Rapid Change in Kyrgyzstan May Escalate Belarusian Protest Tactics
By Jamie Dettmer October 09, 2020
The effort to unseat autocratic Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko may be heading for a new phase.
Belarusian activists, impressed by the success of protests in Kyrgyzstan, where protesters managed to pull off a "revolution in one day," are now debating whether to copy the Kyrgyz tactics and storm key government buildings in Minsk.
On Telegram, the messaging app used by Belarusian protesters to share uncensored information and discuss strategy, Kyrgyzstan is being cited as a possible model of how to proceed in their weeks-long bid to oust the country's president, following a disputed August election in which he claims to have won a sixth term in power.
Some analysts worry that an escalation in protest tactics in Belarus will fan Kremlin alarm about a new wave of "color revolutions," in turn prompting Russian leader Vladimir Putin to dispatch Russian forces to Belarus.
Putin has already said he has created a police reserve for Lukashenko to use, if events get "out of control" in Belarus.
So far the Russian leader has held back from ordering a military intervention, but Russian security advisers and senior Kremlin personnel are suspected by Western diplomats of helping to coordinate the suppression of the pro-democracy opposition in Belarus.
Putin and Lukashenko discussed developments in Kyrgyzstan in a phone call midweek, according to the beleaguered Belarusian leader. Midweek, Russia acknowledged it had issued an arrest warrant for Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for Lithuania after the election, following threats to her family.
Kyrgyz protesters, outraged by what they saw as rigged parliamentary elections on October 4, overran the parliament and ransacked the office of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. The action forced election officials to annul the results of the vote and to announce plans for re-running the poll.
But political chaos has now unfolded. Jeenbekov declared a state of emergency Friday in the capital, Bishkek, ordering troops to deploy, as supporters of rival political groups took to the streets after days of unrest following the overturned election.
Video of the Kyrgyz protests has been reposted on Nexta, a Telegram channel that's served as a key communication platform for the anti-Lukashenko protesters. Nexta praised the way their Kyrgyz counterparts achieved "revolution in one day," according to George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group.
"Nexta has not issued explicit directions for Belarusian protesters to replicate Kyrgyz protest tactics yet," he said, noting the channel has in the past advocated adoption of more radical options.
"Nexta's favorable coverage of Kyrgyz protesters may embolden Belarusian protesters to adopt more radical tactics," Barros added.
Lukashenko has overseen a brutal crackdown on his opponents, but so far has failed to stem the demonstrations against his rule. Protests have been raging in Belarus for eight weeks. Thousands of protesters have been arrested and most of the main opposition leaders have been imprisoned, deported or forced into exile.
"In one day, they managed to change the political leadership in Kyrgyzstan," Paval Latushka, a member of the Belarusian opposition Coordination Council, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "I think that many Belarusians look at this — they are probably surprised by this and are thinking about it."
Other Nexta contributors urge caution, saying peaceful protest is the best option to ensure change is sustainable and long term. They point out that Kyrgyzstan is struggling now to come up with ways to facilitate a transfer of power and that the euphoria felt after opposition groups seized the parliament building has quickly turned into dangerous uncertainty.
Other Belarusian activists worry taking a more violent step will only prompt a Russian backlash.
Already worried that may happen, Belarus opposition figures have been urging Western governments to collectively make it clear to the Kremlin that Russia must avoid any direct military intervention to save Lukashenko. They want Western nations to announce their readiness to stand by the Budapest Memorandum, an international protocol signed in 1994 guaranteeing the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Belarus.
Valery Tsepkalo, a former diplomat, and one of Lukashenko's main political rivals until forced into exile, says a formal re-commitment by all Western states to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum would send a "strong message" to Russia.
The protocol refers to three identical political agreements signed at a conference in Budapest overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The agreements provide security assurances to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine against threats or use of force against their territorial integrity or political independence. In return, Belarus and the other two states gave up their stockpiles of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
Analysts say the political explosions in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, along with the outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has placed the Kremlin in a dilemma. Military intervention risks a public backlash and Western sanctions, while doing nothing and allowing political developments to play out risks emboldening opposition groups in Russia.
Recent days have seen a noticeable uptick of state-controlled Russian media blaming Western powers for the political turmoil in what the Kremlin considers its sphere of influence.
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