The last Belorussian front
The Republic of Belarus is in turmoil. The last time its capital, Minsk, the epicenter of current events, happened to be so much in the news occurred around 1943–44, when the Red Army with its Belorussian Fronts was slowly pushing the Nazis back west. So what happened this time? The forever re-elected president of this small Eastern European country, Alexander Lukashenko, has yet again stolen, falsified, or cheated in local presidential elections. This news is as surprising as the discovery that Count Dracula is drinking blood again: shocking and yet so comfortably familiar. This time, though, many citizens of Belarus decided they'd had enough. Western commentators express delight at seeing the crowds standing up to President Lukashenko's well equipped security forces. What they don't realize is that the situation may not actually be moving in the direction of freedom and democracy.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republics took very different paths. Some, like the Asian contingent, decided to go back to their Middle Ages, to the time when they first met the Russian Empire. Some, like the Baltics, chose to embrace their liberal European roots. A few, like Belarus, got stuck in time, neither moving back nor stepping forward. Anyone visiting Belarus today finds most of the country frozen in time circa 1992. The old factories and industries, the remnants of the Soviet military industrial complex, functioned for a few decades and then stopped being competitive or even relevant. High-tech outsourcing has gained some ground, but the Byzantine Soviet system has prevented it from becoming anything remotely resembling the one developed by Estonia. The system ruling the country resembles apparatchiks running a large collective farm. Lukashenko ran one in his earlier years, and his approach to running the entire country is not very different.
The population of Belarus, especially in its eastern and central regions, is very Russified, with the Russian language prevailing over Belarusian. Lukhashenko has found it relatively easy to keep Belarus in Russia's orbit without actually uniting with the big brother to the East. He has successfully resisted numerous attempts by Vladimir Putin to unite two "brotherly nations." However, Lukashenko's cunning and street smarts are slowly losing their potency.
Putin has made it clear that he does not see either Belarus or Ukraine as legitimate countries and their inhabitants as people separate from Russians. He has also indicated in his speeches and actions that he considers moving Russia's western border to its Soviet frontiers of paramount strategic importance. In Ukraine, he has achieved part of his plans. Now in Belarus he may finally strike a tactical Klondike of his strategy.
The West is absolutely uninterested in events in Belarus. Probably none of the Western leaders can even place the country on the map, short of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, for reasons she would rather not admit. If Putin wants to take Belarus, the time is now. A few dozen saboteurs arrested by Belarus's security forces on the eve of elections vividly show the Russian president clearly understands the opportunity. He has learned from Ukraine 2014.
Here is one possible scenario. The demonstrations will continue despite the government's crackdown. The pressure will grow on Lukashenko. He will become more aggressive, thus leading to new cycles of violence that will eventually spiral out of control. Russia will move its forces across the border (as the Belarus army does not really exist) in a purely "humanitarian" gesture. The "green men" of Crimea will start being spotted in the regions bordering Russia. The Belarus security forces (in tight cooperation with Russia) will depose Lukashenko and ask already present Russian forces to spread throughout the country to help the brotherly nation to re-establish peace and security. A referendum (and Putin knows how to conduct one) to unite two nations will follow.
Perhaps it is worth asking what could have been done. It is not possible to bring back those 30 lost years, but in the early years of independence, it did not look so bleak. Some suggested an economic union with Poland. Geographic, cultural, and linguistic proximity could definitely provide the impetus for such a move. Indeed, Poland has managed to become one of the most successful Eastern European economies and a vibrant democracy. With active help from the U.S., Poland could have helped Belarus extract itself from the suffocating wings of Russia. Today we may just hope the people of Belarus will prevail on their own despite all odds, as this struggle may well sadly be their Last Belorussian Front.