Belarus seldom makes headlines in the international press and when it does it is almost always for the wrong reasons. Last week Belarus entered the perception of the international audience when 33 Russian citizens, allegedly belonging to a Russian private military firm, were detained by the Belarusian security services just outside of Minsk. This event added an unexpected twist to the plot, just ahead of the Belarusian presidential election, which is scheduled to take place on 9 August.
The government of Belarus, according to official information, has accused the group of Russian citizens to be mercenaries planning to destabilize the country. It is a claim that the international media finds most dispiriting, amid continuous fears about the threat Russia has allegedly posed to many elections in many countries over the past couple of years. Only a few days ago the Russia report on the UK Brexit referendum had brought back discussions about the dangers of Russia election meddling. Probably Lukashenko, who has been President of Belarus since 1994 and wants to have a sixth mandate, wanted to show the world that Belarus too has a Russian problem.
The men detained, except one, stayed all at the same hotel just outside of Minsk. They only had light luggage and no weapons. They were dressed in khaki clothes, spent a lot of time exercising and allegedly they raised suspicion because they did not indulge in the consumption alcoholic drinks.
There are indications, however, that the arrest may have been nothing other than a piece of electoral theatre. In June already, Lukashenko claimed to have thwarted a foreign plot to destabilize the country. Two presidential candidates, one of which had worked as a director at the Belarusian branch of a famous Russian bank, were arrested, another one fled to Russia.
Discontent was mounting among a more and more disillusioned Belarusian electoral, with protests becoming frequent and the real spectrum of a possible street revolution beginning to loom at large. Belarusian expats and supporters of Belarusian democracy abroad organized demonstrations in many countries. International media started to speak of the Belarusian “Slipper Revolution”, when many Belarusians, mainly in the capital Minsk, started to appear to mass gathering with slippers, meant to be used to symbocally crush cockroaches. Then the Russian military contractors were arrested.
But as Alexander Alesin, an independent Minsk-based military expert, said to the British newspaper The Guardian: “The Russians have used Belarus to deploy special troops to other countries for many years. The Belarusian security agencies knew all about it and until recently they offered help and assistance to the Russians”.
According to the Belarusian expert, the detentions appear to be part of Lukashenko’s efforts to mobilise support before the elections.
“The authorities are using Wagner members to scare people before the vote by inventing a thriller about Russian militants. The footage of the detentions looks silly: If the 33 Wagner people were indeed planning to stage riots they wouldn’t have worn combat fatigues and T-shirts with the word ‘Russia’ and stayed all in one place.”
Indeed, this may be a skillful piece of electoral magic on the side of the Belarusian president, directed at the observers in the West too, where Lukashenko has traditionally been referred to as the “last dictator in Europe”. Clearly the West would prefer a pro-European figure in Belarus – somebody who would not try to manage a difficult balancing act between Europe and Russia. While there have been frictions between Belarus and Russia over the last years, Belarus has always clearly remained a Russian ally.
But even the moderate pro-Russianness of Lukashenko has often proven to be too much for the West. At the some levels of the Western political, mediatic and military establishment, every attempt to reconcile relations with Russia is regarded as some sort of pusillanimous appeasement. What better idea for Lukashenko than to portray himself and his country as the object of Russian malicious interference? It is certainly something that could not be dismissed easily by NATO countries, among constant criticism directed at Russian misbehaviour.
It may be a tactic that comes at a high price for Lukashenko though. He may have his election now, and the West will not contest the results, in light of the Russian threat. The arrest of Russian “mercenaries” may be an attempt to legitimize his power in the eyes of the West. Ukraine has already responded with a mixture of sarcasm and glee to the events, seeing in what happened yet another proof that the Russians are always in for a dirty game. But this latest twist risks alienating Russia, which has until recently been the most important Belarusian partner and heavily subsidized the economy of the country. Can Lukashenko survive a hostile Russia and a patronizing West?
Stefano Di Lorenzo @StefanoDiLoren5