The Kremlin Has Decided on Its Narrative
“Russian theme” was a big part of Lukashenka’s election campaign for his so-called “sixth presidency term”. Many candidates — Sergei Tikhanovsky, Viktar Babaryka, and Valery Tsepkalo — were removed from the race as pro-Russian candidates. Vitaly Shklyarov was arrested as a “Russian political strategist” helping Babariko’s campaign. In Belarus, just two weeks prior to the presidential election, Lukashenka vividly played up the detention of the “Wagner Group” (a private paramilitary organization allegedly owned by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin that is known for taking pro-Russian roles in various conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War and the war in Donbass in Ukraine). At the same time, he was constantly leaving room to maneuver by presenting a scheme of “it is not Putin who threatens us, but Russian oligarchs.”
The Kremlin reacted to these events with extraordinary caution. The statements of Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov were as delicate as possible. It seems there was a direct order from Vladimir Putin — give absolutely no reason to accuse Moscow of interference in the election. Toward the end of the campaign, in an interview with a Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, Lukashenka uttered things that were clearly offensive to Putin: he mentioned that, at the end of his life, Boris Yeltsin regretted that he had chosen Putin; he also publicly revealed his conversation with Sergey Shoygu (Russian Minister of Defence) — “Sergey, don’t you think that [the 2014-15 Russian aggression in] Ukraine is too much?” to which Shoygu allegedly answered: “Yes. Seems like.”
In the period leading up to the presidential election, Lukashenka acted extremely confidently. However, he lost the election in a landslide, then on August 10-13 used violent methods, including torture, to suppress mass protests against the blatently falsified results. On August 15, after the suppression tactics yielded no improvements, he asked Putin for help.
From that moment on, Lukashenka abruptly shifted the rhetoric: now all the anti-Lukashenka protesters were not “pro-Russian” but instead “hirelings of the West”.
If the Kremlin had a plan before August 15, it boiled down to one line: “Let Lukashenka hold his dirty elections, and then we’ll see. In any case, he will come out of them weakened.”
After August 15, the Kremlin came up with a plan. It immediately became clear that the propaganda machines of Russia and Belarus started working according to the same script. “Assistants” sent by Margarita Simonyan (Editor-in-chief of RT) arrived in Minsk and the covering of the Belarus protests was synchronized. If anyone ever believed the conspiracy theory that the Kremlin was providing some kind of support to the Belarusian opposition, the August 15 alignment made it clear that was not the case. The Kremlin has made their full and active support of Lukashenka’s actions clear.
The Kremlin media began to produce a stream of publications that form a single narrative:
1. The opposition is divided
2. The opposition is anti-Russian
3. The opposition is not independent, it is controlled by “puppeteers” from Poland (Lithuania, Czech Republic, Ukraine, etc.)
4. The protests are organized as an “Orange Revolution” or a “Belomaidan” (“Belarusian Maidan”, a reference to the series of protests in Ukraine in 2004-2005, and 2015)
5. Provocations are being instigated by the Security Service of Ukraine at the direction of the US CIA (such as the detection of the “Wagner Group”)
6. The Belarusian OMON (riot police) did not exceed their authority on August 10-13, everything was done appropriately, and there is nothing to investigate. Lukashenka has asked Russia for support, and Russia is ready to send their riot police in case of escalation of the situation.
7. The settlement requires «dialogue», but the people who claim to be the current leaders of the protest are not permissible.
8. Everything must be settled according to the constitution, including the transfer of power; following the demands of «street protester» is unacceptable
“Putin-Lukashenka Settlement Plan”
On August 20, ten days after the beginning of the crisis, Emmanuel Macron talked to Putin and proposed to involve the OSCE; later he stated that Putin supported the participation of the OSCE. On August 28, during the consultations at the OSCE, a representative of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry spoke and stated Lukashenka’s position. Later, a Russian media company RBK Group described the situation as follows:
“Minsk presented its version of the crisis settlement to the OSCE and Moscow. It includes carrying out constitutional reform by 2022, weakening the power of the president in favor of the executive branch and the parliament, and, after the adoption of amendments to the Main Law, hold the new presidential and parliament election. … The process will be carried out in the form of a national dialogue, liberalization of the political system will be ensured, and part of the president’s powers will be transferred to the parliament. In addition, the party system will be changed: the role of parties will increase, amendments will be made to the electoral legislation. All changes will be approved via a referendum.”
On September 2, Sergey Lavrov said that “the constitutional reform in Belarus can stabilize the situation, its timeline will become known soon.”
It is obvious that the planned September 14 meeting of Lukashenka and Putin will be built around this plan. Brussels, all European Foreign Ministries, and the OSCE will have to decide whether they accept it or not. This is a strategic crossroads. If the OSCE does not accept the outcome of this September 14 meeting, what is the alternative course of action? If they do, then what are the conditions required to secure their acceptance (for example: the immediate release of all political prisoners, the end of the persecution of the leaders of the protest, etc.).
Putin’s Plan to “Federalize Belarus”
The strategic goal of this entire structure for the Kremlin is the “Union State.” The terms “annexation”, “Anschluss”, “protectorate” do not accurately describe the Kremlin’s intention. The real intention is to create a situation in which it will be possible to say that something like the “European Union” is emerging: a common currency, a common parliament, but at the same time the national governments will form their own budgets completely independently. Thus, a new “federation” is emerging in Eurasia. From two states. And in the historical future, the doors are open to others.
This design is extremely attractive for the Kremlin for various reasons. Undoubtedly, it enables Vladimir Putin to prolong his political existence on a much larger scale and, in the constitutional sense, much more reliably than through amendments to the Russian constitution.
It is important to emphasize that the task is formulated differently than in the situation with Crimea in 2014, when a direct annexation took place. The Kremlin is promoting the idea of a new “federation”, claiming that the sovereignty of Belarus (and any other states that may later join) will be fully preserved — allegedly referring to the model of European Union federalism.
Of course, this is a complete deception. De facto, it will simply be a merger of two dictatorships. As a result, Belarus will find itself in the position of a protectorate and not an equal member of a real federation.
Currently, Lukashenka is rhetorically opposed to this strategy of the Kremlin: on September 8, he once again evasively stated that further integration plans will depend on how well the already existent intrastate institutions start to work. However, he will not be able to continue to take this position because, on one hand, he has already put the “manufacturing of the narrative” in the hands of the Kremlin, and, on the other, he himself can no longer personify the struggle for sovereignty within the Belarusian society.
Therefore, the Kremlin now will both fully support Lukashenka’s plan at the international level and also actively participate in its implementation inside Belarus: scattering the opposition in the media, strategically initiating the creation of new political parties, and “sharing the experience of constitutional reform,” as already suggested by D. Peskov.
At the meeting on September 14, Putin and Lukashenka will agree on their plan of the so-called “settlement”, which they will then jointly promote to Macron, Merkel, Brussels and the OSCE.
The leaders of European countries, if they agree to this plan, should be aware that by doing so they are also accepting the prospect of the emergence of this new “federation” on the 2022-2024 horizon.
Alexander Morozov is a researcher at the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom at Charles University in Prague and an expert at International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS).
Материал доступен на русском языке: Каков план Кремля в отношении Беларуси?