Political Awakening in Belarus Poses Risks for Putin

As Belarusians hold mass demonstrations against their authoritarian leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also threatened by growing unrest and weakening support.

Belarusian opposition supporters with old Belarusian national flags light their smartphones as they gather at Independence Square in Minsk on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

(CN) — In the third week of mass protests after a disputed presidential election, Belarus, a holdover from Eastern Europe’s communist past, is witnessing stirring scenes of a nation seeming to wake up from a long hibernation.

Over the weekend, about 150,000 demonstrators gathered in central Minsk, the capital, in numbers not seen since the end of communism. This sea of people – children, women, the elderly, young, blue-collar workers and professionals – waved the old red and white national flag of Belarus, an outlawed symbol of the opposition.

Elsewhere, a guitar player stood alone in front of a phalanx of riot police and sang protest songs. Protesters line-danced under the glare of a statue of Lenin in Minsk’s Independence Square. A red and white protest flag flapped atop the smokestacks of a state-run ammonia factory. Teachers and scientists marched against the government. An airplane flew over the capital flying a giant red and white flag.

But the ripple effects of this political awakening against a dictatorial regime in a sleepy nation the size of Kansas has the potential to cause far greater consequences: The protests may encourage people in neighboring Russia to follow their example.

The long-running reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin is faced with its own growing popular unrest and nationwide protests may erupt after Russia’s upcoming regional elections on Sept. 13, political observers say. 

Putin and his United Russia party are threatened with weakening support because of declining economic fortunes, falling living standards and mounting frustration over poor governance. Long-running protests have broken out in Russia’s Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk and may spread elsewhere.

Many in the West are accusing the Kremlin of seeking to quell this unrest with the recent alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition politician. The Kremlin rejects the allegations.

“Rising civic activism and leaderless protests in Russia’s regions are becoming a new headache for the Kremlin,” said Andrius Tursa, an Eastern Europe expert at Teneo, a political risk firm based in London, in a briefing note Wednesday.

The birth of nationwide protests in Russia, he said, “would be particularly worrying for the Kremlin amid Putin’s declining authority and ongoing leaderless demonstrations against the authoritarian regime in neighboring Belarus.”

Faced with spreading unrest, Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenk – the former head of a Soviet state farm and communist apparatchik who’s dominated his nation of 9.7 million people on the borderland between the European Union and Russia for 26 years – appear ready to do everything they can to make sure the protests in Belarus do not upend their hold on power.

Belarusian opposition supporters light their smartphones in Independence Square on Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Putin has congratulated Lukashenko on his victory and Russia has warned the EU and the United States to not interfere in Belarus. In Western Europe, analysts and political leaders are girding themselves for what Putin will do to make sure Belarus does not fall into the hands of a pro-Western and pro-European movement, such as happened in Ukraine in 2014. Faced with the loss of Ukraine as an ally, Russia invaded Crimea. Experts believe Russia will do what it can to make sure Belarus does not take that path.

“Vladimir Putin is holding on to power by means not dissimilar to those of Alexander Lukashenko,” said Wolfgang Munchau, a political analyst who runs Eurointelligence, in a briefing note.

He said the protests in Belarus are about the way the country is governed and that if it becomes necessary Putin may view a military option in Belarus “as his least risky.”

If Russia used force in Belarus, he said the EU would be forced into making tough decisions but that it would likely find itself with limited power and few good options. For example, it would likely be unwilling to ban Russian imports of gas because they are critically important to Germany, Europe’s strongest economy and its dominant political player, he said.

The EU is drawing up sanctions on Belarusian authorities and promised to fund pro-European civil society groups in Belarus. But many experts say the EU needs to go further, for instance halting construction of a new major gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, the Nordstream 2.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko has signaled he will not give up power without a fight and the longtime Belarusian president has turned into a thug-in-chief. Over the weekend, he was shown on state television flying inside a helicopter over protests and describing the demonstrators as rats.

Then, he was seen stepping out of the aircraft near his Minsk home and brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle while decked out in black combat gear. Walking with swagger, the strongman saluted security forces guarding his home from protesters and intimidated his critics with the words: “You’ve got it coming!”

“People are being warned that there will be a mass repression unless the protests stop,” said Yury Tsarik, an analyst at the Minsk-based think tank Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, on Radio Free Europe, a U.S.-funded news service.

Day by day, Lukashenko is slowly tightening the screws on the growing protest movement, which is demanding fresh elections after Lukashenko was improbably declared the winner of Aug. 9 elections that saw him pick up 80% of the vote. The opposition, led by Svetlana Tchounkiskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the election, claims it won the election.

Last week, a criminal probe was opened against the opposition after it set up a Coordination Council, a panel of Belarusian politicians, civil society and intellectuals seeking to open a dialogue with Lukashenko. They are asking for free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Before the election, two candidates for the presidential race were imprisoned, including the husband of Tchounkiskaya, and a third fled the country.

Members of the Coordination Council have been brought before prosecutors for questioning and two were ordered detained for 10 days. On Wednesday, it was the turn of Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, to be questioned by authorities. She is on the council.

In recent days, security forces have stepped up arrests at protests with reports that dozens of people, many waving the red and white national flag, have been taken off the streets. In the first few days after the contested election, about 6,700 people were arrested in a brutal crackdown on demonstrators. However, that initial crackdown backfired on Lukashenko and spurred an even larger outcry of protests and led to widespread strikes across Belarus at state factories. The protests were also fueled by allegations of widespread beatings and torture of protesters taken into custody.

Opposition figures are calling for the protests and strikes to continue.

“It’s absolutely obvious that the authorities are really afraid of their own nation and the majority’s opinion,” Maria Kolesnikova, an opposition leader, told reporters at a recent Coordination Council meeting. “We are sure sooner or later they will have to give in to the situation. It can’t carry on like this.”

In video remarks to members of the European Parliament on Tuesday, Tchounkiskaya said “Belarus has woken up.”

“We are not the opposition anymore. We are the majority now,” she said. “The will of the people will not be broken.”

She is in talks with European and American diplomats about forming a transitional government and carrying out what she is describing as a “democratic revolution.”

The question now looming over Belarus is whether the protests can continue in the event of a new brutal crackdown by the regime.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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