Above photo: Svetlana Tikhanovskayas (center). AP.
Belarus’s political and social landscape grows more complex and precarious as time passes, with the aftermath of the recent election still unfolding. But what has already become apparent is that in this game of political chess, the people will not be winners. Because now-deleted webpages reveal opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya may be little more than a Western regime change puppet. And the end result will offer no solutions for ordinary Belarusians at all.
The situation in Belarus is extremely fluid. As of BST lunchtime on Friday 21 August, president Alexander Lukashenko was still refusing to back down, after winning a landslide victory in 9 August elections; a vote which many believe was rigged. Tikhanovskaya said in a press conference from Lithuania that people should continue to protest and strike. BBC News reported that:
“Allies of Ms Tikhanovskaya on the new opposition Co-ordination Council have been summoned to the Belarus Investigative Committee (SK), as they are now accused of an illegal power grab”.
There’s no question that Lukashenko is a dictator of colossal proportions. But it’s what and who that could replace him which is of concern.
My personal reading of the situation is that Tikhanovskaya would be a ‘bridging’ president before mainstream opposition politicians take charge. As the UK-based Independent reported, she became the opposition’s official candidate after:
“Election officials refused to register the three strongest challengers from the field. Out went Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the US, Viktor Babariko, a banker, and Sergei Tikhanovski [“Tikhanovskaya”, Svetlana’s husband], advertising entrepreneur and popular political blogger. The latter two were arrested and jailed for their troubles”.
Mrs Tikhanovskaya reportedly only has three political pledges: to free political prisoners; to change the constitution to something less authoritarian and to hold “democratic” elections within six months. That last part is key. As the Independent noted, she came to power after she:
“snapped to common language with Maria Kolesnikova, the head of Viktor Barbariko’s presidential campaign, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery, the other barred candidate. The basics of an agreement were hammered out in 15 minutes, and a full oral understanding in under a couple of hours.
“As the registered candidate, Ms Tikhanovskaya… [led] the campaign platform”.
In other words, it seems opposition leaders pushed her to the fore as an antidote to Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime. Tikhanovskaya says as much on her website. And you can see why. A former teacher turned “homemaker” she is relatable and real – the opposite of the incumbent. But Tikhanovskaya is also poles apart from the male, former opposition candidates (a diplomat, a banker and her husband, a seeming capitalist). What better person to lead this potential revolution than a woman of the people? The plan is fairly obvious, reading between the lines. As euronews reported, the election in six months Tikhanovskaya is pledging will be so:
“all the jailed opposition candidates can run”.
Herein lies the problem. Because while anything other than Lukashenko is preferable, it’s only marginally so. As the two main candidates are perfect for Western regime change.
Tsepkalo is essentially an anti-statist capitalist, believing in privatisation of state-owned property and a person obsessed with the power of home ownership. Big on IT and tech, he is credited with creating Belarus’s very own Silicon Valley and previously advised the UN on tech issues. Currently he is exiled in Russia, which is interesting given Putin’s cautious approach to Belarus’s situation. But now, his wife is attempting to garner financial support from the far-right, antisemitic Polish government along with the US – under the guise of that old regime change chestnut “civil society”. A right-wing corporatist? Quite possibly, but one who seems to be hedging his bets between Russia and the West.
Babariko is geopolitically just as curious, having headed-up the Belarus arm of Gazprom’s (therefore, Russian state-owned) bank for 20 years. His team reportedly made contact with Russian diplomats recently about the situation in Belarus. And his campaign representative Maria Kolesnikova has also hinted that Russia’s relationship with Belarus would remain stable. But IntelliNews described Babariko as:
“not anti-Russian at all. He is not pro-Russia either. He is simply pro-Belarus. This is a man that Moscow can work with.”
Much like Tsepkalo, Babariko and his team are likely hedging their bets, but also attempting to stop the EU-Russian stand-off escalating too much. Meanwhile, the EU seemingly has Babariko on its radar, too – calling in June for Belarusian authorities to release him from jail and allow him to stand in the election.
Tikhanovskaya’s husband is probably the least likely candidate to head-up a new government. With Babariko previously leading ‘independent’ polling before the election at 50%, it may well be him that eventually takes charge. So, if this happens – what direction would a revived and ‘democratic’ Belarus take? By all accounts and purposes, it would be an outlier for Western, corporate imperialism.
As the Unz Review reported (this is not an endorsement of views aired in sections of that website), a now-deleted linked page from Tikhanovskaya’s official campaign site sheds light on where any new government would be headed. The also deleted “reformby” pages (now deadlinks) were almost a manifesto of Tikhanovskaya’s “Coordination Council” coalition. But at the bottom was the statement:
“Site materials were created on the basis of documents of the platform ‘Reanimation package of reforms for Belarus.’”
“Reducing the Kremlin’s influence on Belarus through informational, economic, integration and humanitarian factors;
Leaving post-Soviet integration associations dominated by Russia;
Integration into Western political, economic and military structures (EU, NATO)”.
Assuming that Tikhanovskaya’s original website was a reflection of her and the oppositions leaders’ goals, the aim is to ‘Westernise’ Belarus and move away from Russia. But maybe the language originally used was too forthright, or too final – hence it’s deletion. All the opposition leaders appear to be sitting on the fence between Russia and the West at present.
But still, it is therefore of little wonder that the EU, US and UK are falling over themselves to support ‘democracy’ in Belarus – given that strategically it is so important to both them and Russia. As Reuters noted:
“Of all Russia’s former Soviet neighbours, Belarus has the closest political, economic and cultural relationship to Moscow, and its heavily fortified borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are major frontiers of NATO”.
It appears both Putin and the West are acutely aware of this situation, and probably have been for some time. For example, of note is an investigation by Declassified UK, which found that the British military has been supporting its Belarusian counterparts for quite some time. But it concluded that the reason for the UK’s involvement was one of ‘building bridges’ with Lukashenko but also intel-gathering on Russia.
I think this is a misnomer. It’s possible that UK intelligence was aware Lukashenko’s demise may be imminent, and it was more interested in having a foot-in with Belarus’s military in the event of any attempted coup or Russian interference.
Note also that without irony, the Coordinating Council’s now deleted webpage said:
“The Kremlin actively uses soft power methods: NGOs, thought factories, media, bloggers, social networks, exchanges and internships in Russia”.
These methods are actively used by Western governments, too – not least as I reported for The Canary, the UK’s public service broadcaster the BBC being used by government as a “soft power” force. Observing the BBC’s coverage of events in Belarus, it’s probably doing just that, now.
But herein lies the problem; the same one we have seen repeated time and time again, all over the world. The actual people of Belarus are left in a no-win situation. Either they put up and shut up with a dictator; are left at the hands of authoritarian crony-capitalist monster Putin, or succumb to the corporatist NeoCon-Liberal vultures of the West.
The situation in Belarus is markedly different to that during the soft, neo-fascist and Western NeoCon-led coup known as Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2014. But the principles are the same: a country, at the crossroads between the West and Russia, is caught up in a geopolitical game of chess. The people are the last thing on anyone’s minds. And as Ukraine has shown, neither Western nor Russian integration ever ends well.
Belarus is lurching towards a classic regime change scenario, with its citizens in an impossible situation. Unless true democracy is enacted, free of outside interference, then a future as a lapdog to multinational superpowers lies ahead. Whether that powers ends up being Russia or the West remains to be seen.
Steve Topple is an independent journalist and broadcaster. He specialises in issues surrounding disability, health, housing, class, economics and government. Permanently based at the groundbreaking The Canary as a broadcaster and writer, he has frequently contributed to the Independent (having covered Prime Minister’s Questions on a weekly basis for them), New Internationalist, the CommonSpace, Morning Star, openDemocracy, Red Pepper, Occupy and INSURGEIntel.