Belarus has every reason to become a country with a European perspective.
Over the past ten years, there have been some revolutions in the post-Soviet space. In 2022, residents of Kazakhstan took to the streets against the long-standing dictatorship of Nazarbayev. Is there any connection between the protests in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus? Can we say that the demonstrations in the Central Asian country put an end to Nazarbayev's "model of transition of power," which the Belarusian dictator also wants to use? Will the Belarusians see Lukashenka in the dock? Does Belarus have a European perspective? Grigorij Mesežnikov, Slovak political analyst and president of IVO (Bratislava).
- Let us start with the revolutionary events in Kazakhstan. How do you assess them?
- In Slovakia, we traditionally follow the developments near Central Europe. Hence, Ukraine and Belarus are the objects of our close attention. Nevertheless, we care about developments in the broader area of the former Soviet Union. It seems to me that the developments in Kazakhstan are convulsions of the imperial model of development, typical of the former Soviet Union. Today it is typical, first of all, for Russia that has entered a path of neo-imperialism in recent years. If we look around the perimeter of the current Russian Federation, we see that the nations that were part of the Soviet Union are trying to implement democratic reforms, but Russia behaves like an empire to the post-Soviet countries.
We see a Russian trace in all the dramatic events which have occurred in the post-Soviet space since 2008, i.e. in Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. Russia is trying to use its ties in these countries at different levels. They have direct links in Belarus with the regime. I think this dictator would not have remained in power without the support that Russia provides to the Belarusian regime, he would have been overthrown long ago.
The current events in Kazakhstan happened primarily because of internal problems. However, I think a Russian trace can be easily seen here as well.
First of all, it's in the type of regime that has existed in Kazakhstan for the last 30 years. Of course, it has changed partially, but not fundamentally. The former symbol of an authoritarian regime, the Soviet regime, has disappeared, but it has left its loyalists. Russia has supported the Kazakh regime. It is unlikely that the Kremlin is interested in any political changes in this country. Kazakhstan is formally and partially a European country. I bring this up to remind one of curiosity. Paradoxically, although former Czech President Vaclav Klaus was an ideological opponent of the European Union. He offered Kazakhstan to join the EU, knowing, of course, that it was unlikely to happen. He tried to turn the European Union into a club of countries with weakened ties.
Furthermore, the Russian trace came out today through the military intervention of the CSTO states, which was the beginning of the de facto Russian occupation of Kazakhstan. It is clear that Kazakhstan today hardly faces the question of foreign policy orientation, as it faces Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Nevertheless, I believe it is important for Kazakhstan to free from the geopolitical dominance that Russia has over Central Asia. Especially since there is a special nature of the northeastern regions of Kazakhstan. It is clear that these are not disputed territories, but many in Russia consider them as such. There is quite a large Russian-speaking population in the north of Kazakhstan - Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and representatives of other nationalities of the former Soviet Union. The question arises: How will Russia behave?
Given Russia's policy, it became clear from 2008, after the events in Kazakhstan, that Russian military intervention was by no means out of the question. It finally happened. It was preceded by the annexation of Crimea and the seizure of a part of Georgia. Russia considers Belarus today as a springboard for playing geopolitical games with the possibility of accession.
I do hope that the Belarusian society will not agree to this, but still, we have to take into account all the options that Russia has exercised before. Therefore, the question is whether Russia will enter Belarus with the army to help and strengthen the dictatorial regime. Another option that some commentators in Russia and Belarus have considered whether Putin would enter with some kind of military contingent to free the Belarusians from Lukashenka.
I think it was a very short-sighted notion. However, some were seriously suggesting that Putin would enter Belarus, remove Lukashenka, and be greeted with applause and flowers by the local population. This very formulation of the question seems strange to me, given who Lukashenka and Putin are.
It is worth noting that there may be a specific interstate rivalry between Russia and China around Kazakhstan, based on the fact that China has a border with Kazakhstan. Here is the most problematic region of China - Xinjiang Uyghur. Hence, China will care about developments in Kazakhstan. I think Beijing would not like the annexation of part of Kazakhstan's territory by the Russian Federation. Today Russia is China's ally in the international arena. Nevertheless, the mentioned rivalry could cause a series of unforeseen events in case the borders in this part of the world are questioned.
It seems to me that Central European experts will henceforth pay great attention to the developments in Kazakhstan, as well as in the entire post-Soviet space because Russia's policies and role relate to it. The Kremlin still considers the region of Eastern and Central Europe a zone of its priority interests.
For example, the actual ultimatum that Russia presented to the West a couple of weeks ago directly concerns us. Russia has been questioning the development of our region since 1997, when we, i.e. the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, joined the EU and NATO. Today, the Kremlin is trying to turn back the wheel of history. It is clear that the events in Kazakhstan are self-sufficient, they are important for the development of this country. All democrats today stand on the side of the population of Kazakhstan, which is fighting against the autocratic regime. One should take into account the Russian factor. It, unfortunately, hinders the development of Kazakhstan. The military intervention of Russia and its satellites clearly showed that.
- In the last decade, we have seen a series of revolutions in the post-Soviet space. The revolution of dignity in Ukraine in 2014, revolutions in Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and now Kazakhstan. Is there any trend?
- There certainly is. All these regimes that have been the object of popular protests originated in the republics of the former Soviet Union (with the Baltic states standing out). I don't mean these regimes are absolutely a copy of that in Russia, but they are of the same type. Even the democratic Russia that existed for a relatively short time under Yeltsin was still more of a hybrid than a democratic regime. It did not pursue consistent democratization; many structures that were a legacy of the USSR still exist, such as the KGB-FSB, the Prosecutor's Office, and the courts.
Russia supports authoritarian regimes everywhere in the former Soviet Union for the sake of its geopolitical interests. However, it would be a mistake to believe that all these states were originally condemned to have only this type of authoritarian regime.
I think if Russia had not supported these regimes, the respective states would have developed normally, stably, with a rotating power. There would have been some political turbulence, but it would not have gone beyond the standard development. Perhaps somewhere it would occur in a more moderate form, for example, in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the South Caucasus - Armenia and Georgia. In Central Asia, these processes would have been more complicated, but authoritarian and repressive regimes would not have emerged in these countries.
Today, Russia has moved to a stage of developed authoritarianism with elements of totilitarism. It constantly demonstrates phantom imperial reflexes against its neighbours. Russia does not allow its neighbours to go forward, hold reforms, determine their destinies, and form genuine national interests corresponding to the spirit of the times.
Something unites the revolutions in the post-Soviet space. It is not only the regimes themselves but also the forms they use - the violent suppression of people's attempts to change their lives for the better. Sometimes (unfortunately, more often than we would like) authoritarian regimes succeed, sometimes they don't. Ukraine managed to overcome the authoritarian regime, but the price was high; an illegitimate dictatorial regime has strengthened its position in Belarus. Nevertheless, I believe that changes are just a matter of time. I strongly disagree with those analysts who believe that all is already lost in Belarus. The fight is very difficult now. It requires great civic courage and dedication. It's hard to demand decisive actions from people, knowing that the regime is ready to kill them. However, this regime is not eternal.
The Kazakh regime, before the current events, was not as bloody as the Belarusian one, but it was hard to imagine that such a mass movement would arise so quickly. One should remember the events in Zhanaozen in 2011. There were quite strong events with a harsh reaction on the part of the regime. Since then, the situation has stabilized in terms of the regime. A couple of weeks ago, it was hard to imagine that the protests would be of such magnitude and spread all over the country.
- Are the protests in this country the death of the Nazarbayev model of transition of power, which we see Lukashenka and perhaps Putin want to adopt?
- I don't know whether it is possible to discuss the death of this model. It should be taken into account that Tokayev has been a caricature of Nazarbayev. Formally he had an over-institutional function, a strong position of power. I don't know how this model worked in reality because all these systems are closed for the public. There is a certain facade, certain personalities, who symbolize these systems. It is problematic to say how they function. We can only speculate.
Let us say there is the Duma in Russia, the government, and the president. However, all key issues are decided by a small group of people who hold strong positions of power. These decisions are made in circumvention of those procedures that are specified in the constitution. It turns out that the State Duma is a political masquerade. Formally, the Duma approves the laws. In reality, they are initiated by the leading group: Putin, Patrushev, Bortnikov, Sechin, Shoigu, Kirienko. These people make decisions bypassing, or instead of the government, the parliament, the Prosecutor's Office, the Constitutional Court, sometimes even instead of the regular courts. I don't know exactly how it functioned in Kazakhstan, that is, whether Nazarbayev was running the country for real, not being its formal president.
- How do you assess the effectiveness of the policy pursued by the European Union in relation to Lukashenka's regime? On the one hand, we see the coordination of actions of the USA, the European Union, the UK and Canada on the issue of sanctions. On the other, the Belarusian regime uses loopholes to bypass the restrictive measures. What can be done to make the impact on Lukashenka more sensitive?
- I'm not objective on this point, because in 2015, a group of Slovaks to which I belonged, in cooperation with my Belarusian colleagues, Charter 97, were loudly screaming for the European Union not to lift sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Nevertheless, the European Union found it possible to turn a blind eye and lift the sanctions. And what was the result? The regime did not become liberal; this development allowed Lukashenka to play his deceptive geopolitical games. He waved in the direction of Europe and the direction of Russia, deceiving both.
I believe the sanctions should be stricter, but this requires the introduction of an effective monitoring regime. On the one hand, I appreciate positively that the European Union has finally understood who Lukashenka is - a dictator and usurper. On the other hand, I note that, unfortunately, there is still no understanding that Putin is not much better than Lukashenka. Russia's authority in the world is much higher, after all, it is a nuclear power, a member of the UN Security Council, but Putin does not differ from Lukashenka in principle, and maybe in some ways, he is even worse.
The European Union wonders at such moments what it should primarily consider - the pressure on the authoritarian regime or the possible consequences of strict sanctions on the population? It is strange that since 2008, since the Russian invasion of Georgia, no plan has been developed on how to put pressure on authoritarian regimes while mitigating the effects of sanctions on the population. I'm sure there are draft programs on the EU's desks that could cut off the ability of authoritarian regimes to circumvent sanctions.
Last August, I was shocked to learn that the IMF provided almost a billion dollars in aid to Belarus to fight the consequences of COVID-19. Of course, it is a noble goal, but providing a billion dollars to a regime that did not fight against the pandemic at all... By the way, this is largely why there were protests in Belarus.
I welcome the EU sanctions that have been imposed against Lukashenka's regime, but I'm not sure that they sufficiently punish the regime. No one will directly interfere in the internal affairs of the Belarusians. No one will go to war with Lukashenka or use any other methods but sanctions. It is a voluntary decision to refuse to cooperate, buy or sell something. I believe the strongest sanctions keep the peaceful nature of a political tool.
- What non-standard tools has the West not yet used but could in the future?
- Support for civil society. It is difficult to do this in the territory of Belarus, but the support of the diaspora abroad is quite possible. Support not only for those who have left Belarus in recent months but also for those who have been abroad longer, who have had many years of experience in fighting. These are the people who remain active. Naturally, it is difficult to work with domestic audiences while abroad. Nevertheless, it is also very important. Moreover, I would like to see educational programs for Belarusian students to continue their studies and gain the necessary experience.
We would like to see a complete embargo and isolation of the regime, but at the same time, the development of contacts with alternative groups of the Belarusian diaspora, people who symbolize the aspiration of Belarus for freedom, who have the potential to contribute to the removal of the dictatorial regime, working not only in the interests of Belarus but also its neighbours.
It is worth noting that today the Belarusian dictatorial regime creates risks for the European continent. We have seen the terrorist attack on a civilian plane, as well as the recent hybrid operation against Poland and Lithuania. Russia's participation in this hybrid operation is obvious. Lukashenka has admitted that he may take part in Russia's expansionist actions against Europe, the West, NATO and Ukraine (he has already deployed Belarusian troops to Kazakhstan along with Russia). Being an illegitimate president, he may drag the country into external conflicts, which are not in the interest of Belarus, but rather in the interest of the Kremlin ruling group.
- How do you think the Lukashenka regime and the dictator personally will end?
- I would like Lukashenka to end his career in the dock. It seems to me that the main force for the survival of the regime is the support from Russia. If we imagine the situation that the Kremlin refuses to support the Belarusian dictator tomorrow, this regime will fall in several weeks. The very fact that there is the Kremlin's support for the usurper has a negative influence on Belarusian society. If there were no such support, then, perhaps, people would have moved on to more active actions.
I believe that Lukashenka, like Slobodan Milosevic or Omar al-Bashir, should face a strict and fair trial. Let me remind you that Milosevic ended his political career because the West interfered in the conflict. I think Belarusians will have to decide for themselves how Lukashenka should be punished. He has committed so many crimes against his people that it is hard to imagine that he will escape a fair punishment if the political regime in Belarus changes.
- You witnessed and participated in the democratic transformation of Slovakia. Do you see a European prospect for Belarus?
- This prospect is quite probable. Until August 2020, it seemed to me, the Belarusians did not think much about what the European way meant for their country. Belarus is a European country. There is no doubt about it. I believe it is a European country both culturally and politically. People in Belarus perceive the political processes the way Europeans do.
To be a political European in today's reality, to become a completely European country in all senses, is to join the process of European integration. This process allows the country to develop freely, without any influence or direct hostile influence from the eastern imperialist neighbour, which constantly holds Belarus in its geopolitical paws.
I think it will not be that way anymore when people thought: the main thing now is to remove Lukashenka, and then we will build good relations with both Russia and Europe. Maybe those people who tried to lead the Belarusian civil movement in 2020 did not want to make Russia nervous in vain or give it a reason to blame the Belarusians for something. However, the Belarusians, nevertheless, were blamed.
If you followed the Russian propaganda at that time, you will surely remember all those speeches about how the West, America, Europe, Ukraine and other "fascists" allegedly organized the whole affair. You just have to understand that the democratic process is unacceptable to the Kremlin as such.
I think the Belarusians have every reason to become a country with a European perspective. Belarus is quite a developed country with a European-oriented population. This is already an established nation, which is difficult to change. I do not know what concepts of accession of Belarus Russia develops. It cannot seize the country because the Belarusians have formed as a nation. They have a national consciousness, a sense of their identity, and specialness. It will remain. Bans on symbols, flags, and mockery of the national emblem will not lead to what it was all about.
I believe that the Belarusians have a European perspective. Today, the Belarusian European-oriented opposition is much more representative than the Lukashenka regime, which does not represent anyone but itself. If I were the opposition today, I would seriously consider a new unambiguously pro-European foreign policy strategy.
- What would be your main pieces of advice for building a new Belarus? What things are worth paying attention to in the first place?
- I am a political scientist engaged in the development of the party system. I can say that one of the major factors of democratization in Slovakia was the introduction of a proportional electoral system. Belarus today differs from all other European countries in that the electoral system is adjusted to the needs of an authoritarian regime, which prevents any political alternatives. Until 2020, all Belarusian parties were, in fact, phantom, non-viable organizations, so a radical reform of the political and party system and the introduction of a proportional electoral system will be necessary. It is needed to create favourable conditions for the development of political parties, to abandon all elements of the authoritarian presidential rule and comparative practice. These are the forms that allow post-communist populists and dictators to manipulate political processes.
We should try, as I have already noted, to introduce exactly the proportional electoral system. The only exceptions in Central and Eastern Europe in this respect were Hungary and Lithuania, which introduced a mixed system. In all other countries, the proportional system has functioned. Thanks to it, relatively well-functioning political parties based on particular systems of values and ideological preferences have been established.
During the first decade, this system will probably not be super stable. If we look at the political map of Slovakia today and compare it with the initial stage of the democratic transition, we see that 32 years after the Velvet Revolution we have only one political formation from then existed - the Christian Democratic Movement (although, it has been out of parliament for two electoral cycles already, but has positions in elected bodies at local and regional level) and still operates today. The other parties were established later from some remnants of past parties. But this is a relatively stable system. The population understands the rules. It is clear how people elect their representatives. The choice stands on ideological preferences and value orientations, and so on.
It is necessary to create a functioning system of separation of powers, have an independent judiciary and a developed civil society, and have independent mass media. I think the civil society will adopt the experience of the Belarusian resistance against authoritarianism. It will help to set elements of self-defence when civil actors together with mass media play the key role after the drastic changes take place. On the one hand, it is a pity that people have to develop their media and other projects under such unfavourable conditions. On the other hand, it provides an experience that will help once the true democratization of the country starts.