The first fake coup came last summer. Alexander Lukashenko was running for president of Belarus, and he was in trouble. Although had won five previous elections, and had the state apparatus on his side, the campaign of 2020 was different. Although he kept locking up his opponents, as was his wont, something greater was at work against him. Lukashenko seemed to be losing his touch. His authoritarian blustering about coronavirus had cost thousands of lives, and people knew it. He needed something dramatic.
Belarus under Lukashenko has been a more or less reliable ally of Russia under Putin. But Lukashenko has always been careful to maintain Belarusian sovereignty. Plans of union between the two states have piled up over the last two decades, but have never become reality. Early in 2020, the American secretary of state even visited Belarus, and talks began about how the United States might supply some of Belarus's energy. Last summer, Lukashenko was staging one of his regular tilts towards the West. As a candidate, he posed as the defender of his nation from Russia. The problem with his rivals, he said, was that they were pawns of Russia.
On 29 July 2020, Lukashenko visited a Belarusian military base. He boasted that he and he alone had defended the nation's security since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In what could only be understood as a slap to Russia, he claimed that "Nobody gave us anything, and we owe nothing to anyone." Later that day, official Belarusian media broke the story that Russian mercenaries had been arrested. The thirty-three men, Belarusian media maintained, were part of a larger team sent to Belarus to carry out terrorist attacks during the election, and thereby to prevent Lukashenko from remaining in power.
This did not look very plausible at the time. The men in question were indeed Russian mercenaries, presumably en route to fight one of Russia's dirty wars abroad. No one in Belarus seems to have paid much attention. A week later, Lukashenko lost the election (to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the opponents he had locked up), claimed to win it, and mass protests began. Lukashenko ordered a campaign of violent suppression.
Just eight months after the first fake coup, Putin took his revenge with a second fake coup. This time, the announcement of a coup attempt against Lukashenko was announced and organized by Russia. On 17 April, the Russian state police, or FSB, announced that they had stopped a coup attempt directed at Lukashenko. For some unexplained reason, the putative suspects were in Russia rather than in Belarus. On 21 April, Vladimir Putin made this second imagined coup the centerpiece of his annual address to the Russian parliament. In his very long speech he referred to few actual events beyond Russia, but devoted emphatic attention to his Belarusian fiction: The "recently exposed direct interference in Belarus in an attempt to orchestrate a coup d’état and assassinate the president of that country."
Lukashenko tamely followed the Russian lead, adding the detail that the plotters were planning to harm his children. It is impossible to say whether even this amplification was his idea: putting children in the middle of a story about political opponents is a common tactic of the Putin regime. This time around, Belarusian state media just repeated what the Russians said. When Russian authorities decried "international terrorism," the Belarusian press simply reprinted the interview. The notion was that the Americans were responsible. The Belarusians had been saying that the plot was supposed to come to fruition in June or July. The Russians decided instead that the date was to be 9 May, which is rich in symbolism: it is the day when Russia and Belarus commemorate the end of the Second World War.
Lukashenko has lost control of the story at home, and abroad. A president who can no longer tell his own lies is no longer in charge. It is one thing to claim that your neighbor is trying to remove you from power. It is quite another when you have to repeat that very same neighbor's story about how someone else is trying to remove you from power. It was not true that the Russians were trying to stage a coup, nor is it true that the Americans are trying to stage a coup. What is true is that Lukashenko is no longer in charge. By attempting to maintain personal power at all costs, he has lost power over his country.
When Lukashenko lost last year's election and pretended to win, he handed his country to Russia. Had he left power gracefully, his successor would have had the loyalty of Belarusian institutions, and the support of the population. Because Lukashenko chose violence against his own people, his regime has lost not only support but also authority and legitimacy. If he wishes to stay in power, he now must rely upon Russia. And of course that means that Russia will also decide when he will leave power.
This will not take the form of a dramatic story of arrested malefactors. The Russian coup that is now bringing down Lukashenko is unfolding on several levels, inside Belarus itself. And if it reaches fruition, Belarus can no longer be seen as a sovereign state. The real coup will be our subject next time.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
First published on Timothy Snyder’s Substack “Thinking About...”