Belarus is on the brink of a major change. What role will Russia play?

Belarus today sits in the eye of the political storm. The protests against President Alexander Lukashenko have become so massive and all-encompassing that his swift exit looks all but certain. But the resolution remains obscure.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the crisis presents several tough challenges. Moscow’s key concern will be the status of Belarus as a Russian-allied “buffer state” between Russia and NATO. Any threat to that could lead to concerted Russian action – as happened in Ukraine in 2014.

But Belarus is very different from Ukraine. “I’ve been out with the protesters all these days, and I have not heard a single pro-NATO or anti-Russia slogan voiced. … This is just about Lukashenko,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Mizes Center in Minsk. “Of course we’re going to be friendly to Russia.”

As long as Belarusian membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community are not threatened, it seems unlikely the Kremlin will intervene to prop up Mr. Lukashenko with security assistance.

“Despite a lot of assumptions in the West, Putin and Lukashenko are not really friends,” says Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “He’s always been a difficult partner for the Kremlin, uneasy and unpredictable.”

Moscow

After several days of extreme police brutality last week, the now peaceful protests against Belarus’ longtime autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko, have become so massive and all-encompassing that his swift exit looks all but certain.

But the resolution to the political revolution sweeping the Slavic, Russian-speaking country of 9.5 million remains obscure.

A near-leaderless opposition is scrambling to capitalize on its unexpected street victory by putting forward a viable transition plan. Mr. Lukashenko, who has been thoroughly discredited but still commands the security forces, is pledging to leave, but only after a process of constitutional reform has been completed and fresh elections carried out.

All the while the Kremlin watches nervously from the sidelines, deeply concerned about the spiraling events in Russia’s close neighbor, economic dependent, and rare military ally. Belarus today sits in the eye of the political storm, and what comes next has the potential to become something much worse, but also could be a new dawning of democracy in a country that has scarcely ever known it.

“We are past the point of no return for Lukashenko,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk, a political activist who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in elections 10 years ago and now heads the Mizes Center, a liberal think tank in Minsk. “In recent days we have seen an outpouring of popular will, a consensus of Belarusian civil society – including huge numbers of workers, who have never before participated in political protests – that there needs to be basic change. Lukashenko’s use of violence against the protesters last week sealed the political and moral case that he has to go. Now we are on the wave of a revolution that is peaceful, and full of hope and joy.”

A protest without leaders

Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the disputed election – which he claimed to win with 78% support – is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a political prisoner. She had said that she would not serve as president even if she won, but would simply prepare the ground for fresh, free, and fair elections. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania a week ago, leaving the street protests to be organized by anonymous social media channels.

One of those is Nexta Live (“nexta” means “somebody”), a Telegram channel that rocketed from about 300,000 subscribers to over 2 million in about two weeks. It has become the main focus of organizational instructions, such as where and when to gather, as well as information on the movements of the security forces and how to avoid them. It’s also a repository for testimonials, political news, and declarations, as well as photos and videos of the protests.

“The protests had no leaders. At the beginning, whoever got noticed trying to lead got arrested,” says Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy chair of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. “The authorities tried shutting down the internet, arresting people they thought were associated with Telegram, but none of it worked. Telegram and other social nets have just kept growing.”

But the anonymity of the organizing force also poses a conundrum when it comes to negotiating with the authorities.

“There is an impasse, where the police have stopped beating people, and protesters are not crossing the line,” says Andrey Suzdaltsev, a Belarusian political expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Unfortunately, the regime Lukashenko built did not cultivate capable people who might step in. The opposition is divided, and there is squabbling in its ranks. The people are ungovernable. There is no one to negotiate with. It’s like the Arab Spring, but under Belarusian conditions.”

Not Ukraine 2.0

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the crisis presents several tough challenges, but also an unparalleled opportunity. On Tuesday Mr. Putin held a series of phone calls with European leaders, including those of France and Germany, clearly trying to find common ground on the way forward.

Moscow’s key concern will be the status of Belarus as a Russian-allied “buffer state” between Russia and NATO. Any threat to that could lead to concerted Russian action – as happened in Ukraine in 2014. Then, after a disorderly change of power in Kyiv brought pro-Western actors to power, Moscow intervened by seizing the Russian-populated territory of Crimea and fomenting a still-ongoing civil war in Ukraine’s largely pro-Russian Donbass region.