Maidan In Minsk
Belarusian President Lukashenko is being portrayed in polar opposite ways by the Mainstream and Alternative Media following the onset of the “Maidan in Minsk” (MiM) Color Revolution attempt against him, with the first-mentioned painting him as a “power-hungry dictator” who’s desperately clinging to power at all costs while the latter is making him out to be an “innocent victim” who’s being punished by the evil West for his quasi-“socialist” policies and traditional ties with Russia. Neither narrative is entirely true, though both have their merits. This analysis therefore aims to debunk the myths behind the man, after which it moves along to explaining the structural and strategic origins of the present crisis. It’ll be revealed that Lukashenko has no one but himself to blame for all of this since it’s the direct result of his failed “balancing” act between East and West. When all’s said and done, he might very well be compelled to completely reorient his country back towards Russia, though he’d be doing so out of desperation and would therefore be unable to leverage Belarus’ geostrategic position for the benefits that he originally sought to obtain by “balancing” between Moscow and the West in the first place.
“Dictator” Or “Victim”?
It’s necessary to start everything off by explaining why Lukashenko isn’t a “dictator” nor a “victim” like the Mainstream and Alternative Media make him seem, respectively. On the one hand, it’s almost certain that some degree of fraud was committed in the latest elections which saw him earning approximately 80% of the vote and even besting Putin as the most popular re-elected Slavic leader of the post-Soviet space, but on the other, Lukashenko is nevertheless generally popular with his mostly conservative society that’s consistently voted for stability and predictability so he probably did in fact receive the majority of votes cast but likely padded the numbers for egotistical reasons related to his personal rivalry with his “elder brother“. As for clarifying the second narrative being pushed by many in the Alt-Media Community, Lukashenko has recently moved real close to the West following several highly publicized disagreements with Russia over energy supplies and the so-called “Union State”, so much so that he even committed his country to replacing some of its Russian energy imports with American ones and openly accused Moscow of sending mercenaries to Minsk in order to destabilize the situation there ahead of the election.
Belarusian “Socialism” Is A Sham
In addition, his much-touted “socialist” economy is still veritably state-owned to a large extent and provides some generous benefits to its citizens in the educational and medical spheres, but it’s more akin to a model of state capitalism than socialism and was only able to survive for as long as it did because of Russia’s prior energy subsidies and preferential access to its economy through the Eurasian Union (which accounts for the vast majority of Belarus’ exports). Moreover, Lukashenko already indicated his intent to open up his country’s economy more, which obviously hints at more privatization and neoliberal “reforms”, though he insists that it’ll be done responsibly and at a gradual pace in order to avoid systemic shocks. As proof of the fact that these anti-socialist changes are already taking place, one need look no further than his outreaches to both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the IMF, neither of which are regarded as socialist-friendly entities but rather hyper-capitalist ones. That being the case, one might wonder why some still stubbornly claim that Belarus is a “socialist” country, but this question can likely be answered by realizing that those who push this inaccurate narrative are usually leftists nostalgic for the Soviet era for ideological reasons.
The Sanctions Catalyst
The economic dimension of this issue is particularly important to pay attention to since it’s directly responsible for creating some of the legitimate grievances that drove many people to protest against Lukashenko in recent days. He wouldn’t have begun his slow-moving (for now, at least) economic systemic transition from quasi-“socialism” to neoliberalism had it not been for Russia removing its prior energy subsidies of the Belarusian economy. Moscow didn’t do this just to “pressure” Minsk into accelerating its stalled progress on the “Union State” like many mistakenly believe, but because it decided (whether rightly or wrongly) that it’s not worth subsidizing it without any changes to the geopolitical status quo in light of this comparatively costing the country more than usual following the impact of the American-led Western sanctions against it after the reunification with Crimea. The Russian economy isn’t struggling, but it also isn’t doing as well as it otherwise would have been had the sanctions never been imposed, hence why its leadership seems to have thought it better in terms of Russia’s national interests to finally ask for something in exchange for continuing to subsidize Belarus.
From “Buffer” To “Balancer”
Russia regards Belarus as a “buffer” state between it and the West, one whose loyalty is important to maintain for military and economic security, which explains why it was subsidizing the country in the first place. One might therefore think that no price could be too high for the Kremlin to pay in pursuit of this national security need, though that assumption disregards the fact that Belarus had begun moving westward (“balancing”) even before their energy crisis at the start of this year. The argument can be made that it eventually becomes counterproductive for any country to continue subsidizing a “partner” that’s gradually moving away from it since this act of self-interested “generosity” actually works against their national interest by making it easier for the subsidized state to complete what might be an impending geopolitical pivot without any adverse consequences. That in turn would send the wrong message that Russia (or any other state in its position) can be taken advantage of by other similarly important partners by having it subsidize their own copycat pivots since Moscow would appear to be so seemingly desperate that it would evidently have no choice but to “go with the flow” and ultimately be undermined by a thousand geopolitical cuts so to speak.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Lukashenko’s logic was in doing all of this, but the author attempted to understand it in a series of analyses that he’s published on this topic since May 2015 and which should be skimmed by the reader if they’re interested in obtaining some background context about the current crisis:
* 25 May 2015: “Are Armenia And Belarus Wandering Westward?”
* 5 February 2017: “Is Belarus On The Brink Of Pivoting Away From Russia?”
* 1 June 2018: “Poland’s Trying To Break The Russian-Belarusian Bond With A US Base”
* 13 September 2018: “A Polish Canal Might Make All The Difference In Belarus’ ‘Balancing’ Act”
* 6 November 2018: “Belarus Just Threw Russia Under The Bus”
* 31 January 2019: “Belarus & Russia: Nipping The ‘Annexation’ Narrative In The Bud”
* 5 May 2019: “Trump Is Twisting Putin’s Arm Through Lukasheko”
* 4 September 2019: “Belarus Is Between A Rock And A Hard Place”
* 27 September 2019: “Ukraine’s Federalization: Lavrov vs. Lukashenko”
* 1 January 2020: “2020: Top Geopolitical Trends To Watch By Region”
* 6 February 2020: “Russian-Belarusian Relations: The ‘Moment Of Truth’ Has Arrived”
* 10 August 2020: “Korybko To Russian Media: On Nord Stream II, George Floyd, Belarus, And Japan”
In a nutshell, Lukashenko basically thought that he could leverage his country’s geostrategic position by “balancing” between Russia and the West in order to obtain more benefits from Moscow than if he accepted its implied terms of receiving such in exchange for making more progress on the “Union State”.
The “Union State” Dilemma
Therein lies the main dispute between Russia and Belarus, which is Moscow’s desire for Minsk to move forward with the “Union State” in exchange for continuing to subsidize its economy while the latter has come to regard this as an infringement of its sovereignty. Even worse, Lukashenko seems to have even conceptualized Russia as an emerging threat to Belarus considering his recent unproven claims that Moscow allegedly dispatched Wagner mercenaries to Minsk in order to destabilize the situation there in the run-up to last weekend’s election. His views towards Belarus’ eastern neighbor were likely shaped to a large degree by the West, which has an interest in driving an even deeper wedge between those two fraternal states in order to advance its divide-and-rule designs. Lukashenko, who leads what is arguably a single-man state, is naturally prone to paranoia and delusions of grandeur, which is why the West’s interconnected narratives about the so-called “Russian threat” to Belarus’ sovereignty and the promises of him being regarded as an “equal” by them instead of the “junior partner” that Putin considers him if he more decisively pivots away from Russia were so effective in shaping his recent decisions.
The 19th-Century Great Power Chessboard
For better or for worse, contemporary International Relations can be described as akin to the 19th-Century Great Power Chessboard wherein Great Powers prioritize relations with their similarly sized peers at the perceived (key word) expense of their smaller- and medium-sized partners. It is extremely difficult and geopolitically dangerous for these objects of their competition (the smaller- and medium-sized countries) to attempt to “balance” between them like Yugoslavia’s Tito once masterfully did since they’re ultimately forced to choose one side or the other and then bear the consequences of their decision. Not everything has to be perceived through a zero-sum perspective since win-win cooperation is still possible (mostly as practiced by Great Powers), though theoretically perfect “neutrality” between all sides is practically impossible (especially for the smaller- and medium-sized states). In the context of this analysis, Belarus could have either remained exceptionally close to Russia and taken the next step towards integration within the “Union State” format in exchange for continued subsidies or decisively pivoted towards the Polish-led and US-backed “Three Seas Initiative“. Instead, Lukashenko thought that he could “balance” between them, which was a mistake.
From “Balancing” To Pivoting
He might have been able to play this game for longer had he not attempted to “justify” this “balancing” on overtly anti-Russian pretexts such as publicly condemning the Kremlin on repeated occasions over energy, the “Union State”, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Wagner provocation. That sent very strong signals to Russia that Belarus was no longer trying to “balance” between East and West for win-win reasons but was moving towards a decisive pro-Western pivot at its zero-sum expense. Not only did this provoke a “strategic dilemma” between the two fraternal states, but it also emboldened the pro-Western anti-Russian Color Revolution movement into thinking that they could push him even harder in that direction and get him to accelerate what they believed was his inevitable pivot after the election. He had hitherto tolerated them and even uncharacteristically didn’t crack down on their illegal gatherings ahead of the election because he thought that he could co-opt them by appealing to their anti-Russian vision of Belarus’ future. This was another mistake on his part, compounding his previous ones, and would ultimately come back to bite him big time.
Feeding The Beast
Lukashenko didn’t realize it until it was too late, but he was really just feeding the Color Revolution beast by propagating “politically convenient” anti-Russian narratives to “justify” his Western-friendly “balancing” act and subsequent innuendo about a supposedly imminent pivot after the vote. Instead of winning their support, he really just showed them how weak he’d become after bungling his “balancing” act. By breaking Belarus’ strategic partnership with Russia before clinching a series of them with the Western “frontline states” of Poland and Lithuania (incidentally the two that previously dominated Belarus for centuries during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), he revealed himself to be weaker than at any moment in his political career. Lukashenko not only isolated himself from his country’s only reliable partner (Russia) during this crucial geostrategic transition period, but he also emboldened the pro-Western Color Revolutionaries to intensify their efforts out of the expectation that they can pressure him into enacting more concessions to accelerate Belarus’ total submission to its new “partners” (euphemistically described as “balancing Russia”) or fleeing from office for his life like his former Ukrainian colleague Yanukovich did if their spree of urban terrorism succeeds.
Few Foreign Agents, But Plenty Of “Sheep”
At this point it’s important to clarify that not every rioter or those that are sympathetic to them is a foreign agent. It’s true that foreign forces helped organize this Color Revolution attempt, but like all of these regime change plots, the vast majority of participants are seemingly “well-intended” average folks who’ve been misguided by a comparatively smaller number of foreign-connected members of the movement’s core and their cohorts below them. Those individuals utilize a combination of attractive outreach efforts such as appealing to their target audience’s political-economic desires with hopeful slogans and the like to increase their number of recruits prior to manipulating them into violence through the weaponization of crowd control psychology. It’s for this reason why even Lukashenko himself referred to most of them as “sheep“. Still, the rank and file nevertheless have legitimate grievances related to worries about their socio-economic future considering the removal of Russia’s energy subsidies (eliminated in response to Lukashenko’s clumsy “balancing” act as was previously explained) and subsequent forthcoming neoliberal “reforms” that Belarus will be forced to implement, to say nothing of some people’s (especially the youth’s) unhappiness with their long-serving leader.
Having a better understanding of the origins and dynamics of this regime change crisis, it’s now time to discuss several scenarios. The first is that Lukashenko is deposed, which is very unlikely. The second is that he submits to Color Revolution pressure and decisively pivots to the West, becoming a Montegrin-like proxy leader whose strongman style is ignored by “human rights” activists out of “political convenience” for his anti-Russian policies. More likely, however, is that he crawls back to Russia — especially if more Western sanctions are imposed upon him if he crushes the Color Revolution like he seems intent to do now — though without any chance of leveraging his country’s position like he previously sought to do and therefore being forced to take whatever deal Putin offers him. Lastly, though unlikely, he might choose neither East nor West, which would isolate Belarus, probably kill its economy sooner than later, and either lead to a successful Color Revolution soon thereafter or an outright “dictatorship” as he desperately clings to power. All scenarios are bad to differing degrees, and they’re all entirely Lukashenko’s own fault after his clumsy “balancing” act collapsed.
Lukashenko is neither an “evil dictator” who must be overthrown nor an “innocent victim” of a Western plot. Rather, he’s more like an egomaniac who thought that he could become the 21st-century Tito by successfully “balancing” between East and West and perhaps even going further by “defecting” from the former to the latter through an outright pivot that could change the course of the New Cold War. He brought all of Belarus’ present problems upon himself by trying to play both sides, but his biggest mistake was in going too far with his Western leanings over the past year by emboldening the Color Revolutionaries with incendiary anti-Russian statements about Belarus’ energy dispute with it, the “Union State”, the Eurasian Union, and the Wagner provocation. That isolated him from Russia and made him look weak to his new Western “partners”, who promptly ordered their Color Revolution proxies to intensify their campaign of pressure against him using the election as the “trigger event” pretext so as to extract even more concessions or even oust him from power. Belarus will never be the same after what happened since there’s no “good way” out of this crisis (though reconciling with Russia would be the best course of action), and it’s no one’s fault but Lukashenko’s own.