Criminal charges, kidnappings, bags over the head and death threats: the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has deployed all the resources of his repressive apparatus this week in an attempt to suffocate the growing protest movement against his continued rule as he prepares for a crucial meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Lukashenko has made it crystal clear he has no intention of stepping down, repeating an earlier promise that he would rather die than relinquish power after 26 years in charge. “Power is not given to be taken, thrown and given away,” he said this week.
After the brutal violence in the days after he declared victory in last month’s election, Lukashenko’s riot police and KGB have refrained from widespread violence, instead targeting the leaders of the protests and either jailing or forcibly deporting them, using tactics that become more sinister by the day.
The protesters, however, have not so far been cowed by the repression and continue to flood Minsk each weekend demanding political change, pushing the country into a kind of stalemate.
Putin may be the one person who can break the deadlock, and it is possible that the next chapter of Belarusian history will be written not on the streets of Minsk but in the Kremlin, where Lukashenko travels for talks on Monday.
The negotiations are likely to be a delicate balancing act for both leaders: Lukashenko wants Putin’s backing, but insists he is not willing to sign away the country’s sovereignty. Putin, meanwhile, has long found Lukashenko a frustrating and unreliable partner, but has decided to back him, at least for now.
Longer term, it is not yet clear whether Putin’s plan involves forcing a weakened Lukashenko into pushing through a soft annexation of Belarus, or whether Russia might seek a managed transfer of power in the near future.
“Maybe he has a transition scenario ready in his head about how Lukashenko could be credibly replaced by someone in his cabinet, someone who could be trustworthy and could negotiate a deal with Russia,” said Andrey Kortunov, who heads the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow.
Some European politicians have openly backed the opposition, but most are resigned to the fact that Putin will play a decisive role in determining the outcome of the current crisis.
“It’s 50% that Lukashenko stays, but even if he’s replaced it doesn’t necessarily mean that things get very much better. What we cannot expect is a pro-European or pro-western reformer who takes office. That is not going to happen,” said one western diplomat working on Belarus.
The opposition-led coordination council has tried to remain geopolitically neutral, even as it has been welcomed by western nations and disparaged as illegal by Russia. The council was set up by the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was awarded just 10% of votes in the official tally at last month’s elections but has declared herself “national leader”.
She is currently in forced exile in Vilnius, and has suggested she could take over for an interim period before new, free elections.
Authorities have opened a criminal case against the council, and most of its leaders have been either arrested or forced into exile like Tikhanovskaya. Most dramatically, Maria Kolesnikova, a 38-year-old flautist who backed Tikhanovskaya’s candidacy and emerged as one of the figureheads of the revolutionary movement, was snatched off the street by men in balaclavas earlier this week, and driven to the border with Ukraine, where she only avoided forcible deportation by ripping up her passport.
She is in detention in Minsk, from where she released a statement on Thursday saying security officers had threatened to jail her for 25 years, and also told her she would be leaving the country one way or another, “either alive or in bits”.
The only one of the seven-person presidium of the body still in Belarus and at liberty is the Nobel-prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich. After she reported strange men knocking on her door earlier in the week, European diplomats have been holding a vigil at her apartment to show solidarity. She has previously been questioned by investigators.
Asked about the coordination council in an interview with Russian journalists this week, Lukashenko brushed it off as a group of nobodies. “Who are these people? I swear to you I haven’t heard of them, and neither have you,” he said, ignoring the fact that his security services certainly knew enough about them to harass and arrest them.
Russia has ruled out negotiating with the council, and over the past two weeks has hardened its rhetorical support for Lukashenko. Putin has said he has prepared a contingent of forces to send into Belarus if the situation spirals out of control, and Russia has sent in specialists to help Lukashenko’s state television broadcast his message to the local population.
Lukashenko has seemed to be playing to an audience of one in recent weeks, pushing a narrative aimed at making decisive support from Putin more likely. He has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that Nato troops are massing on the country’s western borders, and has warned that Belarus is a staging ground for nefarious western forces whose real target is Russia.
“If you think that great Russia will be able to deal with this, you’re wrong. I have spoken with many presidents, with my old friend – I call him my older brother – Putin, and I warned him. It is impossible to stop this,” Lukashenko told the Russian journalists this week.
This assiduous courting of the Kremlin marks quite a turnaround for Lukashenko, who for two decades has made it his calling card to play off Russia and the west against each other, and frequently frustrated his Russian counterparts, despite the two countries theoretically being part of a “union state”, an overarching structure that is meant to bring the countries into a close union under common institutions, although it exists mainly on paper after Lukashenko has stalled with implementation over the years.
In the run-up to the election, Lukashenko insisted it was Russia, not the west, that was trying to undermine the country’s sovereignty, and even went as far as arresting 33 Russian mercenaries, claiming they were part of an attempted coup.
“We were quite openly told by numerous Belarusian officials that everything they did was to counter a Russian attempt to take over Belarus,” said the western diplomat.
The men have since been released, but Kortunov said Putin would hardly have forgotten these episodes, and was well aware that Lukashenko was not a trustworthy partner. He also noted that Lukashenko’s rhetoric would chime with many hawks around the Russian president.
“They don’t necessarily trust him, but they also want to see conspiracies around Russia, to see western interference, and even if they do not believe him in full they might try to use him as a locus for their interests,” he said.