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Going Over the Top in and Around Belarus

Belarus’s political crisis involves four principal actors. Two of them are domestic: the political regime, headed by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the protest movement, whose leaders are currently in Lithuanian, Polish and Latvian exile. Two more actors are external: Russia and the collective West. At least three actors out of those four evince a high level of anxiety, to the point of losing self-control and engaging in behaviors counterproductive to their own goals.

Notably, the political regime’s public relations activity is still focusing on the uncovered attempted coup d’etat and on its consequences. Additionally, citizens who showed utmost “disloyalty” to the regime on social media continue to be detained—with the arrest of maxillofacial surgeon Andrei Lunetsky as a case in point (Tut.by, May 4). Lastly, the regime is concentrating on the recent presidential decree elucidating the succession of power in case the president is assassinated, as the alleged coup organizers planned. Signed into law on May 9, the decree postulates that should the head of state be murdered, his powers will be transferred to the Security Council mostly consisting of siloviki, i.e., ranking law enforcement officials, not to the prime minister alone, as per the current constitution (Belta, May 9). In the opinion of political commentator Artyom Shraibman, that creates a junta-in-expectation, whose members may actually decide to subvert the political regime on their own or in coordination with the Kremlin (Euroradio, April 25).

The veteran of opposition journalism Alexander Klaskovsky believes the succession decree betrays utmost anxiety at the helm of power and it implies that, even after 27 years, the regime is in urgent need of additional security. As for the allegedly uncovered coup, Klaskovsky observes that the government’s efforts to stoke passions about it elicit more sarcasm than trepidation in the general public (Naviny, May 4). This is because the conspiracy in question was grown, like a crystal from a solution, in a test tube of the Belarusian KGB. After all, from the movie To Kill the President (see EDM, May 5), aired in late April on Belarusian television, it follows that the KGB has long been ghost-steering the defendants (Yuri Zenkovich, for example, at least since August 2020), keeping them under surveillance, and provoking certain statements on their part. The interview with the alleged mastermind of the coup, Dmitry Shchigelsky, adds to this impression. However jokingly, he twice refers to himself as Professor Moriarty, a fictional character in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is more than likely that the entire group was a pot of unrealized ambition and pent-up imagination, which is what made these people supremely susceptible to a professional KGB trap (Svaboda.org, April 30).

On the side of the collective West, the name of the game is sanctions. Pavel Matsukevich, until recently Belarus’s charge d’affaires in Switzerland and part of a cohort of Belarusian diplomats who resigned in protest against the authorities’ brutal crackdown on rallies between August 9 and 11, is extremely skeptical about sanctions. “For 26 years, Belarus has experienced sanctions of varying severity. Nevertheless, Lukashenka stayed in power, and I think he will outlive [United States President Joseph] Biden. In some cases, sanctions were really tough, like on Yugoslavia. There, however, sanctions backfired: they made [then–Serbian president Slobodan] Milošević even more popular. He was overthrown by a protest movement unrelated to sanctions. Yes, the sanctions currently imposed on Belarus are sensitive. But what would be the effect of Naftan [an oil refinery] not being able to buy oil anywhere but Russia? By and large, none. It is necessary to ask the question, what harm do the sanctions do to the regime as opposed to people? An old Soviet joke comes to mind. An alcoholic…

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