The EU must not leave the solution to the crisis in Belarus to Moscow, says political scientist Marie Mendras. The Kremlin doesn’t have too many options.
taz: Ms. Mendras, the heads of the opposition movement in Belarus are out of the country or in custody. Nevertheless, people continue to take to the streets.
Marie Mendras: I want to make something clear: we are not talking about the opposition here. Because the people who take to the streets now have won the election. They managed to unite a clear majority of the votes behind the candidacy of Svetlana Tichanovskaya. Alexander Lukashenko is no longer the President of Belarus. He stays in power illegally and through repression, the army and the police. The opposition are now the people who are still behind Lukashenko. Tichanovskaya in particular is very active. She understood that she had to be a little more direct: in her attacks on Lukashenko, but also in relation to Europe. She is now clearly saying that she needs Europe’s political support against a dictator who does not want to resign.
What will happen?
Lukashenko will not be able to hold out much longer. So we have to prepare now for a time after Lukashenko. Russian President Vladimir Putin understood this too. Therefore, he now has to think about which cards he can still play. It’s a fine line for Putin, he doesn’t have many options.
You said that a solution to the crisis in Belarus does not lie with the Kremlin. Could you explain that?
Take the experience with Ukraine: Putin creates problems only to be the one who blocks the solution to these problems. We have known that for years and we must not fall into this trap. The Kremlin does not want to keep Lukashenko in power at any cost because it cannot. Moscow has no serious plan to invade Belarus, there is no Crimea and no Donbass there. The Belarusians today are all united against the dictatorship. Russia’s ability to deploy a Moscow man there are also very limited.
Do you really believe that the Kremlin will remain passive and will not try to take control?
I hear this question often, but the Kremlin cannot act. Of course, Putin’s goal is not a democratic Belarus. But he can’t just get his way there now. Russia is not a state that is currently able to occupy a country in Europe like Belarus. But Putin is playing his strategic game with Europe and NATO by pretending that there is a geopolitical crisis in the heart of Europe and that one has to come to an understanding with him in order to solve this crisis. But this is not a geopolitical crisis, it is a crisis in Belarus. This is a peaceful popular uprising against a man who was not re-elected but still refuses to resign. The truth is that Belarus is about to leave Moscow’s sphere of influence, as Ukraine and Georgia have already done.
There is much talk these days about a common European response. But that didn’t exist anywhere else either. Why should it be any different now?
I don’t understand why the EU is always criticized. Europe reacted quickly and well. Everyone condemned the violence and electoral fraud and called for Lukashenko to step down in order to pave the way for new elections. At the same time, Brussels is trying to maintain a dialogue with Russia, and that is right.
Nonetheless, French President Emmanuel Macron in particular has tried very hard to improve relations with Russia in the past.
Fortunately, this is now over. It is a pity, however, that the crisis in Belarus, the repression there and the poisoning of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalnys were necessary for the Éysées Palace to cancel the planned Franco-Russian meeting in September. The dialogue with Moscow that Macron wanted to have was a bad strategy. As someone who knows Russia well, all I can say is that Putin has never been ready for real negotiations or compromise on anything, especially Donbass. Macron was a bit naive when he assumed he could reach a real compromise with Putin.
Born in 1957, is a political scientist and works on Russia and the post-Soviet space. She conducts research at the Center national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and teaches at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris.
At the moment it looks as if further sanctions will be imposed on Belarus, but also on Russia because of the poisoning of Navalny. Do you think sanctions are an effective means?
Sanctions were a relatively efficient means, as the example of Ukraine from 2014 shows. Economic sanctions against individuals are a powerful tool. And they are the only instrument that is not a military counter-attack. Sanctions are often criticized, but what would be the other options? In the coming weeks there will be further sanctions against Russia and the former Belarusian rulers including Alexander Lukashenko.
What opportunities does Europe have?
All those who stand behind Tichanovskaya have never called for violence. You are clearly in a position to put together a competent team to ensure a transition to a constitutional amendment and new elections in a few months. Tichanovskaya and her colleagues were always very clear: They don’t want to seize power, but rather to complete a process that will allow the Belarusians to opt for a new constitutional system and to elect their government. That is why we must now support the Coordination Council. When these people, who represent society and the electorate, have the support of Western democracies, that gives them legitimacy, authority.
And will that impress Moscow?
I think so. This shows that there is a political alternative in Belarus and that Moscow cannot stop this process. The EU must not leave Putin to solve this crisis, on the contrary: Europe must show Putin that it has the right to look after Belarus’ future. This is not meddling, the Kremlin propaganda tries to make us believe that. This is a necessary attitude to ensure that the EU’s neighbors can make their choices with confidence.
The interview was kindly arranged by the Berlin think tank Liberale Moderne