Belarus: Regime Change Target

[A note on names. People did not like the Belarusian spelling Lukashenka that I used in my previous article. I did not use this spelling for any other reason than that I am used to spelling it that particular way. I have used the Russian spelling, Lukashenko, in this article to take this into account.]

[Another note on flags. For those who aren’t aware the opposition uses a different flag of Belarus to the government, referenced in the drawing above. The actual Belorussian flag is the one on the left (green and red). The flag used by the opposition is white-red-white.]

On the 17th April 2021, news broke of a planned coup against the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Russian intelligence released videos of the plotters discussing plans to eliminate the Belorussian leader during the 9th May Victory Parade. This failed coup, however, is far from the first attempt to have Lukashenko replaced. There has been more than one attempt to remove Lukashenko through the Colour Revolution method due to his rejection of privatisation and neoliberal economics. The 2020 presidential election created another opportunity for regime change operators to cultivate a protest movement against the result. However, it appears that this movement has failed, leaving only the possibility of a coup to remove Lukashenko.

The History of ‘Colour Revolutions’ In Belarus: A Story of Failure

Due to Aleksandr Lukashenko’s overwhelming election victory in 1994, Belarus maintained a quasi-Soviet economy despite the collapse of the USSR. The ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, such as large industrial plants, remained under state ownership. The Belorussian system maintained high levels of employment, stable jobs, and comparative income equality. Lukashenko’s policy contrasts with countries such as Ukraine, where neoliberal privatisation led to the creation of a class of oligarchs. Furthermore, Belarus has aligned more with Russia than the West geopolitically, although there is more nuance to Russian-Belorussian relations than portrayed in Western media. Thus, the West has long been hostile to Lukashenko’s government.

The Colour Revolution model has been employed by Western leaders to remove governments that resist their ideology and demands, particularly in the post-Soviet space. This model ensured pro-Western leaders came to power in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004 (the Orange Revolution) and 2014 (The EuroMaidan). This model has also been attempted in Belarus. The approach has been simple: back a particular candidate against Lukashenko in elections, claim that that candidate lost due to fraud, and attempt to use the ensuing street protests as a means by which to get rid of Lukashenko.

Prior to 2020, the clearest example of a Western regime change operation in Belarus took place in 2006, that is, shortly after the successes of other colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space. The 2006 elections were contested between Lukashenko and Aleksandr Milinkevich, a pro-Western, pro-economic liberalisation candidate. The West gave some backing to Milinkevich, both in terms of funding for ‘democracy promotion’ in the country and working with Milinkevich’s election team. The New York Times reported that:

The Bush administration, which has labeled Belarus the only “outpost of tyranny” left in Europe, spent $11.8 million last year on democracy promotion and plans to spend $12 million in 2006. The National Endowment for Democracy, the Congressionally financed nonprofit organization that promotes freedom overseas, is spending $2.2 million more on 49 grants related to the Belarus election.

The leaders of the democratic opposition of Belarus were there to discuss politics with Terry Nelson, the national political director of Bush-Cheney 2004. In that campaign, Nelson oversaw the president’s strategy of creating a vast get-out-the-vote network by organizing volunteers. “We have neighbors talking to neighbors, and that’s the way to win a close race,” he said at the time.

The official results of the election gave Lukashenko 84.4% of the vote whereas Milinkevich received only 6.2%. The opposition immediately called the election rigged. There is no evidence that Milinkevich won the election, though the margin of victory may have been exaggerated. For example, in this poll after the election 58.2% stated they voted for Lukashenko.

The protests after the election were dubbed the ‘Jeans’ or ‘Denim’ revolution, the term deriving from one person using denim as a flag. This term was not only designed to invoke other Colour Revolutions, such as the Orange Revolution and the Rose Revolution, but also the idea of Westernisation (denim is often associated with the West in post-Soviet countries). These protests took place between March 19-25, 2006. US funded pro-regime change outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) estimated the protests as being between 20,000-30,000 at the largest. These protests were able to be successfully dealt with by the government, including the use of arrests, and they did not at any point create a real threat to Lukashenko’s rule.

The 2020 Election: The Latest Attempt at Regime Change

The 2020 Belorussian election provided another opportunity to try to have Lukashenko removed through the colour revolution method. Lukashenko has broadly continued the same economic and geostrategic policies that caused the West to be hostile to his leadership.  

However, 2020 also offered another compelling reason to be rid of Lukashenko. As outlined in my previous article on Belarus, Lukashenko employed a limited response to Sars-Cov-2, rejecting lockdown policies as a solution. Furthermore, Lukashenko claimed in July 2020 that the International Monetary Fund demanded he carry out these policies, and he made clear that these terms for any loans were unacceptable to him.

Lukashenko stated:

The IMF continued to demand from us: bring forward quarantine, isolation and a curfew. What is this stupidity? We will not dance to anyone’s tune. The demands appear: you, they say, should do in Belarus what Italy did in the struggle with the coronavirus. God forbid, I do not want Belarus to repeat what happened in Italy. We have our own country and our own situation.

In terms of the reasons for his removal, Lukashenko is most analogous to President John Magufuli of Tanzania. Magufuli rejected the privatisation of mineral wealth as well as the Official Covid Narrative. Magufuli disappeared and then was pronounced dead several weeks later. He was replaced by Samia Suluhu Hassan, who seems to have the approval of Western capital and global institutions such as the World Economic Forum.

The mechanism for attempted regime change remained the ‘contested election’ model. The West’s candidate in the race was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, celebrated in the media as the ‘housewife taking on Lukashenko’. Tikhanovkaya claimed to have limited aims. The BBC stated that:

The women have no political programme, just one plea: vote for Svetlana to oust Mr Lukashenko then she’ll call fresh, fair elections and free all the political prisoners.

Now deleted webpages seem to show, however, that economic privatisation and joining the EU and NATO was part of the opposition’s agenda. It is also worthy of note that although Tikhanovskaya became a candidate due to the arrest or exile of other figures, she speaks excellent English, making her well positioned to deliver press conferences to a foreign audience.

The election took place on August 9, 2020. The official results showed a landslide win for Lukashenko, with 80% of the vote, Tikhanovskaya receiving 10%. The opposition claimed that the election was rigged, and that Belorussians should get out in the street to overturn the fraudulent result. The actual truth of the result is not the main concern of this article, although the Russian opposition outlet Golos states that in the 1310 polling places available for analysis, Lukashenko received 61.7% and Tikhanovskaya 25.4% (though they still believe this to be doubtful, they do not present any further evidence on the question).  

Regardless of the truth, there were significant protests after the election result. Looking to US regime change publication RFERL again, it refers to more than 20,000 people on August 14‘tens of thousands’ on August 13, but referred to the protests on the night of the election as ‘difficult to estimate’. The opposition also created a ‘co-ordinating council’ as a government in waiting. There were calls from Western leaders for Lukashenko to step down.

What is the evidence of Western involvement in Belarus? USAID, one of the key operators of the American regime change complex, has given funding to several ‘partners’ in 2019-2020 in order to undermine the Belorussian government. These include many organisations that are interconnected with the US state. For example, Freedom House was one of the organisations that received the most funding. This money went towards things such as ‘supporting a free media’ and ‘developing political parties’. Another key member of the regime change complex, the National Endowment for Democracy, gave out multiple grants in Belarus during 2019. This included, for example, $16,000 to ‘sponsor an independent periodical’ and $50,400 for ‘strengthening independent online media’. The EU has also announced funding for Belorussian activists. The EU announced back in November that they were going to be spending money on bloggers, ‘independent’ media, and students.

US ally Poland is also playing an important role in undermining the Belorussian government. According to Covert Action magazine, Poland “became the base for two popular Belarusian-language news channels which have been leading a propaganda onslaught on the government in Belarus.” One outlet, Nexta, appears to have some financial backing as it is able to produce a large amount of content despite allegedly being a grassroots operation run by four people. Some of the individuals involved in these media outlets have links to the far right. One individual, Roman Protosevich, has significant connections to the Ukrainian fascist movement, including personally taking part in the Maidan protests. There have also been allegations that Ukraine has been involved in promoting disorder in Belarus made by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov claims that 200 far right extremists from Ukraine have been carrying out provocations in Belarus, and that these individuals have been part of training camps for such purposes in Ukraine.

The West is also seeking to assert leverage over the country through the mechanism of sanctions. For example, the European Union has placed sanctions on Belorussian officials, putting a travel ban and freezing their economic resources. The UK and US also have sanctions regimes in place against Belarus. As of yet, it seems these sanctions have been largely focused on officials, but Biden recently announced he would be putting sanctions on 9 Belorussian firms, indicating a possible ramping up of pressure on the government. 

The End of the Colour Revolution and Plans for Murder

This regime change effort initially looked superficially promising for the West, due to the significant turnout at protests and persistence in the presence of protest events. However, the regime change effort has not been successful.

Lukashenko was able to deal with the protests through some use of repression. The members of the ‘Co-ordinating Council’, designed to transfer power from the Belorussian authorities to itself, were either arrested or fled abroad. There was never a point where the government was significantly weak to be at risk of collapse or overthrow. Nor have there been any divisions within the Belorussian authorities that could have benefited the protesters. The far right – vital in the success of the EuroMaidan coup – is less prominent in Belarus than Ukraine. There have also been some protest events in support of Lukashenko. Significant numbers of Belorussians are aware that Lukashenko’s replacement with a pro-Western candidate will likely lead to huge economic problems for their country, mass unemployment and the creation of a class of wealthy oligarchs.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya admitted that the protesters had ‘lost the streets’ after a decline in events in the beginning of 2021.

However, on the 17th April, there was a new development. Russian and Belorussian intelligence claimed to have foiled a coup planned for Victory Day, and Russian intelligence released video evidence of the plotters discussing having Lukashenko eliminated.

One of the videos, presumably recorded by a Russian bug, shows a meeting in Moscow, involving oppositionists Zyankovich and Feduta, along with figures believed to be Belorussian generals by Russian intelligence (an English transcript is available here).

In the clip, Zyankovich does most of the talking, outlining in detail what needs to be done to cause regime change:

Task number one is to eliminate the main leader [it is clarified later this means physical elimination]. Task number two is to block internal troops, to block OMON [riot police/anti-terrorist police]. Task number three is to occupy several symbolic locations in the city centre, in particular, radio station, television station, so that we can read out our address…and preferably – to block Minsk in order to prevent the bringing in of foreign troops.

How many people would need to be quickly interned is discussed, as well as the possibility of disrupting the power grid. They want to use their power to carry out reforms, such as judicial, constitutional, and within local government.

The plotters also show contempt for ordinary Belorussians, as Zyankovich states:

Our task is to transform society and the state. Because if now we were to hold an election, instead of Lukashenko, they will elect [another] Lukashenko, and we will still be in the same position in twenty-five years.

They even discuss possible ill-gotten gains belonging to ‘Our Sasha [Lukashenko]’ that they could ‘quietly take’ if available, and where they might be stored.

Other videos show Zoom meetings, where a possible transfer of power in Belarus is compared to the case of Anwar Sadat in Egypt (implying assassination). One of the alleged plotters in the Zoom meeting footage, Pavel Kulazhenko, stated that it was not a coup plan and it was simply a discussion about “the same things that are discussed every evening in every Belarusian family – how to speed up Lukashenko’s retirement.”

Lukashenko claims that the US Government is behind the attempted coup. While this claim is not proven, it does fit with past US behaviour of removing leaders that resist American hegemony. It is beyond doubt that the US would have immediately backed any post-Lukashenko regime that pivoted to the West.

It is also worthy of note that on the same date the coup plot was discovered by the Russians, the Czech government attempted to revive the Skripal narrative by bringing back Boshirov and Petrov, claiming that they were responsible for an ammunition dump explosion in 2014. The sheer ridiculousness of this story – for example, the idea that the Russian secret services just happened to deploy the same two agents for two completely different ‘missions’ – suggests that it was invented at short notice as a distraction from the coup story.

Conclusion

There is a concerted effort to have Aleksandr Lukashenko removed from power and replaced with a leader more pliant to capital. While claims from any leader and intelligence service cannot be taken at face value, and this applies as much to Russia and Belarus as it does the West, the evidence in this case makes it likely that the West is involved in fomenting discord against Lukashenko and possibly even in plotting his liquidation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s