Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 18 called on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to start a dialogue with the opposition. The proposal was, however, quickly knocked back by the opposition in exile. It said it could not be considered unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first, Reuters reported.
"We know the situation in Belarus has calmed down, inside the country, but still there are problems, we're perfectly aware of that," Putin said in a speech to foreign policy officials in Moscow.
"And of course we appeal for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. But for its part, Russia will definitely continue its approach of strengthening ties and deepening the process of integration with Belarus.”
Putin’s remarks caused surprise, as he has so far backed Lukashenko, who came close to being ousted at the end of the first month of protests last year in the wake of the fixed presidential election. Lukashenko only survived thanks to Putin’s intervention, in which he said that he would send Russian forces to support the Lukashenko regime “if necessary”. That was enough to shore up Lukashenko’s position and allow him to retake the initiative.
It is widely assumed that the Kremlin wants to see Lukashenko go, but wants to manage the process and replace him with a Moscow-controlled proxy. As bne IntelliNews reported last December, there is strong evidence that the Kremlin is creating its own political parties in Belarus, which could be installed to give Russia a pliant domestic powerbase in the country.
At the same time, Russia has insisted on changes to the Belarusian Constitution – something that Lukashenko himself has suggested – that would dilute the powers of the president. This would amount to another possible solution to defuse the worst political crisis to grip Belarus since it became independent in 1991.
However, Lukashenko has dragged his heels on submitting draft proposed changes. From what is known of his intentions, it seems that he intends to include the All People’s Assembly in the Constitution. The Assembly is currently a powerless consultative body, but Lukashenko could make himself head of it as a way to retain power.
Wearying of antics
In this context, Putin’s suggestion that Lukashenko talk directly with the opposition is surprising and suggests that the Kremlin is wearying of Lukashenko’s antics in the wake of the international incident the strongman has engineered by flying in thousands of migrants from the Middle East and facilitating their attempts to cross the border into the EU.
As bne IntelliNews contributor Anna Arutunyan has written, the Kremlin increasingly sees supporting Lukashenko as a “chore” and one that it is tiring of. At the same time, bne IntelliNews columnist Mark Galeotti has suggested that the Poland border crisis could accelerate the ousting of Lukashenko by Russian hands. There are reports that some in Russia’s security establishment are starting to regret backing Lukashenko.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya responded to Putin’s suggestion for talks on Twitter, saying: “I welcome calls for dialogue in Belarus. But no ‘dialogue’ for the sake of it. Dialogue must lead to the transition of power & permanent democratic changes in Belarus. And I believe that those behind bars must be part of this dialogue. Therefore, they must be released immediately.”
Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei, a leading presidential candidate, was one of the first opposition leaders to be arrested just before the August 9 presidential elections. He was charged with inciting riots and given a lengthy jail sentence. Ex-banker Viktor Babariko, who was a front-runner candidate to win the presidential elections, was also arrested and given a lengthy sentence on embezzlement charges.
Tikhanovskaya herself was driven into exile in the Baltic states with her small children just days after rioting broke out in Minsk following the disputed election outcome. Those opposition figures that remained in Minsk set up the Coordinating Council specifically to negotiate with the Lukashenko administration on a transitional government, but Lukashenko has refused to recognise the body. In the meantime, almost all of its members have either fled into exile or have been thrown in jail on trumped up charges.
"Reportedly, Putin has just called on [Lukashenko] to start the dialogue with the opposition," commented Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to Tikhanovskaya. "However, before this dialogue happens, we must make sure this dialogue doesn't take place in prison. All political prisoners must be released as a pre-condition, and violence must end.”