Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused the global elite of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to put trillions of dollars in their pockets while the world economy burned. It is still unclear what are the global elite’s plan regarding Belarus, but judging by recent developments in the East European country, both Lukashenko and his opponents are prepared for a hot political summer.
On Thursday Belarusian security officials raided the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, which was until recently headed by Viktor Babariko – one of Lukashenko’s main rivals in a presidential election scheduled for August 9. Since a popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski has been detained and banned from running, Babariko is currently the strongest opposition candidate. However, he also risks being detained. After his former work place was raided, he warned Lukashenko that “the new Belarus would sweep away the remnants of the old regime”.
“It is either we, as Europeans and the most peaceful nation, will make our revolution of hope without blood, as it happened in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, or it will be Ceausescu”, said Babariko referring to the Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu who was overthrown and executed in 1989.
Belarusian authorities could easily interpret this statement as a call for violence and put Babariko behind bars. Alternatively, they could accuse him of tax evasion and money laundering, which could be a reason for his detention and banning from taking part in the presidential election. In any case, Lukashenko has plenty of options to disqualify any of his opponents, but if Babariko is really supported by the Kremlin, as some Belarusian analysts speculate, the Belarusian leader may have a hard time dealing with the consequences.
Given the fact that Russia refuses to keep subsidizing the Belarusian Soviet-style economy and providing cheap gas and oil to its ally, which resulted in worsening relations between the two countries, it is not improbable that Moscow is seeking to replace Lukashenko who has been in power for the past 26 years. However, unlike Western countries, the Russian Federation has no history of organizing coups and regime changes abroad, and Lukashenko’s repressive state apparatuses are more than ready for any potential attempts of violent protests.
“I see everything. Don’t worry. We will bring everyone to their senses when and where it is necessary. There will be no coups in the country. Or Maidan-like revolutions”, said Belarusian leader referring to the violent demonstrations in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in 2013 and 2014 that resulted in the overthrow of allegedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Some analysts compare Babariko to the current Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, although the Belarusian banker prefers to describe himself as an “effective manager”. When it comes to economy, he seems to follow the old neoliberal mantras about state-owned companies being ineffective, and small and medium business being key to economic development. Such a policy has been already implemented in most former socialist countries in Eastern Europe where crucial state-owned enterprises were sold to local oligarchs and multinational corporations. Belarus under Lukashenko is the only country that did not follow the pattern. Naturally, both Russia and the West are interested in privatization of successful Belarusian companies, and unlike Lukashenko, Babariko is willing to reform the Belarusian economy, although he claims he wants to protect the country’s sovereignty, which is impossible if he hands over economic sovereignty to foreign actors.
The Belarusian economy is already heavily dependent on cheap energy from Russia, but the country has been trying to diversify its import of natural gas and oil. Babariko supports further diversification, and that is exactly what the current government stands for.
“In the new reality of the economy’s transition to world energy prices and constantly emerging external threats, our top-priority task is to end the country’s dependence on hydrocarbons and any other market dependence, eradicate systemic imbalances, ensure sustainable economic development and the growth of citizens’ welfare,” said Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, according to BelTA news agency.
In reality, this is a wishful thinking. It is virtually impossible to end Belarusian dependence on energy imports, as the country is not self-sufficient and lacks energy resources. Therefore, it is forced to import oil and natural gas, be it from Russia or from other major producers. Technically, the only way for Belarus to stop importing crude and gas is to become part of the Russian Federation, and that way it will have all the energy that other Russian regions have. However, neither Russia seems to be interested in such a scenario, as that would mean feeding an additional nine million people, nor any Belarusian politician, including Lukashenko, wants to hand over the country’s sovereignty to Moscow.
It is worth noting that Babariko, who worked for a Russian bank for the past 20 years, deliberately refuses to provide answers to questions regarding the future of the Russia – Belarus Union State, or status of Russian military bases in Belarus. Instead, he mostly repeats standard election campaign slogans about people who deserve to be rich and happy. On the other hand, he claims he wants Belarus to be an independent and neutral country, which suggests that Minsk under his guidance could leave the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
One thing is for sure – if Russia and the West made a deal about the future of Belarus, Viktor Babariko seems to be an ideal compromise figure.
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