Can We Help Belarus?

Superficially, the democratic world is of one mind and one voice when weighing the future of Belarus. Both citizens and those who lead us are meant to agree. We see Belarusian people surge out in protest every week, and our hearts go with them. When they are increasingly maltreated by authority, beaten and arbitrarily arrested and worse, we feel their fear and their pain. We want that pain to end.

But the way ahead is uncertain. There is disagreement on what possible future for Belarus is best, on what actions are most likely to bring this about, and indeed on whether any good option at all is open.

In my piece in earlier this month, I channelled the fears of some of the less euphoric demonstrators. They had seen the state’s response to their protesting grow more violent, and see now authority’s efforts to destroy their movement become more elaborate.

Opposition activists have been arrested in large numbers. Many of their number have been beaten. Some of the most troublesome have been forcibly ejected from the country, marched to the border and hustled over – something Maria Kolesnikova foiled by tearing up her passport in a spontaneous gesture of defiance and nous, just before she was to be pushed out of the country and into Ukraine.

All of this is dramatic; and what is apparently at stake is no less so. When I wrote for my earlier piece for The Critic, I wondered whether a positive resolution was necessarily on Europe’s mind. With the world’s dictatorships bound together by common interest, and clearly willing to prevent their fellows falling to democracy, I speculated whether the apparent passivity of the free world would melt away before Russian resolve.

The piece elicited more response than I expected, and more essential criticism than I had anticipated. Surely I must understand, some correspondents said, that there are many incorrect ways to aid the people of Belarus. That a Russian intervention had to be massaged away by diplomacy rather than anticipated and counteracted with policy.

A common view holds that only when Lukashenko is deserted by his allies can there be any hope of a transition to democracy. And that while a signal from Russia that Belarus’ president is finished might spur some in the country’s elite to reconsider their support, more could go wrong than may go well. The elite may yet wager that an advancing opposition means, for them, the loss of everything. That may be enough to guarantee supporting Lukashenko, come what may.

Russian backing might aid Lukashenko, or its lack might leave him a little less secure, but the elites in Belarus are the essential element, others suggested. To conciliate them is essential, or in fear of what a new opposition politics may resemble, they will support the old order in fear of the new.

The opposition has one great rhetorical strength. It has no prospectus, nor any particular, and possibly compromised, candidate whose arrival in office is a goal of protests. It is not a front for a particular interest or egoist. All its leaders claim to want is fresh elections. But this does present its own problems.

Here’s the mainstream view of Belarusian politics, at least in Europe: the parties in office survive to support the regime as it exists. They are the only operations which are capable, as things stand, of fighting elections. In any hastily organised legislative elections carried out to appease protests, reformists and oppositionists risk loss for the sake of fulfilling their demands. The opposition’s demands are limited for sadly pragmatic reasons, I was told.

Those of a more optimistic view take a different tack. If presidential elections were run today, it is likely Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, or an oppositionist of her stature, would win. And it is not beyond possibility that the opposition’s natural divisions, rather than undermining its efforts, signal something else: that there is in Belarus the makings of a vibrant multi-party democracy, ready and waiting to take shape. But all this is theory while the present regime remains.

Here we approach the rub, and where the idea that wilful Western determination to see Lukashenko replaced, which I expressed earlier in the month, conflicts with received opinion. To many minds, it simply cannot work.

The analyst class largely believes that Russia has more to lose in Belarus than the West might gain. Lukashenko will more likely go through Russia holding back than anyone else stepping in. Russia must be prevented from doing so, and mollified if necessary.

We must recall, as Russia’s leaders do, the spectre of the colour revolutions of this century which displaced many heads of the post-Soviet world. The Kremlin remembers the Maidan in Ukraine: and remembers its favoured leader fleeing the country, while Victoria Nuland, America’s Assistant Secretary of State, handed out sandwiches to the protesters in Kiev.

The analysts hold that, to avoid Russia picking up on the wrong signals and intervening decisively in order to derail any possible transition, gestures like ostentatiously calling Vladimir Putin to discuss the future of Belarus are needed. After all, some of them maintain that so far, Russia’s reaction to Belarus’ turmoil has been rather restrained.

Now, observers are welcome to make of these signs what they will. Kremlinology is not a new pursuit. There is discussion to be had. But in Belarus things are beginning to look rather far beyond conciliation. A point I made in early September and, I fear must repeat here, is this: in Belarus as in Venezuela, inertia has its own tragic power. A dictator clinging limpet-like to the organs of state is often harder to dislodge than many would otherwise imagine.

And in Venezuela and now in Belarus, the forces abetting inertia are the ones most able, and most delightedly willing, to mobilise violence against the opposition they see threaten all they have secured, and all that concession may cause them soon to lose. We may not know how best to help Belarus. But it would likely not hurt to look as if we might try.

This piece originally appeared in The Critic.

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