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Unrest in Belarus: Will Putin be next?

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The public revolt and violent state crackdown in Belarus looks like a harbinger of Russia’s future. The Belarusian government of President Alexander Lukashenko has been misnamed as the “last dictatorship in Europe.” In fact, that moniker belongs to the Putin regime, whose downfall could prove much more violent and internationally disruptive than that of Lukashenko.

Although Lukashenko claimed victory in Sunday’s elections, his days appear to be numbered. Massive election fraud and the violent crushing of peaceful protests cannot sustain any government where the mood and determination of ordinary people has dramatically shifted. Growing public unrest, protests and strikes can make Belarus ungovernable, and even the government and security forces may conclude that Lukashenko needs to be replaced to pacify the public. 

Moscow itself may become closely involved in choosing a pro-Putin successor or preventing the appointment of a Western-leaning administration that would take Belarus out of Russia’s orbit. But the deeper that Putin intervenes in Belarusian politics the more he will need to look over his shoulder at the growing turmoil in Russia itself. The replacement of Lukashenko as a result of public pressure could become a model for Putin’s own ouster. 

Even more than Belarus, the Russian Federation is a failing state whose weaknesses are being exposed by several simultaneous crises, including low oil prices, a contracting economy, a rampant pandemic, declining support for the central government and growing regional unrest. There is deepening distrust of Moscow’s governance, escalating public resistance to government policy and growing disbelief in state propaganda with alternative sources of information available.

The regime’s ability to stifle resistance through mass repression will be tested in the coming weeks, with local elections due in 18 federal regions on September 13. Turmoil in Russia can be even more unpredictable than in Belarus because of the country’s size and diversity and the daunting prospect of several simultaneous revolts. Open opposition to unpopular decisions has already assumed mass forms in several regions and cities, including in Khabarovsk in the Far East, Shiyes in Russia’s North and Ingushetia in the unstable North Caucasus. 

Revolt is infectious and escalatory. Widespread discontent with the Kremlin’s handling of the pandemic has exacerbated indignation over a range of government policies. An opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Center has indicated that almost half of Russians supported the Khabarovsk protests, while only 17 percent opposed, and a third would be willing to stage similar protests in their own regions. At the same time, public trust in Putin has fallen to an all-time low of 25 percent. 

Various scenarios of turmoil are possible, including a power struggle in Moscow, escalating conflicts between the Kremlin and regional governments and a breakdown of central controls in some parts of the country that may precipitate a political implosion or even violent collapse. Government reactions to social unrest can also accelerate public resistance. To avert state fragmentation, Putin could try various palliatives such as the provision of economic benefits and offers of administrative decentralization to key regional centers. Or he could impose selective repression against specific protests or even a mass crackdown in one or more regions. 

However, each of these measures could backfire. Selective economic benefits can provoke resentment in other regions amid calculations that mass opposition to Kremlin policy can increase state funding. Political concessions to local leaders could encourage governors to act more independently and push for more extensive autonomy. A plethora of territorial, ethno-national and resource disputes are also evident throughout the unwieldy federation. Such conflicts could make some regions increasingly ungovernable and precipitate open revolts against Moscow 

Selective repression may also prove ineffective or even escalatory by sparking wider resistance. The regime’s capabilities to impose mass repression across the country or even in several regions simultaneously may prove inadequate. Indeed, the unreliability of regional security organs in eliminating open opposition can engender further unrest, as witnessed in Khabarovsk. 

While monitoring Belarus closely and discouraging further state violence, U.S. and EU policymakers must start preparing for the potentially much more devastating flashpoint that is Russia. No dictatorship is permanent, and in reaching for an outer empire in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Moscow’s inner empire could start to crumble.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Belarusian protests Moscow Opposition to Vladimir Putin in Russia Politics of Russia Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian Federation

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