By George Friedman* – Geopolitical Futures
Belarus, whose recent elections are making waves throughout the media, has been a pending flashpoint in Europe for some time. The reasons for this are history and geography.
Since the 18th century, Russia’s national security has depended on buffer zones to the west and south. During that time, it has faced four major invasions: by Sweden, allied with Poland and Turkey, to the south; by France, through the North European Plain; and by Germany, twice, through Poland and Ukraine.
Three things saved Russia in all four invasions. One was the distance that each invader had to pass to reach the Russian heartland, a distance created by Russia’s vital buffer zone. The second was the long, hard winters, which made supply, movement and survival difficult. The third was the massive if poorly trained forces Russia could mount as it retreated eastward.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical disaster in history. It is certainly true of Russian history, for it deprived the Russian Federation of its buffers. The Baltics were integrated into NATO, and in Ukraine, a political rising Moscow said was organized by the United States established a pro-Western government. To give these changes a sense of measurability, during the Cold War, the closest NATO member was nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Now, the closest is just 100 miles from the city.
The issue is not whether NATO or the U.S. intends to attack. It’s that over time intentions change. Russia, like any country, does not condone courses of action that could eventually be used against it. Indeed, the eastward movement of NATO, and particularly the Americans, created threats to Russia from the Baltics and Ukraine. If Ukraine were integrated into a U.S.-led coalition and fully armed, hostile forces would be less than 700 miles from Moscow. Russia could not tolerate this, so it seized Crimea, putting itself in a position to threaten the Ukrainian mainland and block Ukrainian ports, and dispatched special operations forces into eastern Ukraine to trigger a pro-Russian uprising. The uprising failed, but it has nonetheless effectively partitioned Ukraine enough to force the central government in Kyiv to back away from its border with Russia.
Moscow knew that losing Ukraine would leave it vulnerable to future attacks, but it also knew that the U.S. had no desire for all-out conflict. So they came to an unwritten understanding whereby the Russians would contain the rising in eastern Ukraine, and the United States would not give Ukraine offensive weapons. Essentially, the buffer zone was no longer under Russian control but still gave Russia the strategic depth it would need to respond if the agreement were breached.
And so we come to Belarus, around which all the Cold War drama unfolded but which remained relatively intact. Had U.S. forces ever occupied Belarus, they would have been able to threaten the Russian heartland directly. (Smolensk, a city that had been deep inside Soviet territory, would have become a border town.) On the other hand, had Russian forces taken control of Belarus and deployed on the western border, they would have been in a position to threaten Poland, and thus the rest of Europe, directly. After all, limited U.S. forces had already deployed in Poland, something that might deter Russia or lead to a major war.
The neutrality of Belarus has therefore always been extremely important to NATO. But it’s more complicated for Russia. On the one hand, eliminating a potential threat in Belarus is an extremely high priority for Moscow. On the other hand, engaging the United States in direct combat, and occupying NATO territory, is not.
Russia has resisted the temptation to undermine Belarusian neutrality, even as it has used Minsk’s economic needs to serve its own interests. Wanting neither to be subsumed by Russia or the West, President Alexander Lukashenko has carefully balanced between the two, which he has done by tightly controlling internal politics and intimidating his political enemies. Hence why he has been in power since 1994. The idea that Belarusians are upset at his continuous electoral success is unclear. Many are, others are not, and others still likely felt no urgent need to speak out on the issues. For the most part, Lukashenko has been accepted, and life has moved on.
This weekend’s elections are different. There is substantial opposition to the incumbent, so much so in fact that he had a rival candidate arrested. It was clear that Lukashenko was nervous about the election. He was particularly angry toward the Russians, saying that they had sent paramilitaries into the country, and implying that the Russians were trying their own Maidan Square rising.
It’s interesting that he is pinning the blame on Russia. Maybe that’s because he assumed the opposition was liberal and would balk at the idea of Russian assistance. Maybe Russia is trying to warn Belarus that the West is not a balance to Russia. Or maybe he’s right, and Russia is trying to reclaim an otherwise neutral buffer zone.
In any case, Lukashenko won an overwhelming victory, to no surprise. The issue now is not whether this will trigger an uprising, but whether outside powers, particularly Russia, might be working to redefine regional politics. From Russia’s perspective, this is rational, and now is a good opportunity. U.S. elections always distract Americans, and the EU is battling itself over coronavirus economics. Poland would be appalled, but Poland lacks the ability to act.
Leaders change, but geography doesn’t. Elections are frequently less interesting than the aftermath.
*George Friedman (Hungarian: Friedman György, Budapest, February 1, 1949) is Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical forecaster, and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events.
Read also about Eastern Europe:
Posttransition is the subconscious object of Bulgarian protests’ desire
Vladimir Mitev* – Barricada
Postcard from Bulgaria
It is high time that there was lustration and those who have governed in the times of transition leave, said a Bulgarian protester in Sofia in the beginning of August 2020 before the TV cameras.
Wishful thinking? No, a key to understanding what the Bulgarian protests represent. A desire for entering in the post-transition after decades of transition, which has dehumanised both its winners and its losers.
The transition was dominated by the ideology of anti-communism. Under its banner a system of crony capitalism was created, oligarchs emerged, while privatisation and neoliberal reforms tore apart the social tissue and hundreds of thousands went abroad for decent job and living conditions. Now prime minister Borissov, who is threatened by the protests, applies anti-communist rhetoric in order to create divisions, hinting that if he falls “the communists” will come back in power. At the same time, important currents of the protesters claim that this is neither right-wing, nor a left-wing protest, but it is a protest of the honest, decent people against the mafia, that has captured the state.
In this sense, GERB is a party of the transition, while the protests look beyond it. Could it be that the urban middle class – the main driving force behind the protests, considers the last 30 years as a fake transition? Does it want real transition to liberal democracy now – with no captured institutions and capitalism of the in-groups?
Various analysts remind that GERB has become reminiscent of the party-state that used to rule until 1989 and if it loses power, not only will it disintegrate, but also there will be persecution against its privileged elites, just as there were processes against some communist leaders. A similar protest mindset was observed in the Romanian demonstrations in 2014, which brought Klaus Iohannis to power. Then Romanians were waving revolutionary flags from 1989 with a hole in the middle (symbolising the cutted heraldic sign of communist Romania), demonstrating that this is the second and real revolution, while the first one was fake…
Nobody uses the word “post-transition” today. Nobody articulates what that would mean as ideas, policies, social conflicts, beyond condemnations for the corrupt elites of the last 30 years. The idea for leaving behind the period that did a lot of social harm is not clearly articulated, it is subconscious. Obviously, there is a long way until the realisation of this dream and it might remain just a fantasy .
Bulgarians want change, but can they indeed give birth to something new? Is it possible that the winners of transition – the urban middle class, which now protests, put an end to transition? Won’t it become a conservative force opposing social policies, as soons as it gets Borissov down? The prime minister adopted a social and economic package of 0,6 billion euro, giving money to various categories of working and unemployed people. Could he be using the handbook of the Romanian Social Democratic Party, which ruled between 2012 and 2019 through giving benefits to the poor and marginalized citizens, who are traditionally despised by the Romanian urban right? Won’t the unprivileged and socially insecure people rally behind GERB, because this party at least gives them some economic stability? If that happens, change would probably be thwarted or delayed.
As I wrote in the autumn of 2019 post-transition could mean humanisation of the social relations, incremental strengthening of labour with regard to capital, under the motto “The people (stand) before profits!”. Are these protests, led by the nascent urban middle class of enterpreneurs and young professionals a historic chance for the weak new left to articulate a vision and demands for post-transition? Change implies not only political, but above all social transformation. Now left activists make citizen assemblies and listening posts, practicing democracy at the squares, while other protesters challenge the ruling party at its rallies or from the tent camps. We need to remember that change is not in the accumulation of power or in the replacement of one weaker domination with stronger one. As soon as a critical mass commits to a clear vision of post-transition, these protests will give birth to a new Bulgaria.
* Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name.