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Why Belarus’ Protests Have Russia Worried

A crowd of protesters carrying Belarus flags
Opposition supporters march to protest against disputed presidential elections results in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday. Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

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For the past couple weeks, the European country of Belarus has been gripped by political protests. People filled the capital city’s plazas to reject the Aug. 9 reelection of Belarus’ longtime dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, which the EU has called a sham. The movement is making a mark: Police and security forces have been rounding up protesters, beating them, and stuffing them into overcrowded holding cells, but the people are not leaving the streets. And Russia, Belarus’ neighbor to the east, has been watching the growing demonstrations closely, and with worry. To understand what Belarus’ pro-democracy movement means for its own own future as well as Eastern Europe’s, I spoke with Julia Ioffe, a GQ correspondent who’s been covering Russia and former Soviet states like Belarus for years, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ray Suarez: Did Belarus not change much when the Soviet Union broke up?

Julia Ioffe: It changed a lot, but some things didn’t change at all. Like, the interior police are still called the KGB. It is a very authoritarian state. I think, just like in Ukraine and Russia, the younger generation coming up in Belarus has spent their whole life with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko and are looking for something else. They’re less afraid and don’t have that historical fear bred into them the way their parents and grandparents might.

Have the demands of the opposition shifted as the protests and backlash have gotten bigger and stronger? Is what will satisfy the opposition now a moving target because it’s getting a sense of its own power? I remember early on all they wanted was a recount. It seems like that’s not in the cards anymore.

That train has left the station and gotten lost along the way. I think you saw some confusion in the ranks of the opposition early on. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the candidate who ran against Lukashenko, seemed kind of confused as to what she wanted. She was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania, and she put out weird statements that she then said were forced by the Belarusian authorities. Now she is much more firmly in charge and has formed a coordination council, with a clear message of what they want: They want Lukashenko to step down. They want new elections. They want things to change. The question is, if Lukashenko leaves tomorrow, what replaces him? Do all the institutions get cleaned out? What happens to the KGB? What happens to all these state-owned enterprises? Russia is also a cautionary tale. Look what happened after its nine years of experimenting with democracy. Building something like that is very hard, takes a lot of work. And it’s very hard in countries that don’t have that kind of culture and history and practice.

The Baltics, just to the northwest, are very open societies: elected governments, members of the EU, members of NATO. Ukraine is perhaps a cautionary tale at the southern border. If you’re looking for cues about what to do next, there are a lot of models that you can work from. But I guess the most precarious one might be Ukraine, no?

I think there has been a lot of fear, ever since the protests broke out, that the Russians would intervene militarily, or intervene the way they did in Ukraine. The founding editor in chief of Russia Today even called for the “little green men” to go into Belarus and restore order the way only they know how. A country like Belarus is at this crossroads of major powers. You have the Baltic bloc. You have the EU to the west and the giant that is Russia to the east. And Lukashenko has been quite good at playing all of them against one another and being able to extract whatever he is able to get for himself.

He’s trying to play on Putin’s fears that this will spread to Russia, quite openly invoking these words and terms and images that he knows will really resonate with Putin and in the Kremlin at large. He seems to be courting the Russians and, without saying as much, almost asking for a Russian intervention—he said he’s getting his troops ready on the western border because he thinks there’s going to be a NATO invasion. I don’t think there’s going to be any such thing, but it feels like he’s saying it to goad Putin into sending security forces to help him keep his grip on power.

That would seem to be a pretty risky strategy. Is it a sign that perhaps he’s really scared of what may happen next? The protests have only gotten larger and haven’t stopped; the threats and fist-shaking that normally send people back into their homes haven’t worked. Is this a sign that the guy’s really willing to countenance foreign troops on his soil in order to stay in power?

For Lukashenko, I think at this point the calculation is not even whether he stays president of Belarus—it’s whether he stays out of jail or gets to stay in Belarus, or gets to be a princeling or a viceroy of Russia if Russia takes over. Otherwise, he might have to flee somewhere.

The Russians so far have seemed to be hands-off about this. I think there is a feeling in Moscow that Lukashenko hasn’t managed this very well, that he’s lost the popular mandate. The fact that workers in factories all across Belarus are protesting and striking against him is a huge sign to the Kremlin that he’s lost the “regular man.” In the Kremlin, they see that the creative class, the urban liberals, are lost for good. They’ll never be in favor of somebody like Putin or Lukashenko. So you might as well not even think about them or deal with them. But once you’ve lost the working class, that’s a sign you’ve mismanaged this situation badly. And I can imagine Putin probably doesn’t want to risk new sanctions and get his hands dirty by supporting somebody who’s handled something so poorly.

What are Russia’s bottom lines? I’m making an educated guess that Putin doesn’t want a lively multiparty democracy in Minsk. And he also doesn’t want leaders who are willing to tell him no, or to get lost.

I think this is also something that Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia have discovered: You can’t change your geography. Russia’s still much bigger, much richer, and your next-door neighbor. For a country like Belarus, that’s where you do most of your trade. At a certain point, you’re going to have to make deals with the Russians, and the Russians are going to be able to drive quite a fair bargain.

I don’t see Europe expanding and taking Belarus into the EU. The EU has enough problems of its own right now. So does NATO. I think the fact that those two things are off the table makes a big difference in Putin’s calculus. What we’ve seen from Putin is that he likes to keep all his options open as long as possible and then make a very sudden decision—which is what he did in Ukraine.

There’s a worry, I think, in Russia about what this could mean for its own domestic situation: Could the opposition in Russia come out into the streets and demand similar things, yet again? What if they’re successful? What does it mean for somebody like Putin if Belarus ousts Lukashenko? This is also coming at a moment when the U.S. is largely absent from the world stage. It’s indicative of this new post-American world order, especially in Europe. How is this going to shake out without America trying to call the shots or trying to mediate?

Maybe Putin feels like he can let the situation play out, see who comes to power. If Lukashenko falls, he can make Belarus an offer it can’t refuse then use more covert methods to make sure the democratic experiment in Belarus, should it happen, doesn’t get very far and that it becomes something he can show on Russian state TV to his people and say: Is this what you want? Because this is what democracy in one of our brotherly nations looks like, and that’s what it would look like in Russia.

Putin’s got his own problems. Somebody who’s on his side is probably responsible for the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, a noted dissident. Do we ever get a chance to step back from Putin and say, maybe he sometimes doesn’t handle these situations so craftily either?

I totally agree. Russia is suffering economically in part because of things that Putin has done. A lot of people in Russia don’t see him as perfect. I remember talking to one of my sources in Moscow who used to work in the Kremlin and with the United Russia party. He said: Nothing in Russia works. Our education, medical, transportation, and pension systems are falling apart. But you’re telling me that we’re able to carry out all these impressive foreign operations perfectly and without a hitch?

Should Americans keep an eye on what’s going on in Belarus, and if so, why?

Well, our own democracy is at stake. And it’s extremely inspiring to see people in Belarus—who had all of three years to try democracy before Lukashenko was elected and after the fall of the Soviet Union—out on the streets today. A lot of them don’t know anything other than Lukashenko. They’ve never in their lives participated in a free and fair election, but they’re willing to risk life and limb and livelihood for even the chance to try to build a democracy. My question to Americans is: Are we willing to fight as hard to preserve what we have as the Belarusians are to even try to have a chance at building something like what we have?

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