Belarusian Roulette: Lukashenko’s political games to save himself. Protests, mercenaries, and an alleged coup d’etat amid elections day.
By Nikita Triandafillidis
“Alexander Lukashenko faces the most difficult re-election bid since he took office in 1994. On August 9, this Sunday he will be confronted with the hardest challenge in his 26 years as the president of Belarus. To save himself.”
Russian mercenaries in Belarus. The latest political shock amid elections day
Alexander Lukashenko faces the most difficult re-election bid since he took office in 1994. On August 9, this Sunday he will be confronted with the hardest challenge in his 26 years as the president of Belarus. To save himself.
On July 31, the Belarus KGB security service arrested 33 Russian mercenaries allegedly plotting a coup d’etat to destabilize the country ahead of the presidential elections. The men were all members of the Wagner Group, a private militia firm that promotes Moscow’s interests in several countries around the globe. This adds to another twist in Lukashenko’s election campaign that has been rocked by massive anti-government protests and arrests of key rivals.
Russian mercenaries mixed with massive political protests
With the detention of the Russian mercenaries, Alexander Lukashenko found leverage to accuse top members of the opposition party of collaboration with the private militia group to destabilize the country. However, his accusations backfired on him.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Minsk backing up the novice politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya whose husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger was arrested alongside Mikola Statkevich, another critic of the Belarusian president. They were both accused of working with the Russian mercenaries to plot a coup d’etat ahead of the election day. At least 63,000 people took part in the protests according to the human rights organization Vyasna. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya herself, denied any of the accusations saying that all she wants and all of the Belarusian people are free elections. She questioned the timing of the arrests and why did the Belarus KGB wait until now to arrest the mercenaries.
Russia denies any accusations and demands the release of its citizens
The Kremlin has asked the Belarusian authorities to release the detained 33 Russian men and denied any accusations regarding the involvement to organize riots and political unrest amid the presidential elections this Sunday. In a statement by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, it was mentioned that these actions do not fit the parameters of allied relations and that all the 33 Russian citizens were confirmed to be employees of the Wagner Group, however, they were staying in Belarus temporarily before flying to Istanbul. It is only certain that the detention of the Russian mercenaries will create more tension in an already fragile Russia-Belarus romance.
What kind of game is Lukashenko playing?
With the presidential election in Belarus being 6 days away, it seems that Alexander Lukashenko is trying to hold on power and show his dominance over Belarus, a country in which he serves as president for 26 years now. However, with increasing cases of corona virus spreading throughout the country, with massive demonstrations against him in Minsk and with his popularity dropping it seems that the strongman of Belarus will need a scapegoat and the Russian mercenaries served him as a powerful pawn in the political chess arena.
Lukashenko is facing a united democratic opposition this Sunday and it seems that he is using the coup d’etat allegations against his political opponents who are being arrested for his benefit. However, as much as fragile are the relations between Lukashenko and Putin, Russian has no interest in seeing a political change in the country, especially since the opposition in Belarus seeks more independence from its former Soviet Union ally.
In the end, the most plausible explanation regarding these political games is the fact that Alexander Lukashenko is trying to get a message to his allies and political enemies. That he is the de facto leader of the country. Lukashenko is regularly being portrayed as a close ally of Russia but at the same time, he is trying to portray himself as the sole defender of Belarus independence from Russia. It is a tactic that has served him well for many years.
However, now it seems that he has decided to send signals to Moscow and his opponents by arresting the Russian mercenaries and start arresting political opponents. This action sends a message to Putin that Belarus is his ground and at the same time he shows his power domestically as the protector of Belarus.
We will have to wait until Sunday to witness if the political games will pay off for Alexander Lukashenko or if they will backfire on him. President Lukashenko will try to save himself in a game of Belarusian roulette where the odds are against him.