Belarus’s affairs keep our attention. Inside Belarus, the developments have their own dynamics. People on the streets continue to defend their 9th August victory. Meanwhile Lukashenko changes tactics to stifle individual protests or places of protest – detains individual protesters, journalists and strike committee leaders much more “politely” than before; tries to intimidate certain groups in society: students, teachers, workers in striking factories; seeks Putin’s support even more intensively.
However, all this Lukashenko’s “self-defence” (even with a machine gun in his hands) does not change the fundamental changes that have already taken place in Belarus: nothing will change the fact that Lukashenko lost the election on 9 August. He lost very painfully. He is very well aware of this and therefore is simply afraid of new, transparent elections; He knows that if they took place and he decides to take part in them, he would lose even more. That is the essence of the “Belarusian crisis”. The Belarusian people do not forget the essence, nor can the international community, which is also increasingly paying more attention to the “Belarusian crisis”, forget the essence. Many issues related to the “Belarusian crisis” are being discussed in the international community, including us, Lithuanians: sanctions, support to victims, release of political prisoners, investigation of OMON crimes, provision of financial support to Belarus. However, in this multiplicity of various larger and smaller issues, two essential things must not be forgotten: 1) Lukashenko lost the election; 2) New elections must be held immediately, not “at some time later on”. Bellow, I will try to set out some of the provisions that Lithuania, together with its Western partners, should follow in those international organizations to which Lithuania belongs and which can effectively help the people of Belarus to defend their victory in the democratic revolution. These are the provisions that Lithuania should adhere to, first, in the structures of the European Union and the OSCE. These are certainly not some comprehensive provisions of any kind of systemic strategy, but the most relevant ones for the international community, Lithuania and the Belarusian society in the next few months.
5 NOVEMBER AND LUKASHENKO
Belarus lives under the current “Lukashenko Constitution”. It stipulates that the term of office of the President shall last for 5 years. Lukashenko’s current term will end on 5 November, as it began on 5 November 2015, when Lukashenko took the oath during his inauguration. It is not worth arguing that the 2015 elections were legitimate (as such a debate will only divert attention from key issues), but it is worth making it clear that Lukashenko is currently the President who lost 9 August elections in terms of international law and whose term of office expires on 5 November. After 5 November, Belarus will not have a President for some time. Article 81 of the current Constitution of Belarus calls such a situation “when the office of President is vacant” (“Если должность Президента оказалась вакантной”) and provides that in this case extraordinary Presidential elections must be held no earlier than 30 days and no later than 70 days after such vacancy had occurred. After 5 November, Lukashenko will be an ordinary Belarusian citizen who can be called the “former President of Belarus.” If Lukashenko will try to organize an illegal and fictitious “new inauguration” before 5 November and will try to stay in the post of President after 5 November, it will be nothing more than an illegal usurpation of power, perhaps even using military force. From the point of view of international law and Belarusian national law, this should be treated as an armed coup.
It is worth realizing now, that after 5 November there will be no “President Lukashenko” in terms of international law. There will only be either “former President” or “coup d’etat Lukashenko”. This means that any dialogue or negotiation with Lukashenko will no longer be possible: it will either any longer make sense or it will be illegal. In addition, the existence of a “coup d’etat Lukashenko” will have a number of other international consequences (diplomats, agreements, contracts, etc.) that Lithuania and the international community must begin to consider now. According to Article 89 of the Constitution of Belarus, in the event that the office of President is vacant, the Prime Minister of the country shall hold the office temporarily (until new elections are held). After 5 November, the international community will have to negotiate with the Prime Minister of Belarus on how to ensure that genuinely democratic and transparent new presidential elections are held no later 70 days after 5 November.
BRUSSELS, BERLIN, WASHINGTON – AND MOSCOW
In matters of the “Belarusian crisis”, the international community clearly falls into two camps: Western democracies (including Lithuania) show solidarity with the Belarusian society, which won the democratic revolution, while Putin does not hide his support for the Lukashenko regime. At the same time, Putin’s support for Lukashenko is becoming the only factor why Lukashenko is still holding on to the post. Putin himself, as a dictator like Lukashenko, has many reasons for doing so, but in any case, Putin’s long-term support for “toxic” Lukashenko may turn Putin himself “toxic” in the eyes of Belarusians. It is not surprising to us, to Western leaders, or to the Belarusians themselves, that Putin is holding the keys to the door of Lukashenko’s withdrawal. Lukashenko himself became a fully-fledged vassal of the Kremlin during the 26 years of his reign. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Western leaders are calling on Lukashenko’s host, Putin, and are negotiating with him, rather than with Lukashenko, on the issue of Lukashenko’s withdrawal. It is also quite clear that Putin is trying to draw his “red lines” in such negotiations on the geopolitical future of Belarus after Lukashenko. The Western community and its leaders, in solidarity with the people of Belarus, must adhere to clear rules in such talks with Putin: they can negotiate on how Putin shall persuade the defeated Lukashenko to resign peacefully, but the geopolitical future of Belarus will be decided and negotiated by the new democratic Belarus itself, rather than by the West-Putin agreement reached without the participation of Belarus’s legal representatives. Following Putin’s latest statements about “reserve” OMON support the Kremlin is prepared to provide to the Lukashenko regime, the West must also be ready to see more and more critical posters towards Putin start appearing not only on the streets of Khabarovsk but also on the streets of Minsk. The posters perhaps may feature the question: “Mister Putin – who are you with Lukashenko or the People of Belarus? I have written before, that revolutionary changes in Belarus are becoming a “trap” for Putin. Putin has no good way out of this trap. The West must be prepared for the development, that Putin’s own stance on Belarus may influence a radical change in the orientation of Belarusian society: rapid frustration with Russia’s stance and growing sympathy for the West. Therefore, the longer Putin demonstrates his “friendship” with Lukashenko’s toxic regime, the fewer opportunities the Kremlin will have to hybrid-influence Belarus’s political processes and post-Lukashenko elections. The example of Ukraine shows that Putin can be “thanked” for uniting Ukraine on a pro-Western agenda since 2014, and because of that the Kremlin is still unable to regain any significant hybrid leverage to significantly influence Ukrainian policy.
Lithuania, for its part, must already formulate a clear position for the Western partners set out above: after 5 November, Lukashenko will remain only an ordinary “former President”, otherwise he will become a “Lukashenko of coup d’etat”. In any case, it will make no sense nor will be right to have a dialogue or negotiate with him.
THE ROLE OF THE OSCE
There is a growing recognition in the West that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is best placed to take action to address the current “crisis in Belarus”. Primarily because its members are both the West and the East from Vilnius, Berlin and Washington to Moscow and Minsk. OSCE is the only political organization on the European continent of which Belarus is a member. The extent to which the current OSCE is ready to address the “Belarus crisis” remains the subject of further discussions. It is well known that at least the OSCE election observation body ODIHR is able to do its job effectively. It is an easy guess that Russia, also a member of the OSCE, will try to use the OSCE’s role in favour of the Lukashenko regime, that is, to delay time. Therefore, the West, including Lithuania, together with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, representing the democratic society of Belarus, and its Coordinating Council should formulate a clear position – the role of the OSCE in resolving the “Belarusian crisis” is needed only for transparent and democratic elections; the entire organization (from the setting up of new commissions to the effective monitoring of voting) should be taken over by the ODIHR. It would be a mistake to enter into an indefinite OSCE negotiation process that negotiates any unclear processes of transitional periods or power shift from Lukashenko to the new democracy. Because it could simply become a new “Minsk process”, in which, as in the case of the war against Ukraine, the Kremlin will raise new and new conditions, but will not take any action that depends solely on the Kremlin.
NO! – TO THE LUKASHENKA/LAVROV PLAN: A NEW CONSTITUTION IN THE BEGINNING, INSTEAD OF NEW ELECTIONS
One of the questions to be answered immediately, in particular, by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Coordinating Council is their view of the plan announced by Lukashenko and promoted by Lavrov and Putin – that Lukashenko will initially draft a new Constitution for Belarus, and only once it has been adopted new elections will be held. Lukashenko makes no secret that such an action could go on for the duration of the next few years. It is quite clear that the Kremlin will seek to turn this procrastination plan into an OSCE-based plan. Lithuania should clearly state its position that such a plan is completely unacceptable. Not Lukashenko, who lost the election, will decide on the new draft Constitution. The Coordinating Council formed by Tsikhanouskaya has made a similar statement: new transparent elections will be held immediately at first, followed by a national referendum proposing a return of the democratic Constitution of Belarus, which was in force until 1994. It is worth repeating these provisions clearly and loudly over and over again so that it also reaches the offices of Western leaders, who must be properly prepared to resist the “constitutional pitfalls” of Lukashenko/Lavrov in negotiations with Putin, designed just to delay time.
LITHUANIA AND THE EU: MARSHALL PLAN FOR DEMOCRATIC BELARUS
Lithuania, together with Poland, is legally recognized as the most active supporter of democratic change in Belarus among EU members. The Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius deserved such an assessment with their statements and actions, and the same goes to journalist and public activist Andrius Tapinas (organizer of the “Freedom Way”) and 50,000 Lithuanians, who united themselves to form a human chain of solidarity on the Freedom Way on 23 August. However, such an assessment is not only a recognition but also a huge responsibility. A responsibility that requires of us not only the ability to maintain the leadership, but also the ability to strategically plan for the future for at least few years in advance and the most difficult challenges facing a new, democratic Belarus. It requires preparing already now, seriously and effectively, both for ourselves and for the EU as a whole, to help the new Belarus respond to these challenges. I have already written that one of the most difficult challenges will be the affairs of the Belarusian economy, which is completely dependent on Russia (and thus on the Kremlin). I will not repeat all the arguments as to why the most important thing in the near future will be to help the Belarusian economy become more diversified and, at the same time, less dependent on Russia. However, in order to achieve this, the European Union will have to provide not only EUR 50 million in support (which is now much talked about), but much bigger support package of EUR 3.5-4 billion, which could also be called the Marshall Plan for Democratic Belarus. Lithuania, together with Poland, should take the initiative for the EU to start preparing such a Marshall Plan now. News of such a Plan would help today as well: it would counter the propaganda and intimidation of the Lukashenko regime that new elections and real democracy in Belarus would be very detrimental to the Belarusian economy. The European Union should not be afraid to draw a clear distinction: if the Kremlin promises to lend one billion to support the Lukashenko regime, then the EU is ready to support the democratic economy of Belarus with billions of the Marshall Plan. However, in order to take the lead in implementing such an EU initiative, Lithuania should already provide not only moral or political asylum support to the democracy of Belarus, but also needs to show its solidarity with real financial commitments. Poland has announced that it will provide 50 million zloty in support of democracy in Belarus (about EUR 12 million), while Lithuania has not yet spoken about the similar commitments. It is quite difficult to understand why, at a time when the Government this year is spending billions to the left and right, one or two million are difficult to find to support democracy in Belarus, not only nice political statements. I am convinced that Seimas would support such a proposal of the Government by an absolute majority of votes.
The fate of the Belarusian democracy is being decided on the streets of Minsk. I firmly believe that the victory of democracy will prevail. My optimism stems not only from faith in and admiration for the new civic Belarusian nation but also from a clear understanding that change in Belarus is driven by objective historical processes: the continued collapse of the Soviet/Russian Empire and its post-imperial spheres of influence as well as the end of post-Soviet authoritarian leaders. The changes that are taking place in Belarus are objective, based on natural laws of history and no one can stop them. Somebody may try to delay these historical processes by shedding the blood of peaceful people, but they will fail to stop them. Lithuania’s task is not only to directly help and show solidarity with a democratic Belarus. Lithuania’s task is also to be the most effective advocate and lobbyist for a democratic Belarus in a democratic Western community, where there is still too little understanding of the historical processes taking place in the post-Soviet space and too much desire not to irritate “the wild” Putin, who is poisoning his opponents.