Belarus in Crisis

Friday, October 23, 2020

Director, Control Risks Group; Global Fellow, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Founder and Director, Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations

Founder, Sense Analytics; Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center


Professor and Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; CFR Member

Two months after Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the presidential election, protestors in Belarus continue to take to the street to voice their discontent over the election’s legitimacy. Crackdowns against the protests have become increasingly violent, and most opposition leaders have either been jailed or have fled abroad. Speakers discuss the state of democracy in Belarus and the implications of this crisis for U.S.-Belarus and U.S.-Russia relations.

STENT: Thank you very much and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, "Belarus in Crisis.” I'm Angela Stent, I'm director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, and I'm going to be presiding over the discussion today. Now, it's conventional wisdom to marvel at how peacefully the Soviet Union broke up. But thirty years later, if you look at the crises in Belarus, in Kyrgyzstan, and then the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, we see that that process of disintegration, both in terms of domestic political arrangements and foreign policy, is still continuing. And it certainly isn't peaceful.

So we're very lucky today to have a distinguished panel, they're very well informed on these issues, to discuss the crisis in Belarus and what it means for the rest of the world. With us, our three speakers are Oksana Antonenko. She's the director of the Control Risks Group, and she's a global fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. Our next speaker is Yauheni Preiherman, who is the founder and director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations. And then our third speaker is Artyom Shraibman. He is the founder of Sense Analytics and he's a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. So in fact, and by the way, our panelists are joining us from Cambridge, England, and Minsk. So I'm going to begin with you Artyom and ask you the first question. Could you explain to us how events have evolved since the disputed presidential election on August the 9th? And what are the next steps, both for president Lukashenko and for the opposition?

SHRAIBMAN: Yes, thank you very much for inviting me and giving the opportunity to speak. Well, the events unfolded in a very dynamic, sometimes, you know, unpredictable, profoundly unpredictable mode. And that also should give the hint that in the future they will also be quite unpredictable in dynamics. So our efforts to forecast them have their limits. At the same time, we had the turbulent political electoral campaign in the summer presidential election, which from the start was very tense because the support rate of the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko has declined due to various reasons, economic reasons, mishandling of the pandemic, and many others. The campaign itself produced a lot of repressions and crackdown on the opposition. Even during it, it proceeded during its conduct and it actually galvanized people's resentment with the incumbent, with the system. And then the protests, which were widely anticipated, the protests on the 9th of August, 10th of August, the 11th of August that resulted in the violent clashes, violent repressions rather. From the side of the authorities, which were also marked by a very unusual unprecedented level of in-custody brutality, tortures in the police detention centers. And this became a trigger of a new spike of demonstrations on a truly unseen level for Belarus, and these protests have been going on since mid-August. They have been gradually losing steam, I would say since then. So if we saw hundreds of thousands of people marching every Sunday, and not just Sunday, in mid-August, late August, now the numbers are probably in the tens of thousands. So instead of six digits, we have probably five digits at peaks, but is still a very remarkable size for such a small country as Belarus.

And Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent, tried to use various tactics to combat the protests—carrots, sticks, but mostly sticks—trying to divide their position and to propose part of the opposition the engagement into the constitutional reform, which Alexander Lukashenko and Russia see as the way forward from this crisis. However, the crisis of trust is so deep that no meaningful opposition actor would agree to be engaged in this process because it is widely seen as just, you know, an attempt to just perform some cosmetic changes to the constitution, with the help of this to pacify the protests basically. The broad idea that they need to make the protesters tired of protesting. So one of the ways of doing so is gradually increasing the level of oppressions. And that's what they've been doing. This hasn't stopped the protests, but as I've said, some estimates suggest that some of the forms of protest, let's say some of the forms of protest, did not take on like the strikes movement, for example. And so the opposition decided to take the initiative back, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is a reluctant leader, but still a symbol of the change—she was a former candidate for presidency of the opposition—she called for an ultimatum, or rather, she declared an ultimatum recently, which expires on the 25th. And if, before the 26th of October, Alexander Lukashenko does not resign or release political prisoners and orders to investigate the torture and violence committed before, the threat is basically to start another round of nationwide strikes, but also a new wave of protests that would basically just paralyze the country, as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has put it. So we are currently in expectation of this new, looming escalation, probably of the situation. As I've said it's very hard to predict the future in these circumstances. However, this stalemate that we've been seeing for a couple of months now, in my estimation, is not a sustainable status quo. I think that we will witness either of the two possible, you know, scenarios from now on. It is either going to be some major, or not so major, but escalation which would lead to maybe a reanimation of protests, but maybe a severe stepping up of repressions.

Or, alternatively, what we'll see if the authorities will not behave as foolishly as they did on some occasions in the past, then the protests will probably continue to somewhat lose numbers. It will continue for several months, unless we are left with maybe some of the core of some very dedicated protesters. The protests are already evolving and transforming itself towards a more decentralized fashion, and I think this will also continue. And this means that even if we see some end or pause in the large, I don't know, fifty, one hundred thousand strong rallies on Sundays, we will still see some protest activity being triggered, but by various mistakes of the of the regime in the future. But in this latter scenario, where the protests sort of subside, Lukashenko will likely approach the constitutional reform that he foresees, that he plans to do, most likely in the coming year, 2021, and then, depending on several factors, like economic crisis, Russian pressure, but also the societal pressure, the outcome of this reform will produce probably some new political regime of Belarus. And even if initially Belarusian authorities don't intend to deliver any meaningful changes as they most likely do not, the history of similar regimes has many examples when the regimes have tried to sort of perform some decorative cosmetic changes, but then, you know, it unleashed the whole reform and change process, which was not controlled by any one as it happened with, for example, Mr. Gorbachev in the late Soviet Union. So I'll probably stop here and will be happy to take your questions later.

STENT: Thank you very much. And Yauheni, I'm going to turn to you now, could you say something about the foreign policy dimensions of the current crisis in Belarus, particularly Russia's role. Does Putin have a game plan? Please.

PREIHERMAN: Thank you very much, Angela. And many thanks to the CFR for doing this and for having us as speakers. I'm aware of the time constraints, so I'll briefly talk about two things. Firstly, the international dynamics around the Belarus crisis and then also a couple of words about its potential strategic implications for Belarus and foreign policy and regional security. So in mid-August when, you know, the protests were in their first week, and it was already obvious how unprecedented and how large scale they were, there was a growing feeling in society, but I would also argue in this state apparatus that as a result of the protests, the government might collapse. At this point, Lukashenko famously gave his call to Putin and asked him for his security assistance. And he of course referred to the existing bilateral agreements, in terms of security, but also the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which both states are members. As a result, as you all know, Putin did provide his support. He even said he had some forces or law enforcement units, which were reserved in case Belarus would need them. Thank God, nothing like that happened, but I think that was a defining and turning point in a way, because it sent a very clear signal, both to the Belarusian government elites, but also to other international actors that Russia was backing Lukashenko. This is not to say that Russia now has, you know, a free hand in doing whatever it wants in any form it wishes to in Belarus. But I would argue that from that point on, Russia has become a sort of kingmaker of this whole crisis. And Russia is backing Lukashenka not because it likes him, as we all know in recent years, Lukashenko and Putin really had a difficult time. Lukashenko would not agree to most things that the Russians wanted to enforce, and Belarus, particularly in the framework of this Union State, which is a bilateral arrangement where the Russians wanted to deepen integration, and Lukashenko felt quite strong to say no to all those things, which in his opinion, would infringe on the country's sovereignty. Of course, now, we're slightly in a different reality. But what I think the Russians want is very obvious. They want to make sure that they basically diversify their political presence and leverage in Belarus, because part of Lukashenko's success over all these years, has been the fact that he was basically the only channel of communication and cooperation for the Russians. He made sure that no other actors emerged in the country which were counterparts for the Russians. And now it's in Russia's interest to make sure that changes. At the same time, for the time being, they're back in hand, because now Lukashenko, who has basically cut his relations with the West, is an easy game for them. It's quite a guarantee of predictability in terms of foreign policy that even the balance and acts that Lukashenko practiced in previous years would not be possible, at least as long as the West is not eager to have any business with him. Whereas, you know, if they were to agree to some kind of quick change in Belarus, all that would create a lot of unpredictability for the Russians, because all the members of the opposition's Coordination Council are trying to make the case that they are pro-, well not pro-Russia, but they actually support deepening some sort of relations with Russia, but it's still a great degree of unpredictability.

And secondly, I think, you know, there is a philosophical angle, if you will, to all this. The Russians inevitably project all these developments unto themselves and thinking about, you know, this whole narrative of mass protests undermining what they see as legitimate rulers. So it's in no way that they can be happy about something like this in Belarus. But again, as I said, it doesn't mean that they are going to support Lukashenko endlessly, of course. The EU in all this situation appears much less relevant. And I think this is at least partially the result of all those policies the EU had towards Belarus in recent years, whereby instead of promoting itself and strengthening its position in Belarus, increasing its leverage, the EU, at least when we talk about Brussels, and those EU institutions, not only the member states, and not so much the member states, but again, mainly the EU institutions, they were more concerned about things like, you know, reiterating for a hundredth time that Belarus should get rid of the death penalty and stuff like that. And as a result, the death penalty is still there, no progress in human rights and democracy, and very limited leverage for the EU. The U.S. seems to be a little bit, at least potentially, in a stronger position. In fact, and this might be a little bit ironic, because compared to the EU, the U.S. has been less active in reacting to this crisis. But perhaps even that leaves a little bit of additional space for the U.S. to act as we move forward. And I think I'll be happy to discuss it in more detail if we have any questions.

The second thing is how the crisis is going to impact Belarus in foreign policy more strategically. No doubt it has been a huge disruption to the foreign policy strategy that the Belarusian government has been trying to implement in the last six or five years. And that strategy was something I call hedging, because it was actually aimed at expanding room for foreign policy maneuvering, diversifying its foreign economic and foreign political relations, primarily with the West, because the West has always been the weakest side of that. And we saw such unusual things as the situational neutrality of Belarus on the crisis around Ukraine and on Russian-Ukrainian relations, which of course, many in Russia considered as a betrayal and were not very happy about it. We saw Belarus emerging as a neutral platform for negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, those breakaway territories, which of course, allowed Belarus to step aside from that conflict between Russia and Ukraine. And in the end, even Lukashenko was talking about something like turning Belarus into an East European Switzerland, which, of course, you know, is more a slogan than in practice, but at least, you know, it gave us some kind of hints about the direction of thought that even Lukashenko tried to entertain in those years. Now, it's obviously gone, at least for some time. But why did it happen? How can we explain that? I think it's easy. International relations theory has explained it long ago. Lukashenko, who's an authoritarian leader, when he did feel quite secure and safe in his position, he was thinking more in terms of the national interest. And the national interest is again to try to hedge against all those multiple uncertainties in the region which lies in between the West and Russia. But once he understood that his role is threatened, and he turned into this ‘only balancing’ actor who still maneuvers, but of course, the central concern of that maneuver is his own will. And this is continuous for the time being. Depending on how the crisis unfolds further and, you know, what happens in the region and around the region, we might see some kind of attempts to resume those former policies. But again, I simply don't know how long it might take and whether it happens.

Very finally, the original implications. I think the Belarus crisis might have some serious ones for the region primarily in the context of the Ukraine situation because if Belarus were to lose this credibility as the sort of neutral grounds and situational neutral state, of course, it will imply that lots of problems will be there for Ukraine's northern border. Automatically, it will always create additional problems or concerns, not just for Kyiv, but for its allies in NATO, including the U.S. because even though, you know, many people did not take Belarusian security guarantees seriously before, now, you know, it will still enforce people to think more about how to help Ukraine to defend itself. And again, the U.S. is a key actor here, it will have implications for the West.

And for regional security it would also be problematic because now that we still continue to see those worsening relations between the U.S. and Russia, Russia and the EU, when we have the problem of arms control, you know, it all means just less predictability and less transparency, because for the last several years, Belarus was trying to project itself as this responsible regional actor, as the success story of regional security as Lukashenko once said, and that meant, you know, enhanced arms control initiatives on the part of Belarus and enhanced CSBMs, confidence- and security-building measures, on the part of Belarus. For the time being, it looks like all this is not really feasible until the crisis in Belarus has somehow stabilized. And I'll stop with this.

STENT: Thank you. Oksana, this would seem like an ideal moment for Vladimir Putin. These three simultaneous crises in the post-Soviet space, the West is distracted by COVID, and yet as you've recently written, the sphere of influence that Russia is trying to create and get recognized, is in fact, looks like a sphere of ignorance. So I wonder if we could get your take on the role of Russia and the EU. And also, if you could say something about the economic situation. In Belarus, you have this paradox of a country where you have an old Soviet-type economic system in the rural areas coexisting with an extremely modern high-tech sector in Minsk. So how do we put this all together?

ANTONENKO: Yes, thank you very much, Angela. And thank you very much for inviting me to take part in this discussion. So let me follow up on what Yauheni just said and maybe slightly disagree with his analysis, you know, which I think will be good for our discussion. I certainly see, you know, Russian response to the crisis in Belarus as lacking both with any strategy or in fact any significant impact on the ground. Russia has spent three decades, or at least the last two decades, under President Putin trying to claim that it has a special responsibility in the former Soviet Union as a main guarantor of security in bouts of crisis, you know, reducing crisis in the region. But when the crisis actually broke out, right now, I think it looks like Russia has been taken largely by surprise. And fair enough, you know, it's also the European Union and the United States and others have been taken by surprise of how the situation in Belarus has evolved. Of course, we've seen many elections in the past in Belarus where confrontations between opposition and the Lukashenko regime followed, but those crises were contained, and nobody kind of expected that this crisis is going to evolve so quickly as it did.

And Russia actually spent quite a long time following the failed elections, and of course the protests that we've been seeing in Belarus, with no response at all. In fact, the first several days and weeks after the elections, you know, we've seen almost no reaction from Russia. In fact, even Russian state-owned media have been reporting this situation, you know, surprisingly in a balanced way. And then, of course, we've seen the change, as Yauheni mentioned, you know, with President Putin making a statement and characterizing, of course, events in Belarus not just as a protest, but as a conspiracy, as an event which the West is trying to foment the change of regime in Belarus and kind of pledged support for the regime. But we have not actually seen, in reality, any serious decisive action from Russia. I think the protests continue, of course. Russia has sent a few, kind of supporters for an information campaign, and for supporting the television and other information sources. But so far, you know, those are not really very decisive because most of the protests that are being organized on social media. You know, Russia did make statements that it has potentially a reserve of law enforcement that it can deploy in Belarus, but so far, it actually did not respond to it.

And at the same time, of course, you know, this proposal of a constitutional change and constitutional reform is very difficult to implement because Belarus, of course, is not in the same position as Russia is, which itself is now in the process of changing its own constitution where President Putin is able to control the situation, to a large extent, and be able to conduct this kind of referendum and get and win the majority. While in Belarus, that kind of process can only generate more protests. So as a result of that, I think what we are seeing now is that the situation in Belarus is becoming more and more, you know, anti, kind of, Russian, because initially, of course, the protesters exactly as Artyom was mentioning, were not, you know, in the geopolitical mode. They were not calling for integration with the West. But now they are changing and we see a lot of changes in attitude on the side of Belarusians. And at the same time, we also see that what Russia is offering is not actually propping up the regime sufficiently to guarantee that it is viable in the long run. And here the economy is very important, because, of course, the current political stalemate, and I personally see very much that where we are at the moment is in a stalemate, and I believe that the stalemate will continue for quite a long time. And we potentially may see those protests continuing for months. And in this environment, the economy is the key factor which can potentially change the situation for various ways.

First of all, of course, it can split the elites that so far had been quite loyal to Lukashenko. But if we see more economic challenges that can split both the heads of the major state-owned enterprises, but also even the security forces, you know, from the regime, which can also generate more protests, of course, and generate new momentum for the protests. And it can also force Lukashenko to compromise because if the economy gets in really dire straits, he will have no other choice then to find a compromise.

But what is the Belarusian economy at the moment? Of course the Belarussian economy has been in a state of crisis for quite a long time, very much predating the current crisis. It is an economy which is based very much around this model of the state-led, state-owned enterprises that are represented as the kind of the backbone of the economy. And that model has not really been sustainable for quite a long time. It was aligned to a large extent on direct and indirect subsidies from Russia. We have seen, of course, Russia providing a lot of loans. So the foreign debt of Belarus at the moment stands at about $18 billion of which about, you know, two-thirds are to Russia in some form or the other. And also at the same time, Russia was providing indirect subsidies as well. For example, Belarus was able to buy at the preferential rates and without paying large taxes, Russian oil, and then reprocess it and sell it on to the international markets and that was a very large source of revenue. So Russia started to cut those subsidies already last year and that is what you know caused a lot of tensions in the relationship between Belarus and Russia initially.

And Belarus started to rely more and more generating and looking for debt from other sources. For example, it managed to borrow some money from China. It also managed to issue the eurobond on the international markets earlier this year in June, about $1 billion of eurobonds. But all of those opportunities for borrowing elsewhere on the international markets or in China, or any other bilateral arrangements, are no longer available to Lukashenko. So he's no longer able to go to the international markets, or at least not able to go to the international markets and borrow it at a rate that is viable for Belarus. And at the same time, the reserves of Belarus are falling very rapidly. We only have the latest statistics from about July time when the reserves stood at about $3.2 billion. And clearly since that time, they have reduced quite substantially, as you know, the government has been propping up the Belarusian ruble, which has depreciated almost 30 percent since the start of the year. The current account deficit is growing. And it is clear that there's very few resources that the government has at the moment to be able to sustain the current status quo for a very long time, for months. And what Russia so far offered during this famous meeting between President Putin and Lukashenko in Sochi is $1.5 billion in loans and most of it is to repay debt to Russia itself. And of course, Belarus is facing several very large repayments on its debt, about three and a half billion it has to repay each year over the next five years. So it is something which is very substantial, repayments it needs to make. So the economy, in my view, is what potentially can change substantially this crisis and move it into a more of a face of resolution rather than political developments on the ground.

STENT: Thank you, Oksana. So, we've had three very interesting and provocative opening statements. So at this point, I'm going to invite members to submit their questions. This meeting is on the record, I want to remind everyone and the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. So if you have a question, please go ahead.

STAFF: We'll take the first question from Jed Snyder.

Q: Hi all. Jed Snyder, Center for Naval Analyses—CNA. Angela, wonderful to see you again, if only virtually. If there's time at the end, I hope you'll talk to us about that intriguing painting behind you, only part of which is visible on my screen. So I'd like to go a little bit beyond the discussion and press you all on something that I've thought about for some time. When Vladimir Putin dreams at night, and thinks about things other than assassinating his rivals, he's made interesting comments in the past about the value of alliances and the fact that he has none at the moment. Is it possible that ultimately, he would like to cobble together a commonwealth-like system incorporating Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, for starters, in an effort to begin to establish more of a confederation that he could manage? I'm not talking about a Warsaw Pact Alliance. I don't think that's in the cards. But he does, I think, appreciate the fact that he is alone. And I wonder if any of you believe that that's in the cards, whether it's feasible or not, and whether that matters to him. Thank you.

STENT: Yauheni, do you want to start with that?

PREIHERMAN: Sure. And I think the immediate answer is no, it's not really feasible. I mean, I think we had these types of discussions around 2010, 2011, when Vladimir Putin was launching what is now known as the Eurasian Economic Union. And we all know that Ukraine was the main concern and, you know, the most important potential piece of that union. But as we also know, that never happened. Yes, there is now a crisis around some parts of Ukraine which was partially the result of that. But it also makes any further thinking in that direction just impossible, I would say.

STENT: Oksana, would you like to add anything to that?

ANTONENKO: Yes. I also would like to agree that, you know, I don't think it is possible. I mean, not least because I think the resources that will be required for Russia to implement the project like that are just simply out of Russia's reach, and it's not only financial and kind of military resources. And of course we know that in Ukraine, we’ve already seen a conflict and this conflict is far from over and Russia certainly does not, at the moment, look to be victorious in trying to establish, you know, greater influence in Ukraine. In fact, Russian policy to a large extent produced this kind of new nation-building project within Ukraine and kind of unified Ukrainians more around the, you know, pro-Western and pro-European agenda.

But in relation to Belarus, you know, the latest opinion polls in Russia really show that 50 percent of Russians, you know, want to see even, you know, minimal economic assistance to Belarus—not a very large one, not on the scale that will require integrating the entire Belarusian economy—but 48 percent are opposed to it, so the Russian society is really split in the middle. Even though the majority of Russians still sympathize with Lukashenko, by 43 percent, but actually, very few of them want to see more resources, particularly now at a time of COVID and economic challenges that Russia is facing in that context being spent to subsidize the Belarusian economy. And also, in addition to that, of course, if you look at the attitudes of the Belarusians, yes, Belarusians are much more friendly-disposed towards Russia, but less than 4 percent of Belarusians, according to latest opinion polls, actually wanted to see any integration with Russia, within one state, you know. And the numbers of Belarusians who actually want to see relations with Russia as a priority or relations with Europe are also rapidly declining. So I do not see that prospect of that kind of project to be implementable in reality, even if President Putin, of course, would have wanted to see the region to be more unified around Russia,

STENT: Artyom, you want to add anything?

SHRAIBMAN: I'm just agreeing with everything that my colleagues have said. So I'll save time.

STENT: Okay, thank you. Next question.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Jill Barshay.

Q: Hi, this is Jill Barshay at the Hechinger Report. I used to work with Oksana in Moscow many, many years ago, and it's wonderful to see you virtually. My question for the panelists is, is it a coincidence that Belarus, Kazakhstan, Nagorno-Karabakh, that we're seeing right now in this year of COVID all this tumult in the former Soviet Union? And can you explain that big picture to us?

STENT: Artyom, would you like to start with that?

SHRAIBMAN: That's a very difficult question to try to unpack briefly. I would say that generally COVID, of course, brings turbulence to all societies, especially the societies that are challenged by other, you know, crises. COVID aggravates all the crises that existed in the society before the pandemic. And it's the case in many places, not just in the Eurasian or post-Soviet region. This is the case in the developed Western world as well. But in the societies that were, let's say, already on the brink of some, you know, political turbulence, like in Belarus or Kyrgyzstan, the such a shock as the pandemic just made things worse. I would not, you know, read too much into this because these three situations are still very different. And they have profoundly different causes, all of them. Even this seemingly similar revolutionary uprisings of Belarus and Kyrgyzstan are just two completely different stories with two completely different regimes. At the same time, it has a consequence because there are many conspiratorial minds in the Kremlin, who tend to view this all as the part of some greater ploy of some foreign or global manipulators against Russia. And this frames their mind to some responses, again, in a more conspiratorial fashion than many of us would like to see. And that enhanced, you see some propaganda on the Russian side but also on the Belarusian state side trying to somehow link all this crises together to explain all of it by some foreign manipulations trying to, you know, somehow damage Russia’s standing in the region by some weird logic that escapes me. But still, but I think that apart from this, there is not much in common in these three, you know, crises.

STENT: Yauheni?

PREIHERMAN: Yes, I also agree and I'll save time, I'll just add that, unfortunately, I think we can expect many more crises around say Eurasia or in different parts of the world, which will be of more or less the same kind where the pandemic will be striking their weaknesses which were already there.

STENT: Oksana?

ANTONENKO: Yes, I do agree that, you know, with colleagues that, of course, those three crises are not necessarily related to each other. And it looks like the pandemic is one connecting link. But I also agree with you, Angela, with your introduction at the beginning that I think those processes have kind of continued the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They were happening even without the pandemic. And I could have imagined that all of those three crises which have really fundamental, although very different, but very fundamental causes that many analysts have been predicting for years clearly in context of Nagorno-Karabakh, you know, the escalation of this conflict was predicted and analyzed, in fact, actually happening periodically.

And in Kyrgyzstan, as well, we've seen a number of the similar political crises before. So they could have happened even without the pandemic. But I think for me what is clear at the moment is that we actually have no one in that space who is able to offer, not kind of tactical responses, and clearly here Russia is the one that is offering the most, you know, immediate tactical responses, but the strategic management or strategic support for change in this region which is really desperately needed. You know, we need a lasting sustainable resolution of conflicts. And here, we're all just talking about Nagorno-Karabakh but other conflicts that exist in the region, you know, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and now in eastern Ukraine, we need to find the way to build, you know, sustainable and develop governance institutions like both in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, you know, and we of course need to acknowledge that we now have a power of the people that it is emerging as a result, not only COVID, but the new technology, the Internet Society, the new generation, new post-Soviet generation, which is increasingly becoming active players and we can no longer ignore the fact that it is the people that are going to be shaping the processes that are going to be happening in the region. And of course, many of the regimes will not be accepting that. So crisis will continue, I agree.

STENT: Thank you. Next question.

STAFF: And as a reminder, to ask a question, please click on the "raise hand" icon on your Zoom window. When you're called on, accept the "unmute now" button, state your affiliation and proceed with your question. We'll take the next question from Nobuhisa Ishizuka

Q: Yes, hi, I'd like to pick up on Yauheni's invitation on U.S. interests in the conflict. In recent reports in The Economist a couple of weeks ago seemed to suggest that the lack of, or perceived lack of Western involvement in the Belarus crisis, is giving Putin room to try to resolve the issue peacefully, notwithstanding the fact that there may be conspiracy groups within the Kremlin about Western conspiracies. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts, the thoughts of our panelists on this. Are there U.S. interests that are not being served by not being more involved? Is it true that the U.S. really isn't involved in any way or has no interest in this issue? Thank you.

STENT: Yauheni?

PREIHERMAN: Well, I think that, you know, it's definitely not the primary interest of the U.S., not only at this point of time, but even if we think a little bit more strategically, given the inevitably growing strategic competition between the U.S. and China, I think it is pretty much clear that Eastern Europe will be on the radar of U.S. foreign policy, but it will not be the primary one. At the same time, as I mentioned before, I think of, you know, with the Ukraine situation with the crisis there, and, you know, with the still horrible situation in the Donbas, Belarus matters, and if Belarus were to completely lose credibility as this situationally-neutral actor, it will just make matters worse, including for the U.S. It will require more U.S. involvement there. So it all means that Washington will do good to keep track of the situation in Belarus and around Belarus.

Now it doesn't mean that the U.S. needs to get directly involved on the ground. Again, it depends on what we mean by that kind of involvement. Tom Graham, who I think is on this call, and myself, coauthored a piece for Foreign Affairs a couple of weeks ago, where we argued that the U.S., as well as other Western actors, need to walk a tightrope to make sure that they, on the one hand, help to promote and secure their own strategic interest, but at the same time to not provoke another reason or another confrontation with Russia. And, you know, I don't think there was any easy recipe for that. But I think in order to stay not only relevant, but to sort of keep as strong a position as possible and as strong a leverage as possible, the U.S. at least needs now to send its ambassador to Minsk. And probably, you know, that ambassador has been confirmed by the Senate or at least the Foreign Affairs Committee. There is now some unclarity whether the ambassador should arrive because there is very obviously this argument that the arrival of the U.S. ambassador would mean some kind of approval of what Lukashenko has done. And of course, this should not happen, obviously. But I think we should also keep in mind that the rather strategic interest to be served there, and also a right signal to be sent to the Belarusian society. Because without American presence on the ground, it will look increasingly that the U.S. is happy to do business about the region and about the Belarusian situation directly with Russia. This is what happened in August when Stephen Biegun, you know, toured the region and he went to Vilnius to meet the opposition candidate, but then he went to Moscow. And that's where he probably held the most important discussions about the situation. So I think, yes, the U.S. needs to walk this tightrope, needs to think strategically about Belarus, but also about the region, but also too, it needs to be cautious not to provoke another confrontation with Russia in Belarus, because if that were to happen, you know, the stakes and the leverages are still incomparable. Russia will be perhaps unhappy to do certain things in Belarus, which will turn it into another hotspot, but at some point, I think everyone in the Kremlin will decide this is the right thing to do, and they will do this.

Q: Sorry, I failed to introduce myself, Nobuhisa Ishizuka at Columbia Law School. Thank you for the response.

STENT: Thank you. Artyom, what should the U.S. role be?

SHRAIBMAN: Sorry, misheard the last part of it? What the U.S.—?

STENT: What should the U.S. role be in Belarus?

SHRAIBMAN: Well, the U.S. has not as much leverage on the ground, as Yauheni has said, so it's not reasonable to expect much, it's not reasonable to expect the U.S. to resolve the crisis so far away from the shores of the U.S. given that the U.S. itself isn't the midst of its political campaign. And no one knows how long it will take, if the administration is, you know, changing and how long it will take just to think, you know, right on this Eastern European direction in the State Department and elsewhere. At the same time, I think that the crucial role that the U.S. can play is to work with Russian, sort of, expectations and intentions, because the U.S. has the power to signal to Russia what would be the consequences of more active meddling into Belarusian affairs, that there might be economic consequences for trying to, let's say, use the vulnerability of Lukashenko and to acquire Belarusian state assets, that this would not, for example, be greeted or it will be punished by the rest of the world. The U.S. on the other hand, can send a very clear signal that there is no way NATO or other Euro-Atlantic, you know, communities have an aspiration to somehow drag Belarus into its orbit, because this is not on the table even in the Belarusian domestic crisis. And this should be made clear to Russia to at least somehow mitigate its, you know, unfounded fears about this. So if there is some role on the international, you know, level, dimensional on this conflict, but domestically, I'm not sure the U.S. can do much. This is not the crisis that involved even the foreign policy from the start, and especially not foreign policy actors with such a minimal leverage as the U.S. currently has, unfortunately.

STENT: Thank you. So Oksana, let me broaden this question a little bit and ask you from what Artyom just said, how much influence or leverage does the West have? European Union, I'd like you to maybe compare that to the United States. Can either of the EU or the U.S. really have any impact on what's happening in Belarus? And if so, you know, what should their stance be?

ANTONENKO: Yes, I mean, I would say that I sort of slightly disagree with Yauheni for his previous statement that the European Union, I think, is playing an important role. Yes, it is not playing a kind of decisive role on the ground, that's true, but it does play a very important role on several fronts. The first one of course, it is continuing to give the voice to the opposition. So their position with Tikhanovskaya and also the Coordination Council, you know, their support very much for denying legitimacy to Lukashenko by not recognizing his election, is absolutely crucial in this crisis, to continue to give hope to people in Belarus for their future, you know, aspirations as they express them at the moment.

Secondly, of course, the European Union did provide financial resources and made them available to Belarus. Of course, it is very difficult to provide resources to the opposition because, of course, even before the crisis, it is impossible to transfer money directly to Belarus without bypassing the kind of Belarusian state institutions. But the European Union is able to engage directly with NGOs and various activists. And I think now what the European Union should do is expand that engagement beyond just working with NGOs, but increasingly to try to offer opportunities for many people in Belarus who have been fired from their jobs, be that teachers or doctors or many others, who are suffering in opportunities to maybe do some training courses in Europe, at least, virtually now that it is possible, and to build the links between Europe and Belarus and that is absolutely crucial for the next phase where I think the European Union will be playing a crucial role. Because if we are going to see political change in Belarus, the economic change will be even harder to attain because we all know, the example not only of Ukraine, but many other countries in the post-Soviet space, that the economic reforms that are going to follow are going to be very painful, very prolonged and difficult, and preparing the ground of moving from a very state-dominated economy, to developing the private sector, to helping people to transition to retrain, and many people who are now in the streets and in Minsk, of course are going to, you know, suffer, as we know from those reforms. So the European Union more than anyone else is able to offer that kind of experience because they have experience offering to other countries on the way of integration, for example, with the European Union of how to undertake those reforms.

And finally, of course, the European Union is extremely important as a kind of aspiration, because we actually have a situation in many countries, neighboring countries. I mean, we should not underestimate how close Lithuania is to Belarus. How many Belarusians, you know, spend time easily traveling between the two of them, to actually see that the change is possible, the reforms are possible. And many of the IT companies, for example, from Belarus, are now moving to Lithuania, to Poland, even to Ukraine. There is quite a lot of support now in the private sector, which is really suffering at the moment. So the European Union can play a role. And I think after the political transition, the European Union is bound to play an even greater role. As for the United States, I agree completely with Artyom, I think the key priority now should be to communicate very clearly to Russia the kind of price that it is going to pay if the situation is going to escalate, particularly if we're going to see any kind of Russian direct intervention in Belarus. And here European Union can also, of course, help because we see that the European Union is prepared to take the steps. But the direct involvement of the United States on the ground in Belarus could only strengthen those kind of conspiracy theories in Moscow and potentially trigger a more aggressive Russian stance.

STENT: Thank you. Next question.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Alexander Vershbow.

Q: Thanks very much. Sandy Vershbow at the Atlantic Council. Hello, Angela. And thanks to all three speakers. I'd like to come back to this question of constitutional reform. On the one hand, it looks like Putin sees this as a way to ease out Lukashenko, but Lukashenko may see it as a way to hang on to power. What is the opposition saying about constitutional reform? Do they have a position? Is this seen as an opportunity to at least in the short term, get rid of Lukashenko and have new elections? Or does it seem too much is playing into Russia's hands? Is it a trap, because it doesn't look like this ultimatum is going to change the situation fundamentally in the next seventy-two hours? So is constitutional reform a way out that the opposition could exploit?

STENT: Thank you. Artyom?

SHRAIBMAN: Well, the first thing that we need to understand that there is no traditional opposition in Belarus in the traditional sense of the word. There are various groups of people, various people and the strongest force within the opposition is actually the literalist protest movement. So what unites them is, I mean, all of the actors, Coordination Council, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her team, protests and there are coordinators in the form of Telegram channels, that they mistrust Lukashenko's promises on the constitutional reforms. So their demand is to have the free and fair election first, and then to maybe discuss the constitutional reform or the new government will be doing this or this will be done in the transitional, you know, period of Belarus after Lukashenko is removed from office. But they don't trust this process to remain in Lukashenko's hands.

At the same time, if Lukashenko survives long enough to actually deliver this process, I can expect the position of some of the opposition groups sort of evolving into accepting this status quo and trying to exploit it to the maximum of their, you know, benefit. Because it will be just, you know, meaningless to ignore the change in reality, the change in configuration of the whole political, you know, structure of Belarus and that is why they will explore the opportunities, of course. But I cannot see them voluntarily participating in this because this would just seem as the way to blame Lukashenko’s hand, helping him to, you know, protract his rule and to pacify the protest. I wouldn't say that this is widely seen as being an unnecessarily pro-Russian game because Lukashenko floated the idea of constitutional reform for three years now. It is not a Russian invention. It's just that Russia also sees this as possibly the least worst way forward. I would say not the best probably but would be the only acceptable [way] for Russia. At the same time this is a very murky, you know, idea. Constitutional reform, we don't yet have any details about this. And just very briefly, and again, the opposition see the crisis resolution the other way around—election first, constitutional discussions later.

STENT: Thank you. Yauheni?

PREIHERMAN: Well, I think potentially the very idea of the constitutional reform is of interest to everyone, both internally, but also among the key stakeholders of the Belarusian original situation at large. But we're still in that period where the main sort of confrontation between Lukashenko and the opposition is about whether he should step down right now. I mean, the Coordination Council and the West, the European Union, are still promoting this, that you know, the election was rigged, he’s not legitimate, he has to step down. And for Lukashenko this is the game of trying to turn over the pages, he himself says, and trying to refocus attention onto a longer-term issue, which is about the constitutional reform.

So I think in this respect to the ultimatum and what follows will be a decisive moment. Because I think talking to the people from the Coordination Council and those who are in the streets protesting, they all are sure that they have the absolute majority. And, you know, the whole protests have been driven by this idea that about 80 percent of the population are anti-Lukashenko. And of course, if you think that you have this many supporters in the country, the ultimatum should demonstrate whether all of those people, or the majority of those people, are actively ready to sort of demand what they think is right. And what they think is right is that Lukashenko should step down. So if that does not happen, over the weekend, or, you know, later on when the national strike has been promised, and all other consequences have been promised. So if that fails, then of course, I think that in the longer term, there will be no other way for the opposition but to start looking for ways to discuss the constitutional reform in a way that will still serve its interest better than what Lukashenko has proposed so far.

STENT: Thank you. I think we have five minutes left and I gather we have another question. So can we go to that?

STAFF: Take the next question from Mikita Mikado. Mr. Mikado, please state your affiliation and proceed with your question.

Q: Hi, my name is Mikita. I'm the CEO of PandaDoc, which has been prosecuted over the course of the last two months in Belarus. My question is, what do you think is going to be the future of the Belarusian tech sector? And how the situation and the unfolding of the crisis are going to impact Belarus in tech?

STENT: Thank you. Oksana, why don't we start with you?

ANTONENKO: Well, in general, I think that the Belarusian tech sector has a very bright future because Belarus has an extraordinary number of very talented IT specialists. You know, really one of the leading in the former Soviet Union, if not the whole Eastern Europe region. The big question now is whether this IT sector is actually going to remain in Belarus, or whether it is going to move somewhere else. And I think the danger of this brain drain, which is, strategically in the long run, the most fundamental challenge for Belarus, you know, is a really urgent one because we already see quite a number of IT companies either ready to leave the country or leaving actually the country. And we know from other countries that once those people leave, it's very difficult to convince them to come back. But unfortunately, we've seen, you know, just as in the case of Belarus, similarly in the case of Russia, the governments have not been prioritizing, creating conditions for those kinds of private sector champions, or feeling comfortable in developing and settling down in the country, but rather, we're quite happy to see them leave. And I think for Belarus, in particular, it's going to be a terrible loss. So the sooner this crisis is resolved, I think the more chances are that this IT sector is going to remain in Belarus.

STENT: Artyom?

SHRAIBMAN: Yes, I agree. And I want to first say Mikita thank you for your courage for what you've done in your company and happy to know and I was happy to learn that your colleagues have been sort of released from jail. At the same time on your question, I think that it entirely depends on how long the crisis will continue. Because out of your colleagues, IT engineers, you know, management, and generally the IT sector of Belarus, who have not yet relocated, some did not do this because of their, you know, life circumstances, family reasons, but others still stayed in the country because they hope that the crisis will be resolved sooner or they might contribute to this resolution. They don't want to give up their fight. But if they lose this hope, if the crisis becomes protracted, if it becomes, I mean, more than a year-old crisis, many of them will eventually lose their hopes and will relocate and not all of them will return even after the crisis is this or that way resolved. At the same time, I wouldn't be overly pessimistic about this because in my estimation, as a "political analyst," quote-unquote, I would say that this regime is historically speaking, doomed. And it means that in the course of maybe a year, maybe two years, if it's lucky, we will witness some regime change. And the new government from whichever circle it comes, be it from the current regime, be it from the opposition, be it somewhere in the middle, cannot be silly enough not to realize the potential of the IT sector and not to try to lure it back immediately after the crisis is somehow resolved. So I think the mid-term, long-term perspective, Belarus has a decent chance to restore its IT miracle image that it's managed to attain in the recent years.

STENT: Yauheni, you get the last word and see if you agree with Artyom's upbeat assessment.

PREIHERMAN: Well, perhaps I do in general terms, but if I were to say something more technocratic, I think a lot depends on the conditions, including, you know, taxing conditions, bureaucratic conditions that are here in Minsk and created for the IT sector. As far as we can judge talking to my friends working in the tech sector, but also, you know, some companies with whom we work, they all tell us that, you know, everyone is in a waiting mode, which is, you know, very obvious. Even those people, those employees who have relocated still, you know, think this is temporary. And not just because of the political developments, of course this is central and no one is going to risk their lives, but also in terms of the taxation system. It still remains one of the best, not in only the region, but in the world. And we have a lot of discussion about Ukraine, creating something similar or even better, but we still need to see whether it works out. So if it doesn't, and if Belarus preserves this regime, I think there are high chances that as soon as the situation stabilizes politically, we can see where more or less the return to normal. Of course, if it takes too long for this crisis to sustain itself, then everything can be unpredictable. But so far, you know, it hasn't been dramatic to a point where no return is possible. I think we can still see the revival of the great Belarusian IT sector.

STENT: Let's hope that Belarus can maintain this extraordinarily high tech and dynamic high-tech sectors. So I'd like to thank all the members for attending this virtual meeting. And I'd like to thank our three speakers very much—Artyom, Yauheni, and Oksana. And I do want to tell you that the video and the transcript of today's meeting will be posted on the CFR website, so thank you very much.


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