Russian military interference in neighboring Belarus? Or is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, on the eve of elections he could just lose, trying to save his skin with a classic Soviet trick: a made-up coup?
First the facts, as reported by the Belarusian state media on Wednesday. They reported that on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, 32 Russian mercenaries were arrested who wanted to ‘destabilize’ the presidential elections in Belarus. According to state media, these are paramilitaries of the Russian company ‘Wagner’, who are more often active abroad. In total, “more than 200” fighters are said to be in Belarus at this time.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko convened his National Security Council on Wednesday afternoon. Lukashenko called on his officials to seek clarification from the Russian authorities as soon as possible about their “dirty plans.”
Lukashenko under pressure
Aleksandr Lukashenko (in power since 1994) is under great domestic and foreign pressure. In the past year, Russia threatened to halt cheap oil sales if Minsk did not agree to far-reaching economic and political integration of both countries – plans that Lukashenko was dropping at the last minute. On the eve of the August 9 presidential election, Lukashenko – “the last dictator in Europe” – is being challenged by a coalition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of imprisoned presidential candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky. In recent weeks, the Tichanovskaya coalition managed to mobilize thousands of people all over Belarus.
Also read: Lukashenko wants explanation from Kremlin for ’32 Russian mercenaries’
President Lukashenko, however, attributes the opposition to his authoritarian rule to outside forces. Last week, he said “private military companies” around the world are trying to bring about “Majdan uprisings” – a reference to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution in Majdan Square in Kiev, which required pro-Russian President Yanukovych to take the field.
This time, the ‘Majdan’ was orchestrated by the Kremlin, according to Lukashenko. On July 25, 32 trained Russians moved into a hotel in Minsk. Two days later they left for a spa near the capital. According to state news agency Belta, the men stood out for their ‘military clothing’ and the fact that they did not consume alcohol, and did not show up at the holiday park’s bar and disco. After the men were arrested, another Russian suspect was arrested in southern Belarus.
Last Wednesday, Belta published all the names of the arrested mercenaries. Myrotvorets public online database – a Ukrainian website seeking to reveal secret Russian operations – shows that many of the arrested men are Russian mercenaries, or soldiers of the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in eastern Ukraine.
Belarusians reacted skeptically on social media: it would not be the first time that Lukashenko has staged threats to unite voters behind him. Russian former mercenaries reported that the group would have been en route to Libya or Sudan. Images from Belarusian television showed Sudanese money and calling cards.
However, Belarusian analyst Arseni Sivitski does not take the arrests lightly. Since the negotiations on the annexation of Belarus into a “union state” have failed, the Kremlin has been working on a new scenario, he says, destabilizing Belarus. “Moscow’s goal is regime change.” According to the analyst – a man with good sources within the Belarusian regime – the aim of the mercenaries was to provoke violence around the presidential elections – “all the way to bloodshed.” After the popular uprising against Lukashenko, a pro-Russian candidate could take power in Belarus.
The Kremlin has so far remained silent in all languages. Whether the elections will take place on August 9 was still uncertain on Wednesday evening. Opposition candidate Tikhanovskaya canceled her meeting in the province today – “for technical reasons.” On Thursday morning, the Central Electoral Commission would consult with all candidates. Postponement of the elections seems one of the possible scenarios.
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated July 30, 2020