The Fight for Belarus

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S1: For the past couple of weeks, the Eastern European country of Belarus has been gripped by political protests. People filled the capital cities plazas to reject the August 9th re-election of Belarus’s longtime president, Alexander Lukashenko. The EU has called that election a sham. In this video, a middle aged woman says, I came out here because of the injustice, the endless lies. Police and security forces have been rounding up protesters, beating them, stuffing them into overcrowded holding cells.

S2: The harrowing audio files of the sounds of torture coming from the oppressed in a prison shed across the nation, soundtrack to its trauma.

S3: State TV showed Lukashenko surveying the protests from a helicopter, an AK 47 in hand, Lukashenko is stocky with thinning white hair and a Tom Selleck mustache. Did you call it Lukashenko wasn’t always such a central casting strongman in 1994. He was a political outsider, the man backed by the protesters, not reviled by them. He was an anti-corruption crusader when he came to power just a few years after the Soviet Union fell apart.

S4: He was young, dashing. That mustache looked good.

S3: Julia Ioffe writes for GQ magazine. She’s been covering Russia and former Soviet states like Belarus for years.

S4: You know, what he promised to Belarussians was? I’m going to get all these old guys from the old regime, the old kind of Soviet holdovers, going to get them out. I’m going to clean house and we’re going to march forward into the, you know, bright and promising future. Now, he represents the old guard that the bright and promising future is threatening to remove from power.

S5: Julius says Russia, Belarus, its neighbor to the east, has been watching the growing demonstrations closely.

S6: There’s a worry, I think, in Russia that what this could mean for its own domestic situation. Where could the opposition in Russia come out into the streets and demand similar things yet again? And what if they’re successful? What does that mean for somebody like Putin? If it asks somebody like Lukashenko? It’s also, I think, also coming at this moment where the U.S. is largely absent from the world stage. It’s kind of indicative of this new kind of post American world order, and especially in Europe, like how is that going to shake out without America trying to call the shots or trying to mediate? Does Russia end up getting the upper hand? Is a stronger than Europe or can Europe hold its own without us help?

S5: Today on the show, the fight for Belarus, where the president calls protesters rats and the people are wedged between a sympathetic west and a hostile Russia. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Stick with us.

S3: Is Belarus one of those places that, like some of the old Central Asian countries, just didn’t change much when the Soviet Union broke up?

S4: Well, it changed a lot, but some things about it didn’t change at all. Like there in interior, police are still called the KGB. They’re not even called that in Russia anymore. It is very authoritarian state. But I think just like in Ukraine, just like in Russia, the younger generation coming up, which has spent his whole life with these leaders like Putin and Lukashenko, is looking for something else and they’re less afraid and they don’t have that kind of almost hereditary historical fear bred into them the way their parents and grandparents might have.

S3: The demands of the opposition shifted as the protests and the the backlash has gotten bigger and stronger is what will satisfy the opposition now a moving target because they’re getting a sense of their own power. I remember early on all they wanted was a recount. It seems like that’s not in the cards anymore.

S7: Yeah, that’s that.

S4: That train has left the station and gotten lost along the way.

S7: I think that is a very fair observation. I think you saw some kind of confusion in the ranks of the opposition early on settlements. Karnofsky, the candidate who ran against Lukashenko at first, seems kind of confused as to what she wanted. She was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania. And, you know, she put out weird statements that she then said were forced to by the Belarussian authorities. Now she is much more firmly in charge and has formed a coordination council. Now they have a clear message of what they want. They want Lukashenko to step down. They want new elections and 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 it’s 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.

S3: You know, that’s a tough neighborhood, an interesting, tense neighborhood because the Baltics are just to the northwest. Ofri, free open societies, elected governments, members of the EU, members of NATO, ditto Poland and Ukraine, perhaps a cautionary tale to the southern border and your big, bad giant neighbor to the east, Russia. If you’re looking for cues about what to do next, if you’re a Belorussian, there are a lot of models you can work off of. I guess the most precarious one might be Ukraine.

S8: No, I definitely agree. And I think there has been a lot of fear ever since the protests broke out that the Russians would intervene militarily or kind of pseudo intervene the way they did in Ukraine.

S4: 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. She said. You know, I think being being a country like Belarus, you know, it’s at this crossroads of major powers.

S7: You have the Baltic bloc, you have the E.U. to the west and the giant that is Russia to the east, as you said. And Lukashenko has actually been quite good at playing all of them against each other and being able to extract whatever he’s able to get for himself. I think right now what he’s trying to do is and you saw it over the weekend, he’s trying to play on Putin’s fears that this will spread to Russia. He is quite openly invoking these words and terms and images that he knows of really resonate with Vladimir Putin and in the Kremlin at large. And he seems to be really courting the Russians and asking without saying as much, almost asking for a Russian intervention by saying all these things like over the weekend, 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 kind of goad Putin into sending security forces in to help him keep his grip on power.

S3: 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, they haven’t stopped. The kind of threats and fist shaking that normally sends people back into their homes hasn’t worked just the opposite. 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?

S7: 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 he has to, I don’t know, be like a princeling or a viceroy of Russia. If Russia kind of takes over. Otherwise, I don’t know who he might have to flee somewhere. The Russian so far, I have to say, to their credit, have seemed to be kind of 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 against him and striking against him is a huge sign to the Kremlin that he’s lost the quote unquote, regular man. I think in the Kremlin, they see that the creative class, the urban liberals as kind of lost for good, that they’ll never be in favor of somebody like Putin or Lukashenko. You might as well not even think about them or deal with them once you’ve lost the working class. That’s really a sign that you’ve mismanaged the situation badly. And I can imagine that Putin probably doesn’t want to risk new sanctions or just the mess and getting his hands dirty by supporting somebody who has handled something so badly. So they seem to be really staying out of this for now at least.

S3: What are Russia’s bottom lines? Is it important to keep that in your calculus as you try to figure out what happens next in Belarus and then making an educated guess that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want a lively multi-party democracy in Minsk and he also doesn’t want leaders that are willing to tell him no or to get lost?

S4: Here’s the thing. I think this is also something that Ukraine has discovered and that Georgia has discovered is that you can’t change your geography.

S7: Russia is still much bigger, much richer, and that’s your next door neighbor. And for a country like Belarus, that’s where you do most of your trade. So at a certain point, you’re going to have to make deals with the Russians and probably the Russians are going to be able to drive quite a fair bargain. I don’t see Europe expanding and taking Belarus into the E.U. 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.

S6: 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. Actually, I also think that what he’s learned from Ukraine is that Ukraine was his closest it was Russia’s closest ally.

S4: And there is a big ethnic and cultural component involved. They in Russia, everybody talks about the brotherly nation of of Ukraine and Belarus and what they mean by that. A Slavic Slavic speaking predominantly, ethnically Slavic Ukraine has gone to Russia for at least a generation. Does he want to do that with Belarus? That’s his other, you know, buffer state in the West. You know, he has shown enough to the West that there is a line in the sand for him and that’s toppling dictators and interfering in other countries affairs in a way that kind of might spell doom for him might also mean that he gets taken out in a popular revolution if he feels that he what he has done already is enough deterrence and the West is hobbled enough by its own problems. Maybe he feels like he can let the situation play out, see who comes to power.

S8: If Lukashenko falls, make them an offer they can’t refuse and kind of take it from there and then use kind of more covert methods to make sure that the democratic, the democratic experiment in Belarus, should it happen, doesn’t get very far and that it becomes this kind of circus that he can show on Russian state TV to his people and say, like, 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, if that’s what you want.

S3: I I wonder, you know, we we tend to build Putin up in the West, especially in the United States, master craftsmen, you know, super spy never sets a foot wrong, but he’s got his own problems in the east. He’s, you know, somebody who’s on his side is probably responsible for the poisoning of Navalny, a noted dissident. Do we ever. Get a chance to step back from Putin and say, well, maybe, maybe he sometimes doesn’t handle these situations so craftily either.

S4: Oh, I totally agree. This is you know, you’re preaching to the choir. I’ve been saying this. For I don’t know however long 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 think part of what I think is funny about the discourse in the US about Russia is that when you talk to Russians, they’re like, are they talking about us? Because we can’t do that. We’re really bad at stuff like look, like I remember talking to one of my sources in Moscow who used to work in the Kremlin and used to work with the United Russia party. And he said, Are you kidding me? Like, nothing in Russia works. You know, our education system is falling apart. Our medical system is falling apart. Our transportation system is falling apart. Our pension system is falling apart. Everything is falling apart. But you’re telling me that we’re able to carry out all these impressive foreign operations perfectly and without hitch.

S3: One final question, Julia, if you’re an American who you know. Keeps up with the news and God knows there’s a lot going on in the country right now with the pandemic and the looming election, but you pride yourself on sort of being aware of what’s going on. Does Belarus matter to you? Should Americans keep an eye on what’s going on there and why?

S4: I personally think it matters a lot. We used to care about people like this. The Cold War was not a great time, but at least it made us. Aware clearly of what we stood for and what we support in the world, and so we used to love Soviet dissidents and Chinese dissidents, and now we’re too busy with our own problems. But the fact of the matter is, our own democracy is at stake.

S8: And I think it’s kind of inspiring and in fact, 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 and the people out in 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. We already have a democracy.

S9: And I guess my question to Americans is, are we willing to fight as hard to preserve what we have as the Russians are to even try maybe to have a chance at building something like what we have?

S10: Julia, thanks a lot.

S9: Thank you so much for having me.

S5: Julia Ioffe is a correspondent for GQ magazine and a contributor to The Washington Post. That’s the show What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt, Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson and Helena Schwartz with help from Danielle Avis. We’re led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. I’ll be back tomorrow with more. What next?