Judging by the massive demonstrations taking place in Belarus, another “color revolution” is underway with the potential to topple a post-Soviet strongman ruler in the name of democracy and justice. However, there are no guarantees that Alyaksandr Lukashenka will flee like his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
For now, Lukashenka remains defiant. In order to remain in power, he seems to have only three choices. He can try to wear down the demonstrators through arrests and episodic resort to violence, but that option seems inadequate given the strength of demonstrations. He could resort to mass violence or martial law to stay in power, using his own forces. But not enough of them may be willing to act against their countrymen. Alternatively, he may decide to rely on Putin to supply the necessary force, either directly or by using unidentified “little green men”, as RT head Margarita Simonyan has urged and Lukashenka himself has hinted at.
Putin faces tough choices and dilemmas with respect to Belarus. The Russian leader hates color revolutions in general. The fact that this is now happening in a country regarded as basically Russian by many in the Kremlin makes it even worse. A successful color revolution next door could serve as an obvious precedent for a similar scenario in Russia itself, where elections are hardly less fraudulent than in Belarus.
Despite Putin’s obvious dislike of popular democratic movements, intervention to keep Lukashenka in power has major risks. Lukashenka doesn’t seem to have much domestic support left, so violent Russian intervention in Belarus on his behalf could become a long-term liability. It would also likely be unpopular in Russia, where Putin’s ratings are already in decline.
Putin could try to identify a successor to Lukashenka capable of capturing greater social support while not challenging what Putin considers his core interests. This would follow the so-called Armenian scenario, where popular Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won power in 2018 without generating Russian hostility. However, Belarus’s currently opposition leaders, including the probable actual winner of the August 9 presidential election Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, may not be controllable.
Additionally, Putin’s margin for Belarusian autonomy, given its common border with the European Union (EU) and NATO, may be less than in Armenia. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Putin could accept Tsikhanouskaya, who was pro-Western enough to seek refuge in EU and NATO member Lithuania.
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