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Putin faces tough choices for Belarus: How to tackle Lukashenko without giving up

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Mr Lukashenko is stepping down after weeks of protests he declared victory in the August 9 presidential election. Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets every weekend, demanding new elections. Opposition figures have publicly accused Lukashenko of rigging the vote and have since disappeared from the country.
Some are living in exile for fear of their own safety. Maria Kolesnikova, one of three women who stood up against Lukashenko, was arrested at the Belarus border last week after what its representatives said was an attempt by the authorities to evict her by force. She has since been detained at a detention center near Minsk, her spokeswoman told CNN.

Mr Lukashenko has previously claimed that the protests were “fed” by the West and posed a threat to Russia. He has sought support from Putin within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which forces member states to respond together to an external military threat.

Analysts expect Monday’s meeting to result in some sort of deal holding Lukashenko in place, at least for now. However, whether this agreement eventually leads to a Russia-mediated transition of power, or more full support for Lukashenko, would be a difficult decision for Putin.

“For Russia, the main concerns remain as they were at the beginning of this crisis: not losing Belarus to the West, not allowing an unstable or unpredictable situation in a neighboring country, and not allowing people the power to force a change of leadership,” said Keir Giles, a senior consultant on the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House.

He added that Putin has the potential to prevent this from happening, including “secret or open support for Lukashenko, greater integration … or, at worst, managing a smooth transition of power to someone less keen to deal with Moscow than Lukashenko. “

The party relationship has been thorny over the past two decades for a variety of reasons. In the 2000s, Lukashenko tried to distance himself from Russia in an attempt to disprove his strong image. They have also debated gas prices, with Lukashenko constantly complaining about the high prices offered by Russia in recent years. Putin has said his government will not offer discounts until Belarus agrees to deeper union integration with Russia, an unpopular project among Belarusians.

However, Lukashenko is a well-known figure for Russia. And Putin has historically not been a fan of regime change in countries living under dictatorship.

“Moscow not only prefers to keep its friends in power in autocratic regimes, but also more broadly prefers stability and predictability to sudden changes in geopolitics,” Giles said. He adds that this could be up to two of Putin’s sharpest concerns: “The fantasy that all this is part of an ongoing Western campaign to overthrow regimes and its ultimate goal is Moscow; and the reality that when the leaders “Those who do not like the West to fall, as with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, have a tendency to be lynched.”

The amazing bravery of three women in Belarus has a message for the US

For Lukashenko, the inherent weakness of his position means he may need to exchange Belarus’ greater control over Putin in exchange for Russian support that keeps him in power.

“Lukashenko is going to Russia while he has a political space,” said Franak Viacorka, a non-resident associate at the Atlantic Council and a Belarus-based journalist. “He has removed the institutional instruments of the opposition that could remove him from power, at least for the time being. So even though he is visiting Putin knowing how weak he is, he is also able to demonstrate that he is still finally in power. control of the security forces and the government “.

All of this means that both leaders may have to reach an agreement through clenched teeth, as Putin acknowledges that Lukashenko is his worst option, while Lukashenko does what it takes to stay in control of the country. his.

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