The already stormy Belarusian presidential election campaign became even more dramatic Wednesday with the arrest of 32 alleged Russian mercenaries. The Belarusian authorities identified the men as employees of the notorious mercenary outfit Wagner, and it led to a diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is currently running for a sixth consecutive term in office, and appears to be trying to use the rallying cry of ‘Russian interference’ to scare the opposition and mobilize his base. The big question is: were the mercenaries operating in Belarus with Kremlin approval?
- The 32 mercenaries were arrested overnight in a sanatorium near Minsk, and video of the detentions was shown widely on Belarusian TV. The Belarusian security services stated that the men were working for Wagner, which had deployed a total of 200 fighters in Belarus to “destabilize the situation.” All the men are facing criminal cases on terrorism charges. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow — which has never admitted the existence of Wagner — but Lukashenko said that the Russians were “denying everything to justify their dirty intentions.”
- All the presidential candidates were warned by the Belarusian Central Election Committee that the government was going to enforce strict security measures at all mass gatherings, including blocking the internet.
- Despite the scare tactics, a huge rally for leading opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took place Thursday in Minsk. Some estimates put attendance as high as 63,000 people, making it the biggest opposition rally in Belarus for decades.
- The elections are scheduled to take place 8 August. Partly as a result of Belarus’ economic problems, partly as a result of Lukashenko’s ‘coronavirus-denial’, the incumbent president is facing an uphill battle. Independent opinion polls in June showed Lukashenko would go down to a crushing defeat in free and fair elections.
- Fabricated conspiracies and ‘foreign threats’ are one of Lukashenko’s favourite strategies in difficult times. Before the 2010 elections, he accused the opposition of preparing an armed uprising, and before the 2006 elections he announced the discovery of a conspiracy that involved men from Georgia, Ukraine, and Balkan countries who were apparently preparing to poison water supplies with dead rats.
What were the mercenaries doing in Belarus?
No one seriously believes that the Kremlin is preparing to organise a coup in Belarus, or wants to help the opposition topple Lukashenko. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a repeat of the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 in Belarus would be extremely dangerous. But it is also undeniable that the Russian detained near Minsk previously worked for Wagner, which is directly controlled by the Kremlin. Newspaper Novaya Gazeta confirmed Thursday that at least a third of the detainees had fought for Wagner in Syria, Ukraine or Africa.
Messages appeared Wednesday on Telegram channels linked to the mercenary business that the men were mercenaries on their way to fight in Libya for a Turkish paymaster. The following day, this became the official Russian version of events: the Russian ambassador in Minsk said the men were about to fly from Minsk to Istanbul.
What is really going on?
It’s clear that Lukashenko is using the situation to help him win the elections, but it’s unclear what game the Kremlin is playing. It’s particularly odd that the mercenaries acted as if they were trying to be caught, according to Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman. All the men entered Belarus using their real documents despite the notorious porousness of the Russian-Belarusian border (even tourists can cross unnoticed with little difficulty).
The Russian version seems more likely to be true, but it’s still odd. If they were transiting to Libya, it’s unclear why they were so careless. And if the Belarusian authorities knew about their mission and detained them anyway, it will cause real anger in Moscow. “Maybe there’s no complex game afoot here, just a series of failures of communication,” said Shraibman. Another theory is that Lukashenko is deliberately seeking to spoil relations with Moscow, perhaps to head off Russian pressure for deeper political integration.
Why the world should care
Even if Lukashenko wins the upcoming elections, he will be left politically weakened and vulnerable. Worsening relations with Russia may be part of his post-election planning.