outreach efforts. In any case, Belarus will still sooner or later be faced with a decisive choice between East and West; and the EU and NATO in particular need to be fully prepared for that moment.
The EU can respond to the protests in Russia and Belarus in very direct and simple ways, says Carnegie analyst Judy Dempsey:
- First, whether through the European Endowment for Democracy, the Brussels-based institutions, or the member states, the union can invest in Belsat, an important satellite TV station that transmits from Warsaw. Belsat is in desperate need of funding. It’s time for the EU to channel funds to the broadcaster.
- Second, the EU should step up its support for Internet access in Eastern Europe. Independent news from sources such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe is a must for countries in the region. And what about a professional EU channel to beam news and investigative reports into the union’s Eastern neighbors? Individuals and civil-society movements trying to get local news out need support as well.
- Third, the EU or its member states should fund university places for young Belarusians and Russians and speed up the granting of visas and scholarships. The EU could mobilize its Erasmus student-exchange program. Universities in Vilnius and Warsaw are doing much to help Belarusian students. That support should be much more widespread. And the EU could find ways to fund centers for European studies in Belarus.
- Finally, the EU should prepare for the day after. Putin and Lukashenko are not immortal. Believing that their successors will be just as authoritarian as they are, as some argue, is intellectually fateful and lazy. Europeans can invest in supporting Russian opposition individuals such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky who are now living in the West, to build up political movements back home.