- No one thinks Aleksander Lukashenko won 80% of the presidential vote in Belarusian elections – which is why there was fighting on the streets of Minsk this weekend.
- The chaos threatens to anger Russian President Valdimir Putin, who has long wanted Belarus to stay closer to Moscow than to Europe.
- But Belarusian officials have arrested 33 Russian mercenaries, allegedly en route to the Middle East, at a spa outside Minsk, complicating Putin’s next move.
- Putin will likely have to make a deal to get them back, security sources familiar with NATO thinking told Insider.
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Aleksander Lukashenko’s re-election on Sunday as President of Belarus appears to have been a debacle: he claims he received over 80% of the vote, sparking overnight violence from disbelieving opposition supporters who do not believe just not in numbers. Officially, Lukashenko has defeated a list of challengers, including main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskay, the wife of a jailed opposition figure who was forced by arrests of her campaign staff on Saturday to go into hiding in the capital of Minsk .
At least 120 people were arrested during protests that spread to Brest, Gomel and Grodno, among other cities in Belarus.
Protesters could be seen on social media facing the police following the announcement. They claim the stuffing of pre-election ballots by the outgoing 27-year-old party began before the polls started and pointed to the inflated vote tally in several constituencies as evidence. In one case, activists recorded video of a polling officer escaping from the back of a polling station onto a ladder while grabbing bags of what activists claim to be excess ballots .
Now analysts and intelligence agencies are wondering how Russia and its mercurial president, Vladimir Putin, will react to the unrest.
Lukashenko has been fighting Putin against the EU for years
Lukashenko’s longstanding ability to play the European Union in the west and Russia in the east against each other to provide international aid has increasingly angered Putin, who has long advocated for a closer economic and political union with Belarus, according to a NATO military intelligence official. based in the Baltic States. Talks between Belarus and Russia collapsed in January after Lukashenko demanded far more economic support from Moscow than the estimated $ 10 billion it receives annually in subsidized oil and gas imports.
The official, who is not permitted to speak officially, requested anonymity in exchange for speaking freely about the crisis. Analysis of the source was confirmed by two other NATO / EU intelligence officials.
“It is not a great situation in general but doubly dangerous because no one can say for sure what Putin will do,” said the NATO official.
“The ballot was a fraud but it was expected by everyone, from the EU to the Belarusian people to the Kremlin,” the official said. “After 27 years of moderate success in keeping Belarus neutral between Russia and the West, Lukashenko has fallen out of touch with his people. It’s a normal crisis for a dictator like him. What is unusual is Russia’s confused position. “
Lukashenko “arrested these mercenaries supposed to go to the Middle East and Putin panicked”
It was the arrest on July 29 of around 33 Russian citizens, allegedly mercenaries for a private Kremlin-backed military company operating in the Middle East, at a spa resort outside Minsk, that really put the things to the test, agreed the three European intelligence sources.
« [Lukashenko] were these mercenaries allegedly arrested on their way to the Middle East and Putin panicked, ”the NATO official said. Several of them seem to have worked with the Donbass separatists [Ukraine] and there are arrest warrants in Kiev for them. Preventing them from being sent to Kiev for trial, where they would almost certainly embarrass Putin, is a top priority and put an end to the lawlessness right now in Minsk. And the top priority is to keep Belarus out of the EU’s orbit and at ease with Moscow. ”
The three intelligence officials agree that the conflicts over the elections benefit Putin’s agenda.
“Lukashenko is in conflict with his own people and angering the EU, so if he wants to stay in power he will have to return to Putin for political and financial support,” the official said. ” How far [Putin] is ready to go keep [Lukashenko] in power likely depends on what happens next, but it is clear from the harsh wording of the Kremlin’s congratulatory statement sent today that Putin will expect renewed enthusiasm from Minsk for his regional agenda. ”
Putin’s statement was not subtle: “I believe that your political acumen will facilitate the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all fields, as well as the strengthening of cooperation within the State of the Union. He said, according to a published telegram. by TASS.
“I guess Lukashenko is going to get some support from Putin and eventually fire the mercenaries,” the Insider source said.