German chancellor Angela Merkel called her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss Belarus, in tacit acknowledgment of his pivotal role in resolving the political crisis in Russia’s western neighbour.
Moscow has propped up Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko financially and militarily throughout his 26 years in power, but the Kremlin has remained on the sidelines since his disputed re-election nine days ago sparked mass protests demanding his resignation.
On Monday Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, regarded by the protesters as the real winner of last week’s election, called on members of the Belarusian security apparatus to switch sides.
Ms Merkel’s decision to consult Mr Putin over the crisis underscores Moscow’s oversized influence on both Mr Lukashenko and the country’s economy, even as the Kremlin wrestles with the difficulty of deciding how to intervene in the rapidly-moving crisis.
In a statement on Tuesday, Ms Merkel’s office said she had stressed in her call that the Belarusian government “must refrain from violence against peaceful demonstrators, immediately release political prisoners and enter a national dialogue with the opposition and [civil] society”.
On the other hand, according to Moscow’s readout of the call, Mr Putin had “emphasised the unacceptability of any outside attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of [Belarus], leading to a further escalation of the crisis”. The Kremlin said the conversation took place on Ms Merkel’s initiative.
Meanwhile, Ms Merkel’s party, the CDU/CSU, demanded a rerun of the elections in Belarus with international observers, saying the ones held on August 9 had clearly been rigged.
Jürgen Hardt, the CDU/CSU’s foreign affairs spokesman, said he assumed that Ms Merkel had warned Mr Putin not to intervene militarily in Belarus to prop up Mr Lukashenko. “I can imagine she made clear that any intervention would devastate peace in Europe and have far-reaching consequences for Europe’s relations with Russia,” he said.
He said it made sense for Ms Merkel to speak to the Russian president directly, since “he has more influence on Lukashenko than anyone else”. Ms Merkel’s longstanding relationship with Mr Putin, fostered over her 15 years as chancellor, made her “Europe’s most obvious interlocutor with the Kremlin”.
Ms Merkel has come out strongly in favour of the protests in Belarus, saying through her spokesman on Monday that it was “impressive and touching” to see hundreds of thousands of people “demonstrating peacefully and with dignity for their civil rights and against the repression of the power apparatus”.
“These people are demanding rights that should be obvious to anyone — that elections are carried out and votes counted properly, that a government doesn’t have the voices of its citizens bludgeoned and that people are not tortured in prisons,” Steffen Seibert said.
Mr Putin has recognised Mr Lukashenko’s election victory, but declined to offer him explicit support in two separate statements made last weekend after talks between the two leaders. In response to pleas from Mr Lukashenko to assist him in suppressing the unrest, the Kremlin said it stood ready to provide “necessary assistance” under collective security treaties between the two countries.
Belarusian society holds largely positive views of Moscow and the protests against Mr Lukashenko have not included pro-western messages. But any show of strength by the Kremlin to back the besieged leader could alter that.
Russian analysts say the Kremlin acknowledges that Mr Lukashenko’s position is no longer tenable, and is seeking to orchestrate a managed handover of power to a transition administration that would retain close ties with Moscow.
“Any future leader of Belarus will have to maintain good relations with the Kremlin and pay a certain amount of deference to its sensitivities and sensibilities,” wrote Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Carnegie. “To attempt a different course would be unrealistic, dangerous, and run counter to the attitudes of the Belarusian public. Friends of Belarus need to recognise that.”
Meanwhile, the editor of Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio station published an excerpt from correspondence between him and Maria Kolesnikova, one of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s main aides, that appeared to be aimed at reassuring Russia that a change of leadership in Belarus would not trigger a breach between Minsk and Moscow.
In the message, Ms Kolesnikova said Belarus should respect all of its existing agreements, and that Russia was an important partner, before blaming Mr Lukashenko for damaging ties between the two countries.
“Unfortunately in recent times, tensions and conflicts have regularly arisen in our co-operation with Russia,” she wrote. “This clearly shows that the current president of Belarus is not able to cope with this task. We for our part confirm our desire and readiness to build mutually beneficial relations with all our partner countries, including of course Russia.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow