Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader that recently escaped to Lithuania, calls for Canada to assist with the crisis in Belarus as well as impose sanctions on Lukashenko’s government.
Many in Belarus fear Russian military intervention to prop up the Belarusian President’s failing grip on power, after an election win that many denounce as corrupt. Lukashenko has recently called for Russian assistance in August, but Russian President Putin has been reluctant to provide direct support so far. Without a delicate approach from Canada and its Western allies, the situation may deteriorate and allow Putin to intervene directly.
As Lukashenko continues to refuse to step down from office, anti-government protests continue despite a brutal crackdown by the Belarusian state police. Many protesters believe that Tsikhanouskaya is the legitimate winner in the elections – a race she entered as a political novice to protest the arrest and the seemingly arbitrary rejection of her husband as a presidential candidate. Sergei Tsikhanouski was arrested earlier this summer for anti-government activities, with Lukashenko himself suggesting that the arrest was carried out on his orders due to the political blogger’s disparaging remarks of the President.
Lukashenko’s dismissive attitude of the protesters, women, and the coronavirus have only served to galvanize the anti-government sentiment in the country – as did his recent snap inauguration held in spite of mass protests in all of Belarus’s major cities. As the protests grow in strength, the likelihood of direct Russian intervention, in the form of military or law enforcement assistance, becomes increasingly likely.
Although Russia’s offer of assistance appears to be limited to protection against external threats, the opposition worries that the Russian government may intervene to prop up its Union State ally if his power continues to wane. Russia has already increased its soft influence in the country by sending seasoned Russia Today crews to replace striking Belarusian state television employees, propping up Lukashenko’s falling support with a propaganda campaign. However, Tsikhanouskaya believes that Putin may go further, as a special unit of law enforcement officers stands ready to intervene in Belarus “if necessary”, reports The Globe and Mail.
Unlike the Ukrainian Maidan protests, Tsikhanouskaya stresses that the protests in Belarus are not anti-Russian. She sees the protests as a fight for democracy instead of a shift towards the West, and is not planning a Belarusian Maidan. Tsikhanouskaya and many others believe that Russia will act if its influence in Belarus and Eastern Europe is threatened by pro-Western sentiment, as the Kremlin is paranoid of the effect of color revolutions on its border.
To increase the pressure on Lukashenko in the hopes of convincing him to step down, Tsikhanouskaya urges Canada and other countries to impose sanctions against the government of Belarus. Although she has “no right to ask any country to do this”, she states, she and her country “would appreciate any kind of help” in their fight for democracy, according to The Globe and Mail.
Canada, the European Union and the US are already compiling lists of high-ranking government officials to target with sanctions. Canada has already sanctioned Lukashenko in the past, barring all humanitarian goods to the country from 2006. Canada’s outreach campaign to Lukashenko required the easing of sanctions in 2016, a move which critics call a mistake.