• Belarus: near-abroad drifting away?
• Khabarovsk: a Siberian challenge
• Navalny: shades of Skripal
• Sputnik V: “vaccine nationalism
Belarus challenge for Russia and the West
The ongoing events in and around Belarus raise the prospect of yet another part of Russia’s “near-abroad” drifting away from it.
The runup to the Presidential elections was marked by a controversy over the arrest by Belarus authorities of 33 private military contractors of Russia’s Wagner group, accusing them of fomenting unrest to vitiate the elections – a charge that President Lukashenka frequently repeated on the election stump. This was bizarre, considering the intimate relations between the two countries. Belarus-Russia relations have had their fractious moments in recent years, with President Lukashenka’s periodical public outbursts about Russia’s economic exploitation of his country and his demonstrations of political independence by (reciprocated) efforts to rebuild relations with the US and EU. He does not have warm personal relations with President Putin, who is used to being treated more deferentially by leaders in the Russian fold. Nevertheless, with their ethnic ties, cultural links and economic intermeshing, Belarus’ relations with Russia could correctly be described as fraternal. [The other “fraternal” country – Ukraine – finally flew the coop in 2014.]
There were a number of conspiracy theories about the presence and arrest of the mercenaries. The most credible explanation was that they were en route to a third country. Belarus is regularly used (with the full knowledge of the Belarus secret services) as a transit country for Russian private militia going for clandestine operations to African and Latin American countries. This would explain why the men were openly in military fatigues, staying together in a public facility and carrying their passports (Russians do not need passports for entry into Belarus). Apparently, President Lukashenka – rattled by signs of the increasing popularity of the opposition candidate – decided to raise the Russian bogey, both to mobilize nationalist votes and to blunt criticism of western countries about the conduct of the elections (from which many opposition candidates had been disqualified). Much later (in end-August), President Putin embellished this story by alleging that US and Ukrainian intelligence agencies had misled President Lukashenko about the true nature of the mercenaries’ mission.
There was not much foreign criticism about irregularities before the elections. The general expectation was that President Lukashenka would be declared winner with a substantial majority and life would go on as usual. There was little appetite to ramp up pressure, which would force him back into Russian arms, just when he was trying to secure some autonomy.
The popular protests after the announcement of the results challenged President Lukashenka, Europe, the US and Russia to find appropriate responses. An effective social media news flow (largely using Telegram) energized and sustained the protests. The opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claimed she had actually got over 60% of the vote, even as President Lukashenka was officially declared to have received over 80%. Protests were largely peaceful, but a few violent incidents and a harsh crackdown saw an estimated 7000 protestors detained, about 100 injured and 3 dead in the first few days after the elections. Ms Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania to escape detention; other opposition figures also left the country. The protests have continued for weeks.
European countries declared that the elections were not free and fair, criticized the use of force to suppress protests, called for the release of political prisoners and urged the government to enter into a genuine dialogue with the opposition. They urged Russia not to intervene militarily in support of the Belarus government. Beyond this, there were differences in approach. The Baltic countries and Poland were the most vocal, seeking harsh sanctions and de-recognition of the elections. They offered refuge to Belarus opposition figures and dissenters. Some party groups of the European Parliament issued a joint statement on 17 August, stating that they did not recognise Alexander Lukashenko as the President of Belarus and calling for fresh elections under independent international supervision. But a collective EU position took a while to crystallize. On August 12, three days after the election, French President Macron called President Putin, reportedly to discuss Libya. Belarus barely got a mention: the Kremlin said it was “touched upon”. On August 14, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for "violence and falsification", but no details were agreed. President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel and European Council President Michel talked to President Putin ahead of a August 19 European Council summit, all conveying broadly the same message: that Russia should not intervene militarily, but should persuade Belarus authorities to abjure force, release political prisoners and commence dialogue between the government, opposition and civil society. On 28 August, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose travel bans and asset freezes on high-ranking Belarusians responsible for the crackdown on demonstrators, with details still to be worked out and indications of differences between the members on the scope of the sanctions.
American official reactions were similarly subdued. Secretary of State Pompeo called Russian FM Lavrov on August 16, following the unsuccessful US attempt to get the UNSCR to renew its Iran arms embargo. The Kremlin said the Persian Gulf region was discussed; there was no mention of Belarus. Earlier (August 13), Secretary Pompeo told a journalist that the US will do “what is it that we believe that we can do”, unilaterally and multilaterally, “to deliver good outcomes for the Belarus people”. Two weeks later, when US Deputy Secretary of State Biegun visited Ukraine, a press release said he and President Zielenskyy discussed Belarus and “agreed on the need for stabilization and a peaceful resolution”.
This response is in stark contrast to Western reactions to protests in Ukraine about six years ago, when protestors overthrew the government, with active encouragement from the US and some European countries. Like Ukraine, Belarus is strategically located; however, unlike Ukraine in 2014, its domestic situation and the international context do not provide a ripe opportunity for that kind of change at this stage. The popular protests are not backed by organized political parties. Belarus’ demography (more uniform ethnic and cultural affinity with Russia) and economy (more palpably dependent on Russia) meant that the protests were free of anti-Russia manifestations. Even the opposition groups were careful to declare that the Belarus people considered Russia and Russians their friends.
Russia’s response was also measured. Before the elections, it was careful not to over-react to the affront of the Wagner mercenaries’ arrest. There was not much tough talk, beyond a Foreign Ministry statement expressing “astonishment” at the incident and advising Minsk to stop “fanning … negative emotions” during the election period.
After the elections, President Putin found himself in the gratifying position (at least in the immediate-term) of receiving President Lukashenko’s entreaties for support and Western requests to help restore normalcy. Russia counselled restraint to Belarus, and warned western countries against interfering in its internal affairs. It rejected proposals from some European countries (including Albanian and Swedish initiatives in the OSCE) for mediation between the government and the opposition.
At the same time, Russia took the opportunity to remind Belarus of the 1999 Union-State Treaty of Russia and Belarus for a supranational political and economic union. The treaty had languished for years, as President Lukashenka moved to preserve Belarus’ national identity and increase his elbow room by opening up to Europe and the US. The approach was reciprocated and an agreement reached to reopen their respective embassies in the US and Belarus. When Russia hinted in 2019 that preferential economic treatment to Belarus would be conditional on implementation of the Union-State agreement, it led to a very public exchange of mutual recriminations (see Review, 1/19). Now, in his post-election conversations with President Lukashenka, the Russian President repeatedly cast support for Belarus in the framework of the Union-State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance of seven former Soviet states, created in 2002, to secure the collective defence of its members against external aggression. Besides the collective defence provision (similar to Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty), CSTO also provides for a Rapid Reaction Force to deal with internal crises in a member country. President Putin announced that this force was ready, but would be used only if “extremist elements” instigated violence. This was both an acknowledgement of western admonitions against military intervention and a warning against instigation of violence by external forces (Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned ultra-nationalist Ukrainian parties in this regard).
It is difficult to see how President Lukashenko can steer his way out of this crisis. He has offered a constitutional reform process with public dialogue, but it remains to be seen whether internal and external pressures will enable such a process. Russia may want to exploit his vulnerability to further the Union-state idea, but this may turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Closer integration means more economic assistance, at a time when the Russian population is coping with the impact of Covid and the economic downturn.
There are also conflicting pulls among European countries. Some believe excessive pressure on Belarus may push it into a tighter embrace with Russia or provoke Russian intervention. At the same time, the scale of the protests reveal fissures that could lead to indigenous movements for change. Some European countries may work to hasten this process, both by pressing for a more assertive Western line and by extending support to pro-democracy elements. Estonia, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has called for an informal Council discussion on Belarus, where it will almost certainly seek greater support for a harder line against the Lukashenka government. Russian FM Lavrov’s allegations of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists provoking violent demonstrations has been mentioned. Russia would also have taken careful note of the European Commission’s decision to reroute 53 million euros of aid to Belarus away from the government and towards civil society. Both the US and EU have in the past (as publicly acknowledged) used assistance to civil society to promote opposition groups, which have eventually unseated governments in Georgia and Ukraine (among others). US Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland famously said this publicly in the case of Ukraine in 2014.
As in Ukraine and Georgia, once the democracy genie has emerged from the bottle, a “colour revolution” may not be too far away. It remains to be seen whether (and how) Russia can use the lessons from the other two cases to prevent loss of another jewel of its near-abroad.
Khabarovsk protests highlight challenges in Siberia
The Belarus events occurred just after public protests in Russia, which articulated popular disenchantment with the government, including the President. Most demonstrations in the past have targeted the local, regional or federal government, but spared the President, who was seen as having been let down by his officials. As the recent protests showed, this Teflon coating is wearing thin, with rising taxation, falling real incomes and increasing corruption denting his popularity.
The agitations started in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, after the arrest and replacement in July of its regional governor, Sergei Furgal. Furgal scored an upset electoral victory in 2018 over the “establishment” candidate of the United Russia party and was apparently popular, with a reputation for good governance. His arrest, on charges of involvement in some 15-year old crimes, and his transportation to Moscow for trial, provoked anger. Starting with demands for transparency about the charges and a local trial (rather than one in far off Moscow), they widened to target federal leaders, including the President. The protests spread across Siberia and also found resonance in Moscow and other cities west of the Urals. Foreign media reported turnouts of well over 50,000 on some days. As is par for the course, Russian officials put the figures at about a tenth of that.
Besides highlighting the growing national disenchantment over governance and the economy, the protests showed a resurgence of Siberian consciousness, which draws from history, culture and religion. This is an added concern for Moscow, at a time when China is expanding its economic influence in the region and hints of a nascent Chinese revanchism (see Review 7/20).
The return of Novichok
On the heels of the Furgal protests and the Belarus crisis was the furore over the alleged poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Navalny was on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk, when he suddenly took ill and his plane had to make an emergency landing in Omsk. After a couple of days in a hospital there, he was moved at the request of his family to a Berlin hospital, where it was declared that he had been poisoned by a “military-grade chemical agent of the Novichok family”. Chancellor Merkel announced this, declaring that Russia needs to provide clarification. The Russian hospital which had been treating him had earlier ruled out poisoning. The Kremlin stood by this certification and said it would investigate the case, if Germany shared its findings.
There is a déjà vu in all this. In March 2018, a former British-Russian double agent, Skripal, was allegedly poisoned by a chemical agent, similarly described, in a village in England. UK PM May declared that it was “highly likely” that this act was ordered by the Kremlin. That determination was accepted by the US and its allies, ignoring discrepancies between the assertions of the government and its defence laboratory, which could not establish the origin of the chemical. Harsh western sanctions against Russia followed, including large-scale expulsions of Russian diplomats from US and other western capitals. Russia sought the medical test records, which the UK government refused.
Besides the use of the same poison, there are other curious parallels in the Skripal and Navalny cases. Then, as now, Russia-Europe relations were on the mend, with shared views against US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, revival of the Normandy process on Ukraine and Germany’s decision to go ahead with the Nordstream2 gas pipeline from Russia, against opposition from the US and within Europe. The fallout from the Navalny case could harden European approaches on Belarus, complicate the Normandy process and put fresh pressure on Nordstream2.
Alexei Navalny is Russia’s most significant opposition politician. His campaign for good governance and exposes of corruption in high places have struck a popular chord. His online “smart voting” initiative has had increasing success in defeating establishment candidates in local and regional elections, through tactical voting for the best-placed alternative candidates. With regional elections approaching, the ruling elites may well have wanted to diminish his influence over their outcomes.
However, even if the Navalny poisoning was a Russian handiwork, a number of questions arise. Did a cost-benefit analysis favour jeopardizing the current trend of stabilizing Russia-Europe relations by eliminating him? Why was Novichok, labelled the signature weapon of Russian intelligence, employed? Finally, with the obvious danger of being found out, why did Russia agree to airlift its citizen to Germany for treatment?
If (as generally believed outside Russia) the Kremlin has total control over such activities, its timing and methodology reflect poor political judgement. If it is a “rogue” act by the secret service, it reflects poorly on the Kremlin’s control over its security apparatus. A third scenario, of an external “plant”, has been introduced by an alleged intercept (by Belarus intelligence!) of a Berlin-Warsaw telephone conversation in which the caller from Berlin hints that Navalny may not have been poisoned, though the medical report to the Chancellor would say he was. He goes on to add that all methods are good in warfare.
The fallout from these allegations and counter-allegations on Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Nordstream2 will bear close watching.
Sputnik V: “vaccine nationalism” or Covid hope?
On August 11, Russia became the first in the world to register a coronavirus vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V. The act fulfilled the political purpose behind its name – to revive memories of the Soviet Sputnik being the first satellite in space. The President’s daughter was claimed to be among the first to be inoculated. This showmanship also draws from a long-standing Soviet tradition of researchers and public personalities volunteering to test newly-developed vaccines. Two weeks later, President Putin announced that she was well and safe after both doses of the vaccine. The Russian Defence Minister was also publicly shown taking the vaccine.
Amid criticism of the “vaccine nationalism” that drove Russia to register an untested vaccine, the phase 1/2 results of the vaccine were published in the reputed medical research journal The Lancet, claiming strong immune responses in all the 76 patients tested. It was reported that phase 3 trials had commenced, involving more than 40,000 people at over 45 medical centres around Russia. This makes it one of the nine vaccine candidates in late-stage trials as of date, as per WHO. Russian health officials announced that trials may also be conducted in India, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Philippines. Mass production is expected to begin in September and Russia claims a production capacity of 500 million doses per year. Indian health authorities said they were “in communication” with Russia on Sputnik V.
(The views expressed are personal)
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