Twentieth century Europe was nearly destroyed by dictators who tried to subjugate the entire continent to their own megalomania. The instrument of Europe’s rebirth has been the European Union — an economic common market politically committed to democracy.
There is nothing automatic or guaranteed about the ascendance of democracy in Europe. On Europe’s eastern flank, Putin’s Russia sees democracy as a mortal threat, and with reason. In 2014, Russia’s effective control over Ukraine was upended by a massive street revolution led by young people who wanted to be partnered with the EU, not Russia. The Kremlin was infuriated and responded with a military invasion of eastern Ukraine and the occupation and seizure of Crimea.
This is the background to recent events in Belarus, located between Ukraine and Russia. Belarus, as the name suggests, is culturally, linguistically and geographically close to Russia. Like Russia, Belarus is ruled by an autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko, who prioritizes his power over everything else. While Putin evinces a certain veneer of sophistication, there is nothing of that with Lukashenko; he is a thug in a suit. And he has ruled Belarus, largely unchallenged, since 1994. However, recent events have demonstrated that while Lukashenko’s police state can control political opponents and critics, it cannot control the changing sentiments of its urban citizens, particularly the youth. Just as in Ukraine, and previously in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, the prosperity and freedoms of the EU have acted like a powerful attractant for those living farther east. Educated Belarussians see themselves as a civilized, European people and, increasingly, they want to be part of a modern, civilized — and democratic — Europe.
This became graphically evident in August 2020 when Lukashenko held one of his staged (and rigged) “elections.” Several prominent citizens actually tried to register as candidates to oppose him. That was not part of the dictator’s playbook and all of them were arrested and imprisoned. As a fig leaf, one candidate’s wife was allowed to replace her husband on the ballot on the assumption that a “mere woman” posed no threat. To the regime’s obvious shock, she almost certainly won if an honest count were allowed. The next steps were predictable. Lukashenko’s police forced her into exile while the regime declared that voters had given Lukashenko a landslide victory. This brought tens of thousands into the streets of the capital for weeks of protests — producing arrests, torture, and oppression on a huge scale. Lukashenko’s goons in police uniforms had free rein of the streets. It was ugly.
All this was too much for the EU, with three member states (Poland, Lithuania and Latvia) bordering Belarus. The EU gave refuge to Belarussians fleeing the regime and imposed financial and travel sanctions on the Belarussian leadership. After Lukashenko effectively hijacked an international flight in order to capture a dissident on board, the EU banned the Belarussian state airline from EU airspace.
Lukashenko reacted with fury and retaliated with a tactic available to only the most brutal and cynical of dictators. He invited migrants and refugees from the Middle East and beyond to come to Belarus with the promise they could cross into the EU. Several thousand have arrived and they have been transported to the border with Poland and Lithuania, provided with wire cutters and told how to get through the fence. But Poland and Lithuania have responded by deploying army units to bolster border police. The result is that thousands of destitute migrants are freezing in a kind of no-man’s land along the border — blocked from entering the EU, but also prevented from turning back into Belarus.
Vladimir Putin has been a major, if slightly offstage, player in this drama. From the beginning, he has seen the pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus as an alarming replay of what happened in Ukraine — resulting in the loss of Russian control. The Kremlin is determined to prevent a repeat and has backed Lukashenko. This has included two theatrical flights of heavy Russian bombers plus a simulated parachute assault near the Polish border. Two paratroopers died in that exercise. Meanwhile, Lukashenko threatened to shut off gas supplies to Europe — carried on a pipeline through Belarus — if the EU even considered further sanctions.
All the threats and power plays disguise a serious miscalculation on Lukashenko’s and Putin’s part. The manufactured flood of migrants was supposed to be Europe’s worst nightmare. In the past, Europe had been nearly paralyzed by large migrant inflows as individual governments clashed with each other and with Brussels over what to do — and influential human rights organizations raised loud objections to the “inhumane” treatment of migrants. Putin and Lukashenko calculated that the specter of hordes of migrants would bring the EU countries to their door begging for relief — and offering to ditch sanctions. Instead, the border countries have stood fast and Belarus now finds itself with thousands of unwanted migrants marooned on its soil. New and tougher sanctions by the EU and the U.S. are coming. Moreover, Lukashenko’s threat to cut off gas supplies has been exposed as a bluff when Russia (the source of the gas) refused to curtail its flow.
For Putin, this has become a debacle. Popular sentiment in Belarus is increasingly hostile toward Lukashenko — and by extension toward Russia. For Russia, gas sales to Europe are a vital source of revenue, and a major new pipeline has just been completed to Germany (Nord Stream 2). A new coalition government is about to take power in Berlin, and it is not clear that it will permit the new pipeline to operate. The last thing the Kremlin needs is to plant doubts in the minds of Europeans whether Russia will be a reliable supplier. Meanwhile, the estrangement between Russia and Europe only grows.