Peter Zalmayev: Lukashenko, Putin will never be friends of Ukraine
Decade after decade, in one poll after another, Ukrainians have named Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko as their favorite foreign leader. Saddled with the post-Soviet experience of crony capitalism, stagnating wages and shrinking pensions, Ukrainians of modest means have looked wistfully to their eastern Slavic brethren and their ostensibly secure lives under the self-proclaimed Bat’ska (“father”, in Belarusian). It may come as a surprise, that Lukashenko’s popularity hardly waned following the Euro Maidan revolution of 2014, as Ukraine has set its sail toward Europe.
For a quarter of a century, this former boss of a collective farm has ruled this nation of 10 million people with a tight fist, allowing corruption only for members of his clique, pampering his security henchmen and periodically unleashing crackdowns of varying harshness. For the West, Lukashenko became a pariah, a Belarusian Pinochet, six years into his rule, after four opponents to his regime, a mix of politicians and businessmen, disappeared in short order, Latin American-style, never to be found.
In 2001, I had the privilege of accompanying the wives of the disappeared, along with Myroslava Gongadze, to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe human dimension conference in Warsaw, where, with tears in their eyes, they appealed to the delegates to help them locate their loved ones, dead or alive. Having made clear that he would easily resort to murder in dealing with dissenters, Lukashenko has in the following two decades pursued a complicated and sophisticated game of brinksmanship with the goal to stay in power for life. On one hand, he has cracked down on unsanctioned annual Freedom Day celebrations, jailed or exiled his opponents, coddled Vladimir Putin in the never-ending saga of a “union state,” meant to combine Russia and Belarus, and provided his services to help Russia work around the Crimea-related Western sanctions. On the other, he has engaged in periodic attempts at rapprochement with the West, criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and provided the capital city of Minsk as a venue for peace talks.
The protests that broke out last Sunday night on Aug. 9, following what local opposition observers claim to have been a stolen election, clearly show that Lukashenko’s game is probably over, whether he steps down or not. Some of the allegations – not only spread by Lukashenko’s hacks but also believed by serious experts – about the protesters and the candidates, including the ostensible winner, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, may be true. They are disorganized and lack clear leadership and program. At least some of them may be outright agents of Moscow’s influence or at least its unwitting “useful idiots.”
And yet there is no denying, judging by the crowds on the streets of Belarusian cities – large and small – that Belarusians are at the end of their rope with the sclerotic, endless rule of one man. While probably not as low as the 3% his opponents claim, Lukashenko’s support has eroded in cities and rural areas – his traditional stronghold – alike. How else to account for a complete absence of pro-Lukashenko crowds on the street, if you discount his plain-clothed goons and OMON troops? Human, all too human, Belarusians are desperate for change, even if for change’s sake only, as the song by the perestroika-era rocker Viktor Tsoi proclaims, ubiquitous elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, but an act of civic disobedience in Belarus.
It was therefore disheartening to see that instead of a strong statement condemning the alleged fraud and calling for new elections, President Volodymyr Zelensky limited itself inane platitudes calling on both sides to show “tolerance,” avoid “street violence” and start an “open, albeit difficult, dialogue.” Ukraine’s wavering and dithering can best be exemplified by Oleg Lyashko, the perennial jester of Ukrainian politics, who rushed to congratulate Lukashenko with victory on his Facebook page, beating Putin to it, only to take down the post after a wave of angry comments.
To feel let down by Ukraine’s official response is not to discount the maddeningly complex picture that the election’s outcome presents for Belarus itself, for Ukraine, and for the region at large. An inexperienced young president can easily fall prey to Putin’s wily scheming. The transition from a paternalistic rule to a government of competing power hubs may mean less economic and geopolitical stability and a widening scope for rent-seeking demands.
And yet, European integration remains the law of the land in Ukraine, despite the best efforts of Putin’s local cronies and their growing media presence. Supporting Lukashenko, however indirectly, damages Ukraine’s standing with the EU, which has issued a strong condemnation of the election’s conduct and is considering reintroducing limited sanctions against Minsk.
As uneasy as the decision may be, the choice for Ukraine vis-à-vis Lukashenko is not a choice between realpolitik and idealism. For as long as Ukraine is officially on the path to EU’s membership, this idealism is its realpolitik. Otherwise, they risk proving the truth of what one of Ukraine’s leading intellectuals, Professor Valery Pekar, put so succinctly: “A Russian liberal’s convictions end at Ukraine’s border. A Ukrainian liberal’s – at Belarus’s.”
Neither Putin nor Lukashenko are friends to a European, liberal-democratic Ukraine, nor Ukraine can be a genuine friend to Putin or Lukashenko.