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Beginning of the end?

The embattled Belarusian President’s charm offensive aimed at his Russian counterpart over a month after mass protests broke out against him following his August 9 re-election has paid off splendidly for him for now. It is, however, an open question how Alexander Lukashenko’s views on deepening ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin will play out given his zealous assertion of national sovereignty versus Mr. Putin’s vision of closer integration.

At their meeting held in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Mr. Putin pledged a $1.5 billion loan to Mr. Lukashenko. He also said he would uphold his promises of security and joint military exercises “practically every month” for a year. In recent days, Mr. Lukashenko has addressed the Russian leader as an “elder brother” and praised him as a “friend in need”. More significantly, Mr. Lukashenko has portrayed the popular unrest in Belarus as a test run for eventually overthrowing Mr. Putin.

Change in stance

These remarks imply that Mr. Putin’s moves relating to Minsk are no less an act of self-interest. They are also a tacit allusion to the international fallout from the Kremlin’s systematic suppression of dissent, illustrated by the poisoning of Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, in August.

Days before his meeting with Mr. Putin, Mr. Lukashenko asserted that he would not heed demands from the street for his resignation, insisting that the protesters would destroy the country. All of this is a marked change in tenor from the early phase of the unrest, when Mr. Lukashenko appeared desperate, pleading with Moscow for military assistance against what he then described as an external threat. When he addressed domestic audiences, the autocrat of 26 years, who in 2004 pushed through a constitutional referendum that scrapped presidential term limits, and swore on other occasions that he would die rather than give up power, had even referred to calls from countries in the region for him to hold fresh elections.

Notable through this tumult was Russia’s conspicuous overall silence, as also the focused target of the protesters demanding Mr. Lukashenko’s exit. While Mr. Putin made known his readiness to deploy the police to quell the unrest if requested, the Kremlin was reluctant to risk any action that might turn the anti-Lukashenko tide against Russia. The recent shift to a more assertive stance is plausibly a reflection of a seemingly weakening opposition under a sustained crackdown since the controversial polls.

Treatment of opposition leaders

In the run-up to the election on August 9, a number of prominent candidates were imprisoned or barred from the contest, action that unwittingly united the people against the brutal regime. In the wake of the disputed victory of Mr. Lukashenko for the sixth time, an opposition leader was abducted, others were forced to flee the country, or forcibly deported. Most prominent of them is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after running against Mr. Lukashenko, when her husband Sergei, a YouTuber, was imprisoned on sedition charges months before the poll. Earlier this month, two opposition leaders were deported to Ukraine and a third was detained by authorities when she tore up her passport to avoid being forced to cross the border. The opposition coordination council has just one member remaining in Belarus with her liberty intact, the 2015 Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich.

Paradoxically, as fatigue sets in among the protesters, Mr. Lukashenko’s political options at home have also narrowed. A potential price for the recent package Moscow has offered could well be to breathe life into a 1997 Treaty on the Union between Russia and Belarus that envisages common legal and immigration policies.

The end to Belarusian independence vis-a-vis the European Union and Moscow could spell the end of Mr. Lukashenko.

garimella.subramaniam@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 6:20:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/beginning-of-the-end/article32662777.ece

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