Conflict and Leadership
The Crisis in Belarus and Its International Dimension

The historical advantage of the Belarusian authorities has been the desire to keep the political initiative. However, a major mistake was made during the election campaign  the  initiative was misused. The ideology of a besieged fortress was chosen again, this time besieged allegedly by Russia, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

The 66th birthday of the President of Belarus, Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko, coincided with the worst crisis in the modern history of the country. Many commentators enthusiastically compared what is happening with the Ukraine crisis and predicted the same outcome for the events in Belarus.

However, these comparisons are invalid.

There were six key reasons behind the Ukraine crisis.

First, Ukraine has historically developed a competitive shadow policy, which is based on media and para-force operations. In Ukraine, the practice of taking to the streets and seizing power through mass demonstrations and provocations, both in regional centres and in the capital, is an established one. A whole class of participants in such “popular” power-grab operations has emerged, who, even between political crises, are a dangerous asset.
Second, the security forces in Ukraine have been weakened; their limited size and lack of qualifications did not allow for them to effectively resist the practice of usurping power through street demonstrations. It is possible that this is precisely why the Ministry of Internal Affairs was weakened, so as not to hinder the regular swing of the political pendulum with the help of the street.

Third, during the 2014 crisis, the country experienced a deep split among its elites, as a result of which President Viktor Yanukovych was betrayed by his closest circle of supporters. This turned out to be one of the most significant factors in the development of the crisis.

Fourth, in Ukraine, a conflict of identity has historically existed between Russian-speaking and nationalist-minded citizens, supported by the authorities. The latter developed their radical paramilitary wing over the years. Ukrainian nationalists got combat experience in various armed conflicts in Europe and the Caucasus. At some moments, these units were provided with advisory support by external forces interested in destabilising the situation.

Fifth, probably the key parameter of the 2014 crisis was the weakness and inadequacy of President Yanukovych's actions in the context of the unfolding crisis. His inconsistency and fear of responsibility for difficult decisions cost him power and plunged the country into a catastrophe of civil confrontation.

Sixth, last in importance, but still influential, was the clear objective of the United States, as well as the countries of Eastern and Western Europe to break the status quo by “forcing out” President Yanukovych, and then legitimising the coup d'état through the international recognition of the new authorities.
Morality and Law
The Belarusian Protests and the Limits of the EU’s Normative Power
Oleg Barabanov
The European Union did not recognise the outcome of these elections and condemned the violence. But its next steps became surprisingly cautious, which was strikingly different from the EU's approach to the Ukrainian events six years ago.
Expert Opinions

None of these key conditions are observed today in the political crisis in Belarus, although it is obvious that the mass protests against the results of the presidential elections express fatigue with the stagnant state of social processes, politics and the economy. In comparison with the Ukrainian situation in 2014, the constants of the Belarusian situation are as follows:
First, there is no political competition in the country, due to the fact that alternative centres of power are not developed and the political interests of top business oligarchs are poorly represented.

Second, Belarus has strong and centralised power structures that are highly mobilised and have the full support and trust of the supreme command.
Third, the split between the elites and the bureaucracy during the on-going crisis has turned out to be minimal. Minor figures are leaving, and members of the elite who have expressed their support for the demonstrators are already calculating scenarios for the further development of events for themselves.

Fourth, despite the obvious mistakes during the election campaign, the Belarusian president has acted proactively and fearlessly during the crisis. This has positively affected the loyalty of the law enforcement forces towards him and has contributed to maintaining stability.

Fifth, although a conflict of identities is present in Belarus, it is much weaker than in Ukraine.

Finally, sixth, while the countries of Eastern Europe have shown external participation in the crisis to the greatest extent, Western Europe has actually withdrawn from participation. In the United States, the bureaucratic apparatus has compelled the top officials of the state to remain absorbed in the electoral race. American officials are consistently fulfilling the clause of the unspoken directive on “spreading democracy” in Eastern Europe, and, most likely, the document on the implementation of the operation during the presidential elections in Belarus was signed by a middle-level official, not by the president.
The degree of mobilisation of Western countries in relation to the Belarusian crisis is significantly lower than it was in relation to the Ukrainian crisis.

Then, the Western countries acted as a united front. Joseph Biden, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and other Western leaders took turns calling President Yanukovych to persuade him to end the operation to break up the Maidan demonstration in central Kiev. In fact, it was these phone calls that proved to be the decisive factor shaking Yanukovych’s already weak confidence in himself. Constant “telephone diplomacy” paralysed the will of the Ukrainian president, who several times cancelled the orders he had already given to the Interior Ministry officers to restore order in the centre of the Ukrainian capital. Ultimately, this inconsistency led to a loss of faith in Yanukovych as supreme commander-in-chief, and, as a result, the leaders of the security forces became more accommodating to the promises of the opposition. When similar phone calls rang out in Minsk, President Lukashenko discreetly did not pick up the receiver.

An important circumstance of external participation in the Ukrainian crisis was the presence of anonymous snipers -provocateurs, who exacerbated the radical nature of the confrontation in Kiev, killing participants in the confrontation on both sides and increasing the degree of aggression. It was to these people and their leaders that the signal from the Russian president was addressed when he formed a reserve of Russian law enforcement officers from the Special Operations Forces. The high – higher than in Ukraine – risk of losing one’s life should now be included in the calculation of the probability of success of the coup in Belarus.

We cannot discount the miscalculations of the Belarusian leadership itself, which led to the situation in the country becoming an acute crisis. The historical advantage of the Belarusian authorities has been the desire to keep the political initiative. However, a major mistake was made during the election campaign – the  initiative was misused. The ideology of a “besieged fortress” was chosen again, this time besieged allegedly by Russia. The opportunistic multi-vector policy, which Belarus has been promoting over the last several years, has been aggravated by open anti-Russian theses that disorientated voters and the elite. These theses developed in conditions where Russia was and remains a key external factor in the stability of Belarus and the preservation of its prospects for progressive development.

Russia will continue to play its role in the future. Thanks to the statements of the Russian leadership, all external forces should understand that Russia is the guarantor of the protection of the sovereignty of Belarus from external interference and the possibility of the Belarusians themselves resolving this crisis.
Global Governance
Lessons from the Belarusian Crisis: Russia and its Neighbors
Timofei Bordachev
The internal political crisis in Belarus - regardless of its outcome - is a good reason to talk about the nature and prospects of relations between Russia and its neighbors. For the most part, these are countries formed on the basis of the former union republics of the USSR and never before had their own statehood within the framework of the Westphalian international order.

Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.