Letter From the Editors

The battle lines drawn between the Belarussian opposition and the state (i.e., Aleksandr “l’état, c’est moi” Lukashenko) drawn on Aug. 9 are turning into permanent trenches as both sides dig in their heels. The opposition is now calling on people to prepare for a protracted battle like the one Poland’s Solidarity movement waged against the Communist government. While the opposition’s coordinating council is urging people to recall parliamentary deputies at all levels, the NEXTA Telegram channel has released a five-point “Victory Plan” that calls for creating “so-called shadow ministries of economics, solidarity, medical aid, security and social protection,” writes Nikolai Raisky for Republic.ru.

For his part, Lukashenko is showing that he’s not weakening his grip on power just yet in the war of attrition with the opposition.According to Kommersant’s Kirill Krivosheyev, the recent reshuffle of security agency heads demonstrates that “he still controls all levers of power in the country.” Following that, Lukashenko synchronized watches with a Russian delegation led by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. This came on the heels of a meeting between the Belarussian and Russian foreign ministers in Moscow. And while both ministers stressed the importance of noninterference in Minsk’s domestic affairs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the national dialogue should include all segments of society – i.e., not just regime supporters but also “students and the young people taking peaceful strolls around Minsk.”

Was Lavrov perhaps preparing for some uncomfortable conversations with the West? Now that Berlin’s Charité clinic has confirmed that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok-like substance, the incident will color relations between Moscow and the West for years to come, writes Novaya gazeta’s Aleksandr Mineyev. In fact, the poisoning – as well as the unrest in Belarus – were already the main talking points during a “Gymnich meeting” in Germany. And while European leaders remained skeptical but restrained when assessing the situation in Belarus, mostly urging Russia to stick to its own noninterference pledge it has been pushing on the Europeans, Navalny was another story. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recalled past precedents of political assassinations (namely the murder of Chechen oppositionist Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin), stating that Moscow has yet to cooperate with the German authorities in that case. Speaking of Navalny, the German minister was terse: “If there are no contributions from the Russian side” in shedding light on the case, “we will have to discuss an appropriate response.”

By all indications, Berlin shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for cooperation: Russian Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin went in with guns blazing, warning that “if something happens to [Navalny] now, if his condition deteriorates, we will not be able to rule out the possibility that this is a provocation organized in Germany.” Volodin got an assist from none other than Lukashenko, who claimed that Belarussian special services had intercepted a conversation between Berlin and Warsaw “about how the whole thing is a fabrication,” writes Ivan Rodin. So it seems Moscow is choosing the tried-and-true method of throwing any accusations back at the accuser in its hybrid war with the West.

Could it be that all this posturing is simply a way for the security establishment to secure funding? As Pavel Felgengauer notes, the recent incident involving a Russian Antei-class submarine surfacing near Alaska (drawing spooky parallels to the Kursk in 2000) is most likely a way to avoid pandemic-related budget cuts. “The best possible argument in the traditional tug-of-war between the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry is an ostentatious standoff with the Americans.” Incidentally, Russian generals are not the only ones resorting to this method – their counterparts at the Pentagon are also pushing external threats as a means to get budget funds. And until defense budgets are finalized, “skirmishes, interceptions of aircraft and standoffs will continue.” All’s fair in love and war.