MS Risk Blog

Lukashenko and the Highjacking

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When Minsk scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land on Belarusian territory with the sole apparent aim of arresting the journalist and activist Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian political crisis stopped being a domestic issue and went definitively global. Alexander Lukashenko’s international isolation has been growing for many months following the contested presidential election last summer and ensuing protests, but now it has reached a whole new level. With its own nationals and airplane having experienced how Minsk treats its opponents, the West is embarking on measures it has been reluctant to undertake for decades.

The problem is that this episode wouldn’t have even dared happen in the Cold War. There were rules back then, worked out with difficulty by both sides in the attempt to prevent the worst from happening. There was no trust, but there were talks, with precise protocols and a thousand difficulties: between the Kremlin and the White House, the famous “red telephone” would be used only as the last resort to stop a nuclear war, just like the one narrowly averted with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pieces were moved on the chessboard, and the Iron Curtain also served as a line dividing mutual safe zones: a tacit agreement prohibiting enemies from crossing over the Wall, and an escaped, or more likely, expelled, dissident could feel safe in the West.

After Belarusian opposition journalist Protasevich was kidnapped, alongside an entire Ryanair plane, the EU came to realise it is facing a dictator who doesn’t play by any rules. Lukashenko is looking to clash, not communicate. He has been in power since 1994, he has been the only ruler of post-Soviet Belarus and he is behaving as if treaties, conventions, courts and international responsibilities didn’t exist.

The dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War followed a kind of code of hostility, based on the rational assumption that even enemies can try to build a system to co-exist. The problem is that Lukashenko thinks only about his regime in personal terms. He is not the son of a system or attached to an ideology that would make him feel part of a mission bigger than himself. The Soviet Union possessed a well-structured political system and a protocol for succession. Lukashenko, a veritable populist, who came to power 20 years before the term entered common use in the region, doesn’t have an ideological dictatorship, because he has no ideology. Like other examples of such neo-autocratic rulers, including Vladimir Putin, or even Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Belarus leader is the inventor of a personality-driven regime of corruption and unlimited power that will die with him.

If we analyse what he achieved we need to start with, first of all, intimidation. He wants to show opponents that, ’You are not safe anywhere’. Additionally, Lukashenko worked hard to create an information vacuum in Belarus, consequently, the information channels operating from outside, such as Nexta, posed a direct threat. That was definitely what he cared about in the arrest of Protasevic, namely, to control the informational realm inside the country. The third reason is more speculative: Lukashenko probably wanted to show his teeth. With the intention of knowing how far he can go, how far he can challenge the West.

What also needs to be assessed is the impact of Russia. Putin has been pursuing closer integration between Belarus and Russia for nearly two decades, and he appears to have ramped up efforts in recent years. Lukashenko has long opposed measures that could jeopardize Belarusian sovereignty, but the suppression of demonstrations last fall and the anger of the West at them brought Belarus closer to Russia. Since last year, the two countries have also concluded new agreements on long-term cooperation. Moreover, the Belarusian economy is largely dependent on Russia. By continuing to support Lukashenko economically and politically, the Kremlin actually approves of what is happening in the country. This being considered it is still not entirely clear what is going on behind the scenes and how far Moscow’s hand is. But Moscow clearly supports Belarus. Russia described the anger and condemnations from the European Union as “shocking” and said that news of the arrest was being misused in the West for its political and anti-Russian agenda. Consequently, Minsk is not afraid to take steps that are bound to incense the West because it feels protected by Moscow. In fact, such provocative actions are even an asset that Lukashenko can use in conversation with Russia. The message to Putin is that there will never be a more anti-Western leader of Belarus, so he should cherish this one. The extent to which Moscow is prepared to prop up Lukashenko, including financially, is unclear. The more costly the union becomes, and the more that Russia is accused of involvement in Minsk’s actions, the louder the voices critical of Lukashenko heard within the Russian elite will be heard.

And lastly, we need to account for the implications of the awaited Putin-Biden summit for June 16 in Geneve. There is much speculation that Moscow and Washington will strike some kind of deal on broad de-escalation, involving exchanging concessions on various regions and issues. Ultimately, the more toxic Lukashenko becomes internationally, the more important it becomes for the West to show that its pressure on the Belarusian regime is having tangible consequences. Russia is the only country that can truly influence the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities, so it’s only a matter of time before that pressure is transferred from Minsk to Moscow.