The Irish Times view on challenges to Putin’s authority

For Russia and its neighbours, the late Putin era may prove to be anything but stable

 

For 20 years, Vladimir Putin has promised to give Russians stability at home and a sense of pride in seeing their country regain power and prestige abroad. Yet just weeks after a disputed vote on constitutional amendments opened a path for Putin to remain president until 2036, he faces unexpected challenges to his authority from a city in Russia’s far east and an erstwhile ally to the west.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is the only European leader to have ruled for longer than Putin, and he has gradually deepened his country’s integration with – and economic reliance upon – Moscow by forming a “union state” with Russia. Lukashenko has occasionally bristled at Kremlin attempts to force the pace of integration, while always insisting that Russia was Belarus’s best friend and accusing western powers of meddling in his country’s affairs by supporting reformist opponents.

That familiar script was flipped last week, when Belarusian special forces arrested 33 Russian mercenaries and accused them of plotting terrorist acts in collaboration with jailed opposition figures around Sunday’s presidential election. As Belarusian television showed the men being dragged out of bed and frogmarched to police trucks, Lukashenko denounced Russia’s “dirty intentions” and warned of a foreign-backed plot to seize power. The affair is widely seen as an attempt to discredit a fast-growing pro-democracy movement that has coalesced around presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, whose husband is one of several opposition figures to have been jailed.

This would not be the first time that Lukashenko has whipped up security fears to justify a crackdown, but never before has he made Russia the bugbear or accused it so bluntly of threatening Belarusian sovereignty. It will also pain the military and intelligence officials who wield such power in Putin’s Russia to see the mercenaries – who include ex-servicemen – humiliated.

The furore further complicates Russia’s bid to bind its neighbour tighter through their union state. Putin may now have to reassess what he can achieve peacefully in relations with Belarus, while also trying to damp down angry dissent 6,000 km east of Moscow over what locals regard as malign Kremlin overreach.

Tens of thousands have marched through the city of Khabarovsk this month to decry the arrest of regional governor Sergei Furgal in connection with murders committed 15 years ago – a move they view as punishment for his defeat of a Kremlin-backed candidate in 2018 elections. Critics say the Kremlin’s uncertain handling of the coronavirus pandemic and misreading of the mood in Khabarovsk show Putin is losing his touch. For Russia and its neighbours, the late Putin era may prove to be anything but stable.

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