Letter From the Editors

More and more people are rallying in Belarus to protest President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s reelection, which the opposition claims was rigged. Demonstrators are not just calling for a recount; they want the long-term leader to step down. So far, Lukashenko is digging in his heels, trying to negotiate with striking workers and organize support rallies that do nothing but show how fragile his support really is, comments Andrei Skriba. The scale and strength of the protests have seemingly shaken the president, who is putting troops on alert to quell protests and protect the state borders if need be. The scenario is looking rather revolutionary.

But columnist Aleksandr Artamonov says Lukashenko has at least one thing working in his favor: a well-configured security apparatus that shows little risk of siding with demonstrators. Such a turn of events is usually a key turning point in successful revolutions, the columnist remarks. The big question for Lukashenko is: How will the Kremlin react to events in Belarus?

Political analyst Aleksei Makarkin says that Moscow was at first probably a bit gleeful about the sticky situation Lukashenko wound up in after the election: “Lukashenko, who had seemed so arrogant, so independent and ambitious, was about to be taught a lesson by people taking to the streets.” But then the Kremlin began to realize that it was in a sticky situation of its own. What if Lukashenko gets deposed? Should Russia come to the aid of its Union State ally despite the risk of incurring Western wrath and sanctions? Or should it side with the Belarussian opposition and run the risk of losing Belarus to Europe, which Moscow is currently facing off with in a miniature cold war? So far, Moscow is keeping its cards close to its vest, although it has promised to deploy troops to aid Lukashenko if worse comes to worst.

One thing is certain – the Kremlin is taking close note of what is going on in Belarus as a case study for what could happen in Russia if and when Putin needs to take unpopular steps to retain or broaden his powers. Political scientist Vladimir Gelman says one lesson that the Kremlin has learned is that the opposition must not be underestimated. Lukashenko allowed a genuine opposition candidate to run – despite banning several others – and that automatically threw the legitimacy of his results into question.

So when Russia’s leading oppositionist, Aleksei Navalny, mysteriously fell ill, it is not surprising that cynical minds immediately questioned whether the Russian authorities were already acting on lessons learned from Belarus. It wasn’t long after Navalny was placed in a coma that allegations of poisoning were raised. And in fact, the German hospital where Navalny is being treated claims the oppositionist was poisoned by the allegedly Russian-produced nerve toxin Novichok – the same substance investigators claim was used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Great Britain.

So if Navalny was in fact poisoned, the next obvious question is: By whom? And here the analysis grows blurry. Yes, Russian intelligence operatives could certainly have orchestrated such an operation, but there are plenty of freelancers in Russia’s “adhocracy” seeking to curry favor with Putin and further their own careers (or protect their now shaky interests given the recent protests in Russia and Belarus) with the means to mastermind an assassination, writes analyst Mark Galeotti. Complicating the international response to the Belarussian election and the Navalny incident is the upcoming US presidential election, in which Americans naïvely believe they have a real choice, writes Yury Sigov. The international affairs expert says the American political system is essentially just as “rigged” as the systems in Russia or Belarus, only in a different way. Americans are presented with candidates who are chosen by the country’s political elites, not the people. But while the illusion of choice seemingly placates the largely politically disinterested American masses, it is clearly mobilizing citizens in Belarus.