Belarus and Armenia: How Russia handles uprisings

Эндрю Уилсон, Нико Попеску и Густав Грессель анализируют, как отличается реакция России на протесты в Армении и Беларуси и в чем причина этих отличий


Russia’s goal in its neighbourhood is to regain influence, not to be surrounded by neutral, self-sufficient buffer states.

In recent years, Russia has opposed revolutions against authoritarian leaders and electoral fraud throughout the post-Soviet space. This counter-revolutionary effort has radically reshaped Russia itself. But there have always been exceptions to the rule. Russia accepted the result of leadership contests (not always accompanied by street protests) in the separatist regions of Transnistria in 2011, and Abkhazia in 2004 and 2020. The most prominent example of this is Armenia’s 2018 revolution, in which Russia accepted both a leadership transition enforced by public protests and a subsequent anti-corruption drive. It did so because Armenia’s new leader, Nikol Pashinyan, stayed close to Russia on foreign and security policy.

Hence, some observers hoped that Moscow might show some flexibility in the ongoing protests in Belarus. Russia seemed to be exploring its options – until President Vladimir Putin decisively backed his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in a television interview on 27 August. But a change in policy is still possible: Russia is providing resources to stabilise the situation in Belarus on its own terms, and it can still redirect those resources towards whomever it thinks will deploy them best.

So, are there any parallels between Belarus and Armenia? Historically, both countries are less pluralistic and democratic than Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine, all of which went through their own revolutions. Armenia and Belarus are characterised by strongman politics, security apparatuses tied to Russia, and oligopolistic economies with significant state-owned sectors and limited civil society – which ensure that power lies in the hands of a relatively limited number of political actors and interest groups. On paper, this should help Moscow or local elites navigate through protests.

But Belarus is a personalised dictatorship, in which the regime has systematically repressed or exiled all nascent cells of opposition and independent power. Before 2020, Lukashenka did not even allow much by way of Russian puppet organisations (patriotic youth movements, political parties, newspapers, and civil society organisations such as those in Ukraine).

Armenia was a defective democracy, where competition between political rivals was deferred and distorted, but nevertheless took place. The country has also gone through several phases of street protests in the last two decades. And its political forces have some experience with trying to channel street protests into political outcomes. The departure of the president would leave a much bigger power vacuum in Belarus than it did in Armenia.

Both countries rely on Russia for security. Both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. Neither Armenian nor Belarusian politicians question this alignment. The Armenian and Belarusian domestic security apparatuses are closely connected with their Russian counterparts, and have a certain degree of Russian oversight. But there are significant differences between Belarus and Armenia.

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