What About Belarus?

Rajan Menon observes that the protests in Belarus against rigged election results are unlikely to provoke Russian intervention for the simple reason that a change in leadership in Minsk does not imply a change in the country’s orientation:

Nor are the intrepid protesters who have taken to the streets in Belarus animated primarily by dreams of joining the European Union and NATO, and the anti-Russian sentiments evident among some of the groups that were part of the protests on Kyiv’s Maidan have been notably absent on the streets of Minsk. Moreover, because Russian is far more widely used in Belarus than Belarusian—like Russian, Belarusian has the status of an official language, but less than a quarter of the population speaks it day to day—the linguistic and cultural divide between Russia and parts of Ukraine, particularly its western regions, aren’t present either. In short, Putin need not really fear the installation of an anti-Russian regime.

Like other analysts, Menon sees the Belarus upheaval as being similar to the protests in Armenia two years ago that removed Sargsyan and brought Nikol Pashinyan to power. I made this comparison last week. It is worth adding that Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 and the years that have followed are not typical of how they respond to political upheaval in the so-called “near abroad.” There have been other changes in leadership in former Soviet states on several occasions in the last two decades, and it was only in the later Ukrainian case that Russia intervened directly. While Moscow has issued the usual warnings against external interference in Belarus’ internal affairs, it has so far shown no inclination to wade into the country’s political dispute.

Something else that has been striking about the international reaction to the protests in Belarus is the overall Western apathy that has greeted them. That isn’t the case in the countries that immediately border Belarus, and both the German and French governments have been engaged in discussions with Moscow, but on the whole the protests have barely broken through here despite their huge size. Contrast this with the wall-to-wall coverage given to the Maidan protests or the 2009 protests in Iran, and it is remarkable how little interest Western news outlets have shown. Even granting that domestic problems loom very large right now, it seems to be the case that Westerners and especially Americans can’t be bothered to talk about a democratic protest movement unless we can somehow make it about ourselves and some self-flattering narrative of how another nation is “choosing” to join “our” side. When Iranian protests could be misrepresented and co-opted as an opportunity for regime change, hawks wouldn’t stop talking about how important it was for the U.S. to support them and “speak out.” Today there is no similar insistence that American leaders stand with Belarusian protesters despite the fact that their demands for a free and fair election are essentially identical. Once it became clear that the Iranian opposition wasn’t seeking regime change, but wanted significant reforms of the existing system, most Western interest in their cause vanished.

If protests abroad can’t be used as a bludgeon against an adversary or fitted to some ready-made hawkish narrative, they simply don’t receive much attention here in the U.S. It is useful to keep this mind to distinguish between genuine support for democratic protest movemnts that we can and should offer to people protesting for their rights and hawkish attempts to exploit this sympathy for other purposes.