Monday, February 27, 2017

Putin Would Be a Loser at Home and Abroad If He Invaded Belarus, Matskevich Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – Some in Belarus speculate that Alyaksandr Lukashenka may have sold out his country to Vladimir Putin during his ten days in Sochi, but that overstates Moscow’s possibilities and underestimates the way in which such a Russian action might play into the Belarusian dictator’s hands, according to Vladimir Matskevich.

            In an interview with the EuroBelarus portal, the Belarusian philosopher says that Moscow has enormous leverage over Minsk because of Belarus’ dependency on and debt to Russia.  But Russia can’t press the debt issue too hard or Lukashenka will turn to the West (eurobelarus.info/news/policy/2017/02/27/vladimir-matskevich-lukashenko-kak-nikomu-drugomu-vygodna-ugroza.html).

                Moscow could, Matskevich says, try to insist on the tighter integration of Belarus into the so-called union state, but “Lukashenka understands very well what [that] would mean: the end of sovereignty and the swallowing up of Belarus.” He can’t do that willingly because it would lead his own loss of office or the explosion of popular anger against him in Belarus.

            “In such a contradictory situation,” the Belarusian scholar says, “the only real way out would be a short victorious war for Russia,” one intended to force Belarus to enter the Russian Federation.”  But such a war would unlikely to be short or victorious for Moscow: Lukashenka would rally his people to himself and both would become even more anti-Russian.

            Moreover, he continues, “the problem is not even in the reaction of the international community” but rather in that “Russian society would not understand such aggressive actions by the Kremlin against Belarus. If the Georgian war, Crimea and the Donbass generated an upsurge of enthusiasm in Russia, a war with Belarus would not.”

            In short, he argues, both Moscow and Minsk have interests in playing up the threat of violence but not in violence itself. Moscow hopes to intimidate Lukashenka without the costs of an invasion, and Lukashenka hopes to shift the blame for the problems he has created onto Moscow and thus save his position.

            Those parallel calculations, Matskevich argues, explain some of what one is seeing in the Russian and Belarusian state media now.  But it is far from clear how long such a game is sustainable.  “Resistance, spontaneous and not very spontaneous protests are growing in Belarus,” and that frightens both Lukashenka and the members of his regime.

            Minsk officials are now talking about how they might reduce the pressure they are feeling from the population, but they increasingly recognize that “the usual methods (increasing pay and cutting taxes” are now “impossible” and that they will have to make “some political concessions,” something Lukashenka wants to avoid.

            In this situation, he says, “the powers that be may initiate certain reforms, cosmetic at least to begin with.” The regime now realizes it needs an opposition, if only to channel protests in ways that will not threaten it.  And there are some in the opposition who might be willing to go along and become a “systemic” opposition in Belarus.

            What all this means, Matskevich concludes, is that in the immediate future, Lukashenka will likely increase tensions “on the Russian front” and “loosen the screws within Belarus.”  But in such a complicated situation, Lukashenka might agree to almost anything with Moscow if he can be assured that he will keep his job.

            To the extent that other Belarusians reach that conclusion, Lukashenka will have even more difficulty in generating support for himself, something that could open the way either for a Russian move or a further deepening of the Belarusian revolution – or, as often happens in such murky situation, both at once.

Belarusian Revolution Wins Important Victory at Kuropaty



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – When an ancien regime begins to pull back in the face of popular demands, that represents a defeat for the former and a victory for the latter -- even if those in power calculate they can regroup and make a comeback.  That is because such successes for the protesters are something they won’t forget even if there is a new crackdown.

            Today, Belarusian protesters won an important if admittedly “a small victory” of that kind, one out of which larger ones will come: Those despoiling Belarus’ holiest site, the Kuropaty mass graves, say they won’t work and are pulling out their construction equipment from the site (svaboda.org/a/28334191.html and https://charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/27/242159/).

            Their pullback occurred on the eighth day of demonstrations against new construction there, demonstrations that have been overshadowed by mass protests the last two weekends in the major cities of Belarus. But there is a compelling reason to believe that the Kuropaty protests may threaten the Lukashenka dictatorship even more than protests against the vagrants tax.

            And it is this: Kuropaty, the site of the mass murder of Belarusians in Stalin’s time, since its discovery in 1988, has stimulated the rise of Belarusian nationalism, a collective sense that the Belarusian people have been the victims of Soviet Russian imperialism and must take responsibility for their own nation into their own hands.

            Lukashenka tried to hijack that feeling, but as BelarusPartisan points out, there are ten important reasons why Kuropaty which is sacred to the memory of Belarusians must be defended in their first instance against the current regime.  And those reasons are helping to recast the protests against the vagrants tax into a national movement against the Minsk dictator.

            Among those reasons are the following: Kuropaty is “the place of a Soviet genocide,” it is “the main argument for de-communization,” it is “the beginning of the Belarusian state,” it is “the watershed between hypocrisy and truth,” it is “a place of reconciliation for Belarusians,” and it has secured their “international reputation” (belaruspartisan.org/politic/372214/).

            Meanwhile, there have been three other signs in the last 24 hours that the Belarusian protests are growing into a revolution.  First, the mass meetings in Belarusian cities are increasingly making political demands and not just calling for the repeal of the vagrants tax (svaboda.org/a/28333248.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/26/242125/).

            The meeting in Baranovichei yesterday, for example, called for reducing the pension age, replacing transportation taxes, and transforming the country into a parliamentary republic, a step that would in effect leave Lukashenka a figurehead if he were able to remain in office at all. As one participant put it, Belarusians are no longer prepared to tolerate the existing system.

            Second, as happens in almost all revolutionary situations, there emerge out of the crowds new leaders who may have greater influence than any of the dissidents or opposition politicians from the pre-revolutionary period. One such individual is a 38-year-old kindergarten worker named Svetlana Botvich (vkurier.by/87798 and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/27/242155/).

            Not herself subject to the vagrants tax and never a participant in earlier demonstrations, Botvich has emerged as what the local media call “the Joan of Arc” of these protest because of her outspokenness and anger. In the last few days, she has said that she sees injustice all around as a result of Lukashenka’s policies and “I do not intend to keep quiet.” 

            And third, rural residents in Belarus are beginning to withhold payment to the government for communal services. That is a measure of their anger, and it will deprive Lukashenka of yet more income (vitvesti.by/ekologiia/menshe-poloviny-vladeltcev-chastnykh-domov-v-selskoi-mestnosti-zakliuchili-dogovory-na-vyvoz-musora.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/27/242149/).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

List of Kremlin-Linked Deaths Since Nemtsov’s Murder Continues to Lengthen



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 26 – Today, many people around the world will be commemorating the second anniversary of the murder of opposition Russian politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin, but it doing so, they should not forget all the other journalists, opposition figures or those who “knew too much” who have died since that time, Kseniya Kirillova says.

            Appended to her recollections about Aleksandr Shchetinin, the Russian-Ukrainian journalist behind the Novy Region-2 portal who died in mysterious circumstances the day before Nemtsov was killed is a list of those who have died in the intervening period in what appear to be somewhat mysterious circumstances (charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/24/241934/).

            Kirillova notes that this is “only an incomplete list” of “the large number of strange deaths, sudden suicides, and unsolved murders” during this two-year period alone.  It includes the following:

·         Mikhail Lesin, a Moscow propagandist found death in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2015. The local coroner ruled his death an accident but that hasn’t answered “a multitude of questions” about what actually happened.

·         Vlad Kolesnikov, a young Russian who committed suicide on December 25, 2015 after being persecuted for his support of Ukraine. As Kirillova writes, he may have died by his own hand, but it would be wrong to call him anything but “a victim of Putin’s Russia.”

·         Aleksandr Shushukin, the deputy commander of Russia’s air strike forces who took part in the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea, was pronounced dead on December 27, 2015, “from a heart attack.”

·         Igor Sergun, head of the GRU, died of a coronary on January 3, 2016. He lead the Crimean Anschluss and also in June 2013 organized the visit of now ex-US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to Moscow.

·         Nikita Kamayev, former director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency connected with the athletic dopinc scandal, unexpectedly died on February 14, 2016, again reportedly of a heart attack. His death took place less than two weeks after the death of Vyacheslav Sinev, another former head of the same organization.

·         Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian and Russian opposition journalist, was killed when his car exploded on July 20, 2016.

·         Arseny Pavlov (“Motorola”), a leader of the Donbass militants, died of an explosion in the elevator of his own home. Shortly before that, other separatist commanders, including Pavel Dremov and Aleksandr Bednov were also “liquidated.”

·         Oleg Yerovinkin, a senior official at Rosneft who had been head of the secretariat of Russian vice prime minister Igor Sechin in 2008-2012, died of a heart attack at the end of December 2016. His death appeared suspicious not only because he was linked ot the man who prepared the anti-Trump dossier but also because it coincided with the arrest of Russian cyber security experts on charges of spying for the Americans.

·         Valery Bolotov, former DNR militant leader, died in Moscow at the end of January 2017 ofa  heart attack.

·         Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”), another Donbass militant, died on February 8, 2017.

·         Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, died of a heart attack on February 20, 2017.

            Moreover, there were other cases in which it appears efforts to kill someone fortunately failed, the most prominent of these being the case of opposition journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza who was poisoned on February 2, 2017, but who survived and has now emigrated.

            This list, the US-based Russian journalist says, includes “not just opposition figures and journalists, but defectors, informers, potential informers, loyal but excessively fanatic militants and those who simply ‘knew too much.’” It may even include some who just happened to die in exactly the ways the Moscow media have suggested.