It is beneficial for Moscow to get rid of Lukashenka.
Russian economist, Doctor of Economics Yevgeny Gontmakher has been actively commenting on the events in Belarus lately. In an interview with tut.by, he assessed the situation in our country.
"IT specialists for Lukashenka are akin to aliens from another planet"
- Protests in Belarus have been going on for over 100 days. How long do you think the Belarusian society will last? Is the pandemic affecting the number of protesters now?
- Looking from Moscow at what is happening in your country, it seems to me that people are not afraid of the pandemic from the point of view of taking to the streets. Many of them have already been pushed to the extreme level of irritation against Lukashenka. Finally, they can put on the mask.
It seems to me that the protest will not go anywhere. It can go off the streets, but it will continue in other forms.
- Which ones? Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya proposed a nationwide strike, but people did not support her.
"Nevertheless, people are gradually joining the strike. This can develop into some big numbers, and then the economy will frankly feel what is happening. It seems to me that Lukashenka is insanely afraid of this. He is not even so much afraid of street protests because he realized that people can be dispersed, arrested and he has no brakes here, but that people will shirk from work. Here Lukashenka has no way of influencing this. What can you do? You won't find other workers - he can't ask Russia to send migrant workers!
- There were attempts to find strikebreakers.
- This is not serious. The public protest against Lukashenka's government will continue in various forms. People need to express their discontent somehow, but things will never come to a huge concentration camp on the North Korean model. Some kind of parallel life will develop, which will not match how Lukashenka would like everyone to live. This protest, it seems to me, is serious and for a long time. Nobody knows when this latent protest will reach a critical point when Lukashenka will not only feel it but will be forced to leave (although I have no idea how and in what form he can leave). Lukashenka, of course, is historically doomed, but, unfortunately, this can continue for quite a long time, unless some extraordinary events occur, for example, a split in the Belarusian ruling elite.
"Putin, to put it mildly, does not really like the way Lukashenka behaves."
- In one of your articles, you wrote that the current Belarusian regime is already directly threatening the existence of the "union state" and the Eurasian Economic Union's interests, so the Russian leadership needs to force Lukashenka to resign at all costs.
- This is just such a possible extraordinary case. I personally do not exclude the possibility that Moscow will put pressure on Lukashenka so that he would somehow carefully, without another "color revolution," step aside. This is theoretically possible because he still radically depends on Moscow. As far as I understand, the Kremlin has not yet made a final decision on what it will do in the current situation. Although Lukashenka is not only tired of the Russian leadership, but is already causing a feeling of hard-to-hide disgust.
- And the fact that the Russian authorities congratulated Lukashenka on his victory in the elections, recognized him as a legitimate president, unlike the West, does this mean that support will be endless?
- Imagine yourself in Putin's place. The elections were held, they announced that Lukashenka had won them. What should Putin do in this situation? I am sure that Putin knew the real numbers and that Lukashenka did not get the majority of votes. But if Putin was silent for one day, the second, the third, a week, this would provoke a victorious revolution in Belarus. And he does not want this because any "color revolution" is a nightmare for him. Therefore, it seems to me that Putin had no other option but to congratulate Lukashenka. But I would not conclude here that he would support him to the grave. This is not true.
I am sure that Putin, to put it mildly, does not really like the way Lukashenka behaves. He has already crossed all the boundaries of even feigned decency, and this is beginning to spoil Russia's reputation too. Putin is still interested in Russia's reputation on the world stage. And then, suddenly, our close partner completely got out of hand. And it turns out that Russia seems to support all this because Putin is preparing the same option for Russia, all the disgrace that is happening to you. But it seems to me that Putin does not need this. Therefore, Moscow is simply looking for a way to remove Lukashenka carefully.
- And what are the options?
- I think Putin has two levers that he can use at any time.
The first lever is that through the disintegration of the Belarusian security officials, many of which are loyal to the Russian leadership. Lukashenka, of course, tried to clean the ranks of such people, and, for this, all recent years, he has been shuffling top officials. But all the same, Putin is able to make it happen: the security forces will split, some of them will come to Lukashenka and say: "Here's an airplane for you, come on, get out of here."
The second option is longer - it's an economic one. Russia will stop supplying oil and gas at the prices Lukashenka needs, or will cut off the export of Belarusian goods to us.
I think that if a final decision is made that Lukashenka should be replaced, then with the help of one of these options or their combination, this change will be implemented.
"Many people in our country fear that, in this way, the Kremlin will simply swallow Belarus.
- I am not a supporter of the position that since Lukashenka is doing badly, then Russia should, using the moment, put the squeeze on Belarus, bring the matter to a de facto merger in the Union State. It seems to me that now this will not work, first of all, because of the rejection of such an "Anschluss" by the most active part of the Belarusian society. Young generations want the real, not fictitious, sovereignty of Belarus.
Russia needs to hurry up, and here's why. In Belarus, the attitude towards Russia has always been almost kindred. But by continuing de facto official support for the current behavior of Lukashenka's regime, we push people away from Russia.
Therefore, I think that one of the most realistic options is a peaceful transfer of power to some people who are not against the Union State and demonstrate a friendly attitude towards Russia. This is quite realistic because you (at least not yet) have no anti-Russian leaders. I think that this option, most likely, Putin would have liked more than if people took to the streets and overthrew Lukashenka, and who knows what would happen next.
But if we assume that Moscow will support Lukashenka at all costs, no matter what he does, then he will be able to hold out for quite a long time. Perhaps years.
- Can the West have any influence? I don't think their sanctions policy makes sense.
- It's still to come because the sanctions that have now been introduced against Belarus are personal sanctions. Russia has gone through all this. We had the same lists, if you remember the "Magnitsky list," for the Crimea, for the Donbas, etc. So it's really about nothing.
Experience shows that the most effective are sectoral sanctions. Russia can no longer borrow on the world financial markets for more than six years. Russia cannot buy, at least legally, the latest equipment, including for the oil and gas industry. It may be the same for Belarus. For example, what should Belarus do if the European Union refuses to buy Belarusian gasoline? By the way, this can put Russia in an awkward position. Because since our economies interact very closely with each other, this will mean that Belarus lives off Russia even more from an economic point of view. Lukashenka will immediately turn to Putin and say: "Well, dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, look, I am still losing billions of dollars there because all exports to the West have been cut off for me. Let me deliver it to you in Russia." But Russia has its own production facilities. It turns out that our producers will have to step aside. Or Putin will have to help Belarus with its 9.5 million people financially. For Russia, with its difficult financial and economic situation, this is very sensitive.
Therefore, I say it again that it is better for Moscow not to lead to this and get rid of Lukashenka. Otherwise, this would mean that Russia will suffer from these sanctions to the same extent as Belarus. It is easy to calculate. By the way, I think the West is thinking about this because these are sanctions not only against Belarus but also against Russia.