Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.
The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.
Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.
The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.
Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.
Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.
Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.
In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.
As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.
As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.
First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.
Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.
Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.
Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.
The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.