One thing a life in the world of intelligence and political punditry has taught me is not to make overly bold assessments. It’s always best to throw in words like ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’. Above all, one should avoid predictions. If you must predict, do so only in terms of probabilities. Don’t say ‘this will happen’, or ‘this won’t happen’; say ‘there’s an X% possibility of this happening’. Philip Tetlock’s research into social scientists’ ability to predict suggests that they are on average as accurate as a monkey rolling dice. I’ve been wrong enough times to know one thing about the future – it’s unknowable.
Consequently, I’m not going to tell you what the outcome of the current political crisis in Belarus will be. I was a student there for several months back in 1987, when it was still the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, but I haven’t been back there since. I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in the mind of the average Belarusian, let alone the balance of political forces. Others, though, seem far more confident about what the days ahead have in store for us.
One example is Mark Galeotti, writing in the online US version of that once fine, but now long declining, magazine, The Spectator (fire Boris as Prime Minister and bring him back as editor would be my solution to both Britain’s woes and those of The Spectator). Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is a ‘dead man walking’ says Galeotti. Lukashenko’s ‘days are over’, he confidently adds.
Are they? Well, maybe. But maybe not. Galeotti thinks that Lukashenko may ‘hold on for now’, but that even if he does his legitimacy will be so undermined that ‘this is just delaying the inevitable’. I’m not so sure.
In the first place, many of the conditions for a successful revolution appear to be lacking in Belarus. In this regard, it’s worth comparing it with 2014 Ukraine. The Maidan revolution succeeded for many reasons, which included: wealthy financial backers; a cause capable of attracting the intellectual elites (EU membership – however unrealistic); a hardcore of well-organized muscle; and a weak president, who in contrast to the manner in which he was depicted, was very unwilling to take tough measures to defend himself. The Belarusian opposition lacks similar financial backers, the European cause, and the hardcore nationalist muscle. It also faces a president who gives every impression of being quite prepared to do whatever is required to stay in power.
In the second place, I’ve seen far too many examples of ‘dictatorial’ presidents who have been declared ‘dead men walking’, only to defy all predictions and not merely stay notionally in power, but remain very much in control of their countries. Predictions of Vladimir Putin’s demise appear almost monthly. The Bolotnaya protests of 2012 were meant to be his undoing. So were American and US sanctions. So was the collapse in the oil price. So too was COVID-19. And so on, and so forth. And yet, there he is, still in the Krenlin today, unchallenged and unchallengeable in terms of power.
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is another example. He’s withstood economic collapse, coup attempts, and massive economic pressure from the some of the most powerful nations in the world. Compared with what he’s had to face, the protests in Belarus are chicken feed. If Maduro can hold on, Lukashenko surely can too.
That’s not to say that he will. Anything can happen, and I’m not going to predict. But confident assertions that his days are numbered strike me as misplaced. It would be very wrong to base any policies on the assumption either that Lukashenka will be driven out of power or that if he does retain power he will be seriously weakened. After all, people said the same about Putin in 2012.
At the end of his article, Galeotti makes the following remark:
Meanwhile, the European Union will condemn the violence and the fraud, but how far will it impose serious sanctions and otherwise try to bring Lukashenko down? Already this morning I’ve received an email from a contact at the EU’s External Action Service suspecting that his colleagues, while loudly condemning the repression, are crossing their fingers that Lukashenko will be able to regain control, so that they are not forced to address this dilemma.
It strikes me that Galeotti’s friends in the EU have their heads screwed on right. Again and again in recent years, we’ve seen Western states impose sanctions on disliked regimes in the belief that they will succeed in toppling governments, only to fail and achieve nothing other than the impoverishment of ordinary people. We shouldn’t commit the same mistake in the case of Belarus. If the regime falls, it will be because of the efforts of those ordinary people, not because of anything we do. And if it doesn’t, there will be nothing we can do about it. Assuming that Lukashenko is doomed, and acting on that assumption, is high stakes gambling. You might get lucky, but personally I’m not going to bet on it.