Politics 19 October 2020

Is Belarus approaching a political denouement?

A third month of civil disobedience in Belarus began this week as President Alexander Lukashenko met with an opposition leader, albeit in a KGB jail. Meanwhile Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the figurehead of the protest movement, issued a ‘people’s ultimatum’ on behalf of the Belarusian public. Many pointed out that events seem to be moving toward an endgame.

  • Lukashenko’s official Telegram channel surprised everyone last weekend with photos from the president’s face-to-face meeting with Viktor Babariko, the most prominent opposition candidate in this year’s contentious presidential election, and several other opposition figures. The meeting took place in a KGB prison, where they have all been held for several months, at a table decorated with a bunch of flowers.

  • One of the main topics of conversation was constitutional reform. “You can’t write a constitution on the streets,” was Lukashenko’s key quote. Other details of the five-hour meeting were not disclosed. After the president left, two of the participants were released to house arrest — one of them said he had been tasked with producing constitutional amendments. But the true leaders of the public protests were not impressed with Lukashenko’s performance. Maria Kolesnikova (Babariko’s former chief-of-staff and de facto opposition leader) is also in detention, and refused to attend the meeting. Sergei Tikhanovsky, one of the most popular ex-candidates, later explained he attended but refused to shake Lukashenko’s hand – and thus did not appear in the official reports.
  • What’s it all about? Belarusian political analysts agree the meeting is evidence of Lukashenko’s weakness. “A leader with 80 percent support doesn’t need to talk with ‘criminals’,” expert Artyom Shraibman commented. For the past 26 years Lukashenko, much like Putin, has not exchanged so much as a word with his political opponents.
  • Shraibman suggested several possible reasons: Lukashenko may be looking to cast himself as a ‘humane leader’ and draw the sting from the protests; or he could be seeking to divide the opposition, enlisting some support for his constitutional reform plans. Lukashenko also clearly wants to move the discussion on from questions about his legitimacy and August’s rigged election. He’s much happier talking about constitutional amendments, an idea strongly endorsed by Putin.
  • None of this really worked: the opposition remains united with all its leaders condemning the meeting. The mass protests continue, despite a growing crackdown. It’s possible that the talks were Moscow’s idea, according to Shraibman (the Kremlin responded positively to the detention center summit saying “we welcome any dialogue”). In that case, they could be considered a success. Minsk received Friday the first $500 million of a $1.5 billion Russian loan that was promised by Putin last month. Lukashenko can take consolation in counting his money.
  • There was another unexpected turn of events this week when opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky was allowed to speak to his wife Svetlana on the phone for the first time in five months. The key takeaway from the unemotional fragments she released was her husband’s call to “get tougher”. Within two days of the call, Tikhanovskaya published an ultimatum: Lukashenko must go, political prisoners must be released, and the violence must stop by next weekend. If not, Belarus will be paralyzed by a general strike, roadblocks and a collapse of sales in state-run stores. This is the first time she has openly called on the Belarusian people to act. “Tikhanovskaya and the other opposition leaders are dependent on the protests, and have not been their driving force – now let’s see if it works the other way round,” expert Shraibman said.

Why the world should care Despite this unexpected flurry of action, it’s early to begin talking about breaking the political deadlock and there’s no indication Lukashenko is ready for a meaningful dialog. Tikhanovskaya’s ‘ultimatum’ is also ambiguous. Shraibman believes it should be seen as a means of keeping the movement going as the weather gets colder and people begin to tire.