The democratic flame ignites in Belarus (Updated)

Updated with latest dispatches, August 17, 2020 (02:50 a.m. EDT).


1) Friedrich Schmidt, “TELEGRAM-KANAL NEXTA LIVE: Gegen den Trash Lukaschenka; Ein Telegram-Kanal mit mehr als zwei Millionen Abonnenten ist zum wichtigsten Informationsmittel der Demonstranten in Belarus geworden; Der Gründer ist 22 Jahre alt; Er will die Stimme her Opposition sein,” Frankfurter Allgemeineb Zeitung, 16. August, 2020 (Aktualisiert um 19:09 Uhr).

2) David Axe, “Russia May Have Just Gotten The Green Light To Intervene In Belarus,” Forbes, August 16, 2020 (08:00 a.m.EDT).

3) Timothy Snyder, “What Americans should learn from Belarus,” New York Times, August 16, 2020 (5:19 p.m. EDT).

4) Benoît Vitkine et Paul Gogo, “En Biélorussie, face aux marées humaines, Loukachenko se tourne vers Moscou; Les estimations du nombre de manifestants, dimanche, vont de plusieurs dizaines à plusieurs centaines de milliers de personnes; Un tournant dans la mobilisation,” Le Monde, le 17 août 2020 (à 00h29, mis à jour à 00h31).

5) Shaun Walker in Minsk and agencies, “Belarus opposition calls for general strike after biggest protests yet; Industrial action began on Friday, with thousands of workers downing tools in state-owned factories,” The Guardian, August 17, 2020 (06:23 BST).

6) Marïa R. Sahuquillo and Rodrigo Fernández, “La mayor protesta en Bielorrusia pone contra las cuerdas a Lukashenko; El mandatario rechaza repetir las elecciones y asegura que “ni muerto” permitirá la entrega del país mientras el Kremlin le ofrece su apoyo,” El Païs, 16 de Agosto 2020 (13:42 EDT).

It is too early to tell how things ultimately will turn out in Belarus, where following fraudulent elections on August 9, President Alexandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for the last 26 years, faces a popular rebellion which appears to be gaining in size and intensity.

(Lukashenko is commonly referred to in the foreign press by his name in Russian, Lukashenko. His name in Belarussian is Lukashenka.)

As in the Ukraine in February 2014, the decisive factor will be whether the police and armed forces will come to the ultimate defense of Lukashenko. An additional factor is the possibiky that Russia might send in military forces to back Lukashenko.

In the Ukraine, the forces of public order at first defended the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, only to step aside after days of bloody repression in which over 100 protesters were massacred, many by sharpshooters.

A similar pattern of bloody repression seems to have occurred in Belarus in recents days, as the first signs appear of public forces standing aside or siding with the protesters. The repression seems to have been put on hold, but could resume at any time.

If the demonstrations were to lead to Lukashenko’s imminent ouster, Russia could intervene to bolster Lukashenko or shape the successor government. However, there are some indications in Moscow that suggest Putin may not support Lukashenko in a crunch. He undoubtedly will do what he can to avoid an outcome like the one in the Ukraine in 2014.

Lukashenko has already spoken to Putin, who has said he stands ready to help with security if and when he receives a call for assistance.

Putin and Russia have long been pushing for closer ties and implementation of a decades-old “union” agreement with Belarus.   Lukashenko has up to now successfully resisted these pressures. It seems likely Putin would like to see a more pliant regime in Minsk, but if Russia intervenes to save Lukashenko, Putin will undoubtedly demand steps toward a union of Belarus with Russia.

Russian intervention would not be without risks, both to Putin and to Russia. First, military or even lower-profile Russian intervention could turn the Belarussian people, who have not be anti-Russian in the past, into virulent opponents of Russia and its leaders, perhaps for generations.

The second and larger risk, for Putin, is that an open intervention in Belarus could fan the flames of democratic opposition in Russia itself. Already there is open and growing opposition in the Far East.

If Putin intervenes in Belarus, there is a chance–apparently small but palpably real–that the flame of democracy could ignite once again in Russia. The risk is that, unlike in 2011 when massive demonstrations took place against Putin but were ultimately controlled, the contagion of rebellion could spread, uncontrollably, and bring down the Putin regime. This is the greatest fear of Putin and his supporters. It is the fear that lay behind the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, who was then the popular leader of the opposition and an opponent of the war against the Ukraine.


1) (Intérim), “En Biélorussie, nouvelle démonstration de force face à un Loukachenko fébrile; Après une semaine de manifestations et de répression, autorités et oppositions tentent de prendre du recul pour affiner leurs stratégies,” Le Monde, le 15 août 2020 (à 22h15, mis à jour à 22h40).

2) Claire Gatinois, “Cela pourrait être la fin; la Biélorussie se met en grève pour faire tomber Loukachenko;
Cheminots, acteurs, ouvriers, employés des secteurs informatique, automobile ou chimique… Les salariés de plus d’une vingtaine d’entreprises se sont joints aux blocages et aux manifestations,” Le Monde, le 14 aoüt 2020 (à 04h48, mis à jour à 11h17).

The situation is developing very rapidly. For the latest updates, see Le Monde, Die Welt, Der Spiegel, and El País. Links to these newspapers are found on the right in the Blogroll.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.