Is Lukashenka about to introduce martial law?
On 13 August, the Belarusian authorities stopped deploying special riot police against presidential election protesters. This move appeared to be a step toward a peaceful solution. Yet in two phone conversations with Vladimir Putin this weekend, Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka returned to militant rhetoric. He announced that in the event of further escalation, Putin had promised him assistance, including military support. Today, Russian mainstream media reported of Russian troops being moved to the Belarusian border.
Minsk has mobilised all of its security agencies to counter the election protests as never before, including deploying the army for the very first time. It oscillated between arresting Russian mercenaries, blaming Russia for the trouble and requesting Russian assistance; between making gestures to the West (such as returning the ambassador to Washington) and accusing the West of everything. As Belarusian security agencies begin to overstretch, the introduction of martial law seems probable. After all, the loyalty of state security apparate decides the fate of all governments.
Election as a War Campaign
In recent years, the Belarusian leadership has increasingly viewed domestic issues in terms of security. Speaking on 16 July in Vitsebsk, state secretary Andrei Raukou announced that the deployment of armed forces within the country would be carried out in accordance with the new military doctrine adopted in 2018.
Mr Raukou revealed that the army now follows not the published 2016 doctrine, but another secret document. Apparently reproducing its contents, Raukou warned that present day armed conflicts start with street demonstrations. Addressing the Special Operations Forces of the Belarusian army, he explained:
we are [all] one security tool. Not only the armed forces but also the police, the riot police, the internal troops, border guards and other security agencies. Our task is to prevent the death of the state. Prevent bloodshed. … all this will begin (if it starts) secretly, quietly, with the organisation of mass riots, which you are now noticing and observing. Moreover, external forces are involved in this.
Indeed, as early as May this year, two mid-level Belarusian government officials speaking independently to Belarus Digest told of plans to deploy the army if needed for the election. Such hard-line scenarios began to appear ever more realistic as the campaign proceeded. The arrests of leading opposition candidates Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka, even before their registration, showed that Lukashenka would take no chances.
This trend became more obvious in June-July after the Belarusian president toured all special operations units: the 38th brigade in Brest, 103rd brigade in Vitsebsk, and 5th Brigade near Minsk. He also visited the key 3214th Unit of Internal troops usually deployed in Minsk. After Belarus has reformed its army, special forces, alongside some other units – in total, about 15,000 men – were chosen to become a core of a new, compact and mobile military and received better financing and equipment.
These activities of Belarusian leader stood in stark contrast to his minimal campaigning among the population this time: not even the favourite Lukashenka’s public event before every election – an “All-Belarusian Congress” was held. In his focus on military he looked as an odd epigone of Mao who once proclaimed “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The goal was to ensure troop loyalty and engender their support in following orders after the election, as was made clear in his speech on 28 July to the 3214th Unit. For example, Lukashenka promised the soldiers:
The priorities in providing housing in the next five years will be as follows: a) families with three and more children; b) military personnel. We shall do everything to make your life better.
Learning from the 2010 Election
It was the Belarusian leader himself who revealed most of his war preparations. While meeting on 24 July with the 5th Special Forces Brigade, Lukashenka announced:
When I had to determine, which armed forces do we need, especially after 2010 [the election accompanied by massive protest actions – author], I realised that we need to have as a reserve some qualified fighters and units in our armed forces. It is undesirable that we resort to armed forces. But everything is possible. The US provides an example.
On 30 July, Minsk took an unusual step – ordering border guards troops to strengthen border control and to tighten control regime on all borders, including those with Russia – though the latter remained porous. On the border with Ukraine, more personnel were deployed. In all probability, these measures were also directed at preparing border guards for deployment in case of trouble after the vote. That much is evident from the actions of the border guards to secure administrative buildings in Pinsk, a larger city in the south, after the election.
Probably with the intention of making the point about possible army intervention in political confrontation even more pronounced, on 1 August Special Operations Forces celebrated their traditional Paratroopers day with an impressive show of force in the centre of Minsk. This even caused rumours that a part of 103rd Brigade had been deployed from Vitsebsk to Minsk for the election.
On the Verge of Martial Law?
Minsk began considering the deployment of armed forces in the streets of Minsk after its finer security tools failed miserably. On 6 August, after mercenaries from the notorious Russian Wagner private military company were detained in the vicinity of Minsk, Lukashenka lashed out during a conference between the heads of security agencies at ‘provocateurs’ planning to disrupt the election. He sounded militant but desperate:
We do not know what they are up to. We do not even know who they are. Whether they are Americans and NATO, or somebody from Ukraine or our Eastern brothers are showing their ‘love’ this way – we do not even know … we shall expect nasty things from any side.
Despite preparations, following the election, the government has so far avoided mass military deployment. Only a few soldiers of the 38th Brigade were deployed to protests in Brest. Last week police and other security agencies were largely withdrawn, with eyewitnesses reporting that they have ceased many of their usual functions in urban areas. This has led many to be concerned over a potential rise in crime. The withdrawal probably was a forced step, but it could potentially pave the way for the government to use the resulting chaos as a pretext to introduce martial law.
One crucial decision reinforces this idea. On Saturday, Lukashenka ordered the 103rd brigade to move from its base in Vitsebsk, where the protests were relatively small, to Hrodna, which became one of the centres of opposition activity during the election. Officially, the relocation was justified as a measure to close the border, despite the fact that the western borders of Belarus are well fortified and hardly need more personnel.
Finally, given the continuing strikes and street demonstrations, the Belarusian authorities are conspicuously silent on a possible compromise, although they cannot continue business as usual either. Hence, introducing martial law becomes a very probable move in the next week or two.
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The potential ‘anschluss’ by Russia: will Belarus resist?
On 5 April 2019, the Russian Ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich informed that Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin agreed to conduct further consultations on the inter-state integration. However, both Belarusian and Russian media continue discussing the possibility of the Belarusian ‘anschluss’ by Russia.
Moscow believes that Belarusians do not want to lose its independence, but if an attempt is made to include Belarus into Russia by force, the Belarusian uniformed services will not offer resistance and there will be no strong opposition from Belarusian society. Indeed, the failure of the Belarusian authorities to conduct a proper ‘Belarusization’ has resulted in the generally passive attitude from the Belarusians toward the potential Russian threat.
Any grounds for the Belarusian ‘anshcluss’?
The inclusion of Belarus into Russia, among other things, in order to enable Putin to run for president of Russia in 2024, is a scenario that strikes imagination. In early 2019, Russian media began discussing the subject of Putin remaining President of Russia after 2024. The Russian Constitution stipulates that “one and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms”.
Putin could have taken the post of Russia’s prime minister in 2024, essentially appointing a president who was loyal to him, a controlled person, and then returning to the presidency in 2030. However, in 2030 he will be 78 years old. According to some Russian experts, Putin can solve the problem of 2024 by merging Belarus with Russia, which would allow him to run for president of the all-new Russian state.
Many in the Russian expert community believe that the Belarusian uniformed services will not resist the ‘anschluss’ attempt. There will be no resistance on the part of Belarusian society. The Belarusians do not want Belarus to be merged with Russia. However, there is a very big difference between not wanting it and fighting for independence, being ready to die for it and kill Russian soldiers.
In fact, Belarus has no army capable of rendering any resistance in the event of Russia’s aggression. The army is an organic part of society. Some of the Western experts note that the Belarusian nation and the Belarusian national self-consciousness have been being formed under Lukashenko. This is a disputable statement.
The authorities do not interfere with the activities of civil initiatives aimed at popularizing the Belarusian language and forming a cultural and historical identity. However, the authorities themselves have been making contradictory steps. A step forward, as a rule, is followed by a step in the opposite direction.
The ugly face of the pro-governmental ‘Belarusization’
Billboards with slogans such as “We are Belarusians!”, “For Belarus!” were placed in towns. In the streets and along roads, one can often see billboards with social advertisement where the Belarusian language is used.
However, in most schools, schoolchildren receive education in Russian: all subjects, except for the Belarusian language, are taught in Russian. The Belarusian language is often taught as a foreign language: students are taught to understand it but do not to speak it.
In Homiel, the second largest city in Belarus with a population of over 0.5 million, there is one gymnasium in which several classes study in Belarusian. In Hrodna, thirteen students are taught in Belarusian. This training is provided in two secondary schools. In Vitsiebsk, there is no single class with the Belarusian as the language of instruction.
In Mahiliou, a city of over 380,000 people, only one schoolgirl is studying in Belarusian. In the provincial district towns (there are 118 of them), there are only two schools with the Belarusian language of instruction.
In higher education institutions, the Russian language is normally used. After graduating from school, a Belarusian citizen faces only one situation when he needs to fill out a document in the Belarusian language – when filling the passport application. In all other cases, a person can use the language he masters much better than the Belarusian – the Russian.
If a person does not have any Belarusian-speaking friends, then he hears the Belarusian language seldom – on television or radio. With age, his understanding of the language is worsening; he quickly forgets the rarely used words. The vast majority do not speak Belarusian. Belarusian society under Lukashenko is a Russian-speaking society in which Belarusian-speaking people are a minority.
Russian media domination continues
According to a study conducted by journalists of the web portal nn.by, programs of Russian production represent 80% of the content of the Belarusian state television channel ONT; the share of Belarusian production is 10%, and the Western production (American and European movies) is 10%. Apparently, the other state television channels have similar proportion.
The state censorship does not allow the broadcast of Russian TV shows which are critical towards the Belarusian authorities. However, a significant part of Belarusian society receives information about what is happening outside Belarus from the Russian TV channels’ shows and news bulletins. A significant part of Belarusian society looks at the world through the prism of Russian TV channels, and these people are more and more under the cultural influence of Russia.
In 2015, the Belarusian public was alarmed by the war in Ukraine. The opinion was widespread that destabilization of political situation would cause the appearance of Russian “green people”. Nevertheless, according to the results of a public opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists in October 2014, 67.8% of Belarusians supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia. About 20% spoke against it.
18% of the respondents said that they fully trusted the Russian media, 55.4% trusted them partially. Only 17.3% of respondents said that they did not trust the Russian media.
In conclusion, the importance of building a Belarusian cultural-historical identity cannot be underestimated. So far, the official discourse has not properly answered the question “Who are the Belarusians?”, only the President once remarked that “the Belarusians are the Russians with a quality mark.”
As a consequence, Belarusians have become extremely prone to the influence of Russian propaganda and the narratives of the ‘Russian world’. As Belarus-Russia relations get more complicated, the general weakness of national identity of Belarusians poses serious questions in the sphere of national security for the Belarusian state.