Russia, Belarus protests ‘more than just solidarity’


There is growing concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin may attempt to spur another crisis abroad (perhaps over Belarus) as a way to distract from the mounting political pressure at home – a fear analysts say has become all the more potent as supporters of now-imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny set their sights on the Russian leader’s control over the levers of power, U.S. News reports.

“There are some worries,” Ivan Kurilla, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, tells U.S. News. He cites troubling rhetoric on Tuesday from Dmitry Medvedev – a close ally of the Russian leader – in which he called for “further integration with Belarus,” a former Soviet state that Russia has sharply warned against attempts to further ally itself with the West.

“That may mean nothing, but people did discuss the possibility of Russian-Belarusian ‘unification’ previously, either as a tool to keep Putin in power in the ‘new’ state or as a way to suppress Belarusian protests,” Kurilla says.

From Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, the cry was the same on Sunday:Ukhodi!” – a Russian-language call for their countries’ authoritarian rulers to “Leave!” the Globe and Mail adds.

Belarusians were now hoping that Russia’s protest movement could learn from their example, said Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova, who is now a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.

“There is more than just solidarity” between the protest movements, she said. “These are two separate issues, but clearly the situations in both countries affect each other.”

A total of 8,304 police from different departments were mobilized against the protests in support of Alexei Navny throughout Tuesday, a number far exceeding the 2,000 to 3,000 protesters local media outlets estimated to have rallied in Moscow on Monday evening, according to Baza — a telegram channel with close links to Russian security services — the Moscow Times reports.

This show of force wasn’t coincidental, said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and expert on Russian security affairs. “The Kremlin may have genuinely feared a more massive protest but I think it was definitely trying to make a point,” he told the Moscow Times.

“The intent was political, to make it clear that the government has what in military terms is called ‘escalation dominance’: the will and capacity to escalate to match and exceed anything the protesters can do. The goal is to make people think resistance is futile.”

Writing in Proekt, an independent news and politics Web site, earlier this week, the political scientist Grigory Golosov described how “Putin has put his own personal security ahead of the survival of the overall system.” As both Putin and his rule have aged, Russian political calculations have shifted, and, when the interests of Putin the individual have diverged from the interests of Putinism the system, the former has increasingly tended to win out, the New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa observes:

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former presidential adviser who left the Kremlin in acrimony in 2011, said something similar this week. “Putin, as it turned out, is more afraid for himself than for his regime,” he told an opposition media outlet. If Putin was truly concerned with the durability of the system that he has created, he would have found some off-ramps or compromises, rather than steadily escalate. “He is afraid, for whatever reason—that’s a question for psychologists and psychiatrists to answer—for his own safety. He stopped fearing for the safety of the system,” Pavlovsky said. His diagnosis was that Putin had become a threat to Putinism: “He has turned into a bug in the system.”

“Putin needs Navalny in jail during Russia’s next round of elections. That is obvious. He fears Navalny,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in a tweet.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R.Politik, said the harsh sentence against Navalny was part of a campaign to “demonstrate that no move aimed against the security services would remain unpunished”, the Guardian adds.

She said the government was ready to weather the backlash to Navalny’s imprisonment, whether it be international condemnation or street demonstrations in Russia. “Make no mistake, the Kremlin is not terribly afraid of protests,” she said.

People in Russia and in Belarus are defending fundamental values of democracy, dignity and human rights, and we have to do everything possible to defend their faith in European solidarity and support, said Andrius Kubilius, MEP. He was speaking prior to a discussion with  representatives from Civil Society in Russia and of Democratic Belarus, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, Foundation for Democratic Development, Russian politicians and local deputies and MEPs (above).

EU-Russia relations have become increasingly strained over the past decade, not least because of the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, analysts attest. The Kremlin’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s military intervention in Syria have only exacerbated matters. Another source of tension is Russia’s disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, as well as attempts to interfere in Western democratic processes.

The European Union has a moral obligation to keep acting in support of the democratic movement in Belarus, notes one observer.

However, the different approach among member states yet again highlights the need for a more coherent EU policy response on these matters, says Tomas Tobé, a Swedish MEP from the Moderate Party and chair of the European Parliament’s development committee. The Union is the world’s largest aid donor and thus has great opportunities to use the development policy as a means of putting pressure on regimes worldwide.

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