Oleg Manaev, a Belarusian opposition figure now living in exile, says Russian intervention would lead to targeted repression aimed at preventing the emergence of a coordinated opposition, but also a further weakening of Lukashenko’s legitimacy and deepening splits in society.
Russian intervention is now the most likely scenario in Belarus following comments by Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin is willing to provide law enforcement assistance, according to Oleg Manaev, a former opposition leader in Belarus who was hounded out of the country in 2015 and is now living in the US. Yet while the leaderless protestors will not offer mass resistance to this interference, Manaev believes that in the long term it will only worsen the attitude of Belarusians towards Russians, while further weakening the legitimacy of President Alexander Lukashenko and deepening the existing splits in Belarusian society.
As the demonstrations in Belarus enter their fourth week since the flawed presidential election of August 9, Lukashenko’s position looks more secure after Putin said on Russian state TV on Thursday that Russia had an obligation to help Belarus with its security under the two countries’ close alliance and would do so if the “situation gets out of control”.
Violent protests have rocked the country since Lukashenko claimed an implausible 80 per cent of the votes in an election widely regarded as neither free nor fair, while his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, officially received just 10 per cent, meaning no second round of voting was required. The EU has rejected the results and is preparing a list of sanctions on those it holds responsible for the vote-rigging and subsequent violent crackdown on protesters.
Manaev tells BIRN that in order to hold on to power, Lukashenko “can provoke the emergence of circumstances named by Vladimir Putin as a condition for” a small Russian police force to enter Belarus – a likelier scenario now that the Kremlin has acknowledged its readiness to assist the Belarusian leader.
No massive civil resistance to this will take place, because most of the protesters are not expressing anti-Russian feelings, “unlike during the protests of the national democratic opposition of previous years”. But over the longer term it will worsen the attitude of Belarusians towards Russians, believes Manaev.
Lukashenko’s next move will be to “simulate negotiations with ‘opposition leaders’ that he himself will select,” followed by “targeted rather than massive repression to prevent the emergence of coordinated opposition structures and their leaders, accompanied by intensified propaganda by both Belarusian and Russian state-run media,” concludes Manaev.
“This will mostly likely lead not so much to a stabilisation of the situation… as to a weakening of the president’s legitimacy, the preservation of the conflict, and a deepening split in society,” he adds.
Lukashenko’s job will be made easier by the protesters’ reliance on self-organisation and ‘horizontal resistance’, which has led to the absence not only of recognised leaders, but also even of a single organizing centre for the protests, explains Manaev. The same is true for the politically motivated strikes by workers in state-owned factories, some of which have now been closed down by Lukashenko. This has led to the protests being dubbed as “too velvet” by The Atlantic Council.
Manaev hastens to add that the protests are leaderless partly because opposition figureheads and potential Lukashenko successors are either in exile or in prison. Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate in 2010, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the US, are both living in exile, while Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was Lukashenko’s main challenger on August 9, fled to Lithuania with her children immediately after the election. The popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, Tikhanovskaya’s husband, and Victor Babariko, who heads Belgazprombank, are both in prison, but “could take over if Lukashenko is ousted,” says Manaev, who is no stranger to the abuses of Lukashenko’s regime.
Manaev arrived in the US in 2015 after more than two decades of being harassed by the Belarusian state authorities – including the KGB, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice – beginning shortly after Belarus declared independence from the USSR in 1990 and his setting up of the first independent think-tank in post-Communist Belarus, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic & Political Studies (IISEPS), which is today headquartered in neighbouring Lithuania. Other NGOs that Manaev headed, including the Belarusian Soros Foundation and the Belarusian Think Tank Association, have also since been shut down by the authorities.
In 2010, the regime attempted to dismiss Manaev from Belarus State University, prompting protest letters sent to Lukashenko by foreign academic and professional organisations and more than 130 scholars from across the world. In 2011, he was arrested while trying to brief the foreign diplomatic corps in Minsk on the results of a public opinion poll conducted by his IISEPS. He was also a co-founder of the opposition United Democratic Party of Belarus (now the United Civic Party).
New election needed
Manaev accuses Western politicians and media of insufficiently and incorrectly covering the results of the August 9 presidential election, which is the root cause of the mass protests.
Giving little credence to Belarus’s Central Election Commission data, Manaev also questions the results compiled by the online voter protection platform Golos, working with the Honest People civic initiative, which implied that the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya received more than 50 per cent of the vote.
While Golos’s computations “are quite convincing”, he says the problem lies not so much in the fact that they analysed the data of only a third of the 5,818,955 voters, “but in the fact that these data do not fully represent the structure of the Belarusian electorate.”
Manev says IISEPS polls over the years have shown that the almost 7 million-strong Belarus electorate is made up of three constituent parts. Two of these are Lukashenko’s “powerful pillars”: the “deep Belarus” – residents of villages and small towns with “a low level of education, among whom pensioners dominate” – and the ruling elite, comprised of security officials, state functionaries and businessmen “close to the court” of Lukashenko. Both are interested in retaining the status quo. The third group is mainly composed of younger, educated residents of large cities who together with some working-class members constitute the social base of the demonstrators.
Manaev points out that according to CEC data, 16.6 per cent of votes were recorded in Minsk, 15.8 per cent in the Gomel region and 11.9 per cent in the Mogilev region – three of Belarus’s six regions (Grodno, Brest and Vitebsk being the others). Yet among the 1,875,998 voters in the data analysed by Golos, 34 per cent were from Minsk, 8.7 per cent from Gomel and 7 per cent from Mogilev.
“There is an obvious bias in favour of the capital, where hundreds of thousands of voters expressed disagreement with the election results, at the expense of the ‘deep Belarus’, especially in the eastern regions, where protests were much more modest and a significant part of the electorate traditionally votes for Lukashenko,” he says.
If the assumption is that anti-Lukashenko opponents triggered a wave of political action mostly in larger cities, “then we cannot speak about the unconditional victory of the alternative candidate, but only about the fact that neither of the two top candidates received 50 per cent plus 1 vote.” Therefore, new elections should be held, Manaev says.
Ignoring this reality, he concludes, means “again falling into the trap of wishful thinking, in which the hopes, initiatives and protests of the Belarusian opposition and the forces supporting them were inevitably extinguished over the past two decades.”