Geopolitics

Diplomacy 101 In Belarus: Talking To Bad People Is Part Of The Job

A German politician lashed out after Angela Merkel spoke on the phone with Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko. But like in other hot spots, avoiding the worst along the Belarus-Poland border means casting aside moral superiority and naiveté.

BERLIN — It may well be that in just a few weeks there will be a Green Party politician at the helm of the German diplomacy. It may be co-party leader Annalena Baerbock, or someone else. Either way, what would it mean if the foreign minister was from the Green Party?

Well, we may get a hint of what could happen by looking at Green politician Omid Nouripour's reaction to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's actions regarding the refugee crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. It does not bode well.

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Modi Bows To Farmers, Belarus Camps Cleared, Extra-Long Eclipse

👋 Dia dhuit!*

Welcome to Friday, where Indian farmers win a major victory against the Modi government after a year of protests, Austria announces a full lockdown and mandatory vaccines and the world is treated to the longest lunar eclipse in nearly 600 years. We also have a feature story from Jeune Afrique magazine that traces the international origins of twerking.

[*Gaelic]

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Russia Space Blast Endangers Astronauts, Belarus Border Clashes, Leo’s Beach

👋 ሰላም!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Russia is under fire for blowing up a satellite in space, clashes erupt at the Poland-Belarus border and Leo's Beach opens again. Courtesy of German daily Die Welt, we also look at the reasons behind the major discrepancies in COVID-19 vaccination rates across Europe.

[*Selam, Amharic - Ethiopia]

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The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seem to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

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Belarus
Meike Eijsberg

Europe Against Belarus — How A Sprinter Became The New Catalyst

A virtual unknown to most of the world a few days ago, Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya is now at the center of an Olympic drama that has spilled over into the realm of geopolitics.

On Sunday afternoon, Kristina Timanovskaya, a 24-year-old sprinter, was taken to the Haneda Airport in Tokyo by two attendants from the Belarusian team. It would be the beginning of the most politically charged episode of the 2021 Summer Games, which has the potential to carry over into high-stakes diplomacy long after the closing ceremony.


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Belarus
Thomas d'Istria

Maria Kolesnikova: A Final Stand Of The Belarusian Resistance

The shocking, mid-flight capture of a dissident journalist brings new attention to the repression taking place in Belarus, where another prominent political prisoner Kolesnikova has been locked up for months.

MINSK — Eight months before journalist Roman Protasevich was dragged from a commercial flight that Belarusian authorities essentially "hijacked," an even more prominent opponent of strongman Alexander Lukashenko's decades-old regime was seized in the middle of a street in Minsk by a group of masked men, presumably KGB agents.

Just before dawn the next day, the detainee — professional flautist and former presidential candidate Maria Kolesnikova — found herself at the Ukranian border with a decision to make: Would she do as her captors wanted and leave Belarus? Instead, the 39-year-old political dissident tore apart her passport, effectively choosing prison over exile.

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Belarus
*Anna Zafesova

Lukashenko To Putin: A New Cold War, Or Something Worse?

Western media like to run headlines warning of a “new Cold War” every time a new conflict or act of repression occurs in post-Soviet authoritarian, But Belarus’ brazen intercepting of a Ryanair jet is something that never would have happened on either sid

-Analysis-

Is history repeating itself, only this time as a farce?

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Belarus
Thomas d'Istria

In Belarus, Purpose And Method In Hunting Down Demonstrators

Alexander Lukashenko's regime is sending more and more protesters to prison to try to prevent a new mass mobilization.

MINSK — The welcoming committee waiting for Angelina Serzhan when she was released from prison on Feb. 14 was limited to her parents, who were happy ... and worried. The hour of Serzhan's release had been postponed at the last moment. An argument soon broke out between the reunited family. "My father told me that I was responsible because I had worn politically incorrect socks," says the 20-year-old. She had taken part in the demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was re-elected on Aug. 9, 2020. She had expected to be arrested one day by the special riot police (OMON), but certainly not because of her socks.

On Jan. 30, police officers put her in a van while she was crossing a park in the capital. The reason? Serzhan, who studies fine arts in Minsk, was wearing white and red socks, the colors of the former flag of the Belarusian People's Republic. This flag became the symbol of the protest movement. At the verdict of her trial, on Skype, she was sentenced to 15 days of detention for "participation in a mass event not authorized by the authorities."

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Belarus
Kirill Krivosheyev

Lukashenko Threats Force Hand Of Belarus Opposition

The opponents of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ are trying to avoid loss of life and focusing new energy on labor strikes.

Two weeks have passed since the presidential election in Belarus, the results of which are disputed by the opposition. Despite the large turnout for Sunday" protests, there are signs that the movement against longstanding leader Alexander Lukashenko may be gradually dying down.

Proclaimed president of Belarus for a sixth time, Lukashenko is busy attempting to regain the initiative with the help of alternative pro-government demonstrations among his supporters — along with grim warnings that order would be restored in the country.

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Belarus
Christophe Ayad

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Interview: Fear Has Changed Sides

Forced into exile in Lithuania after the contested Aug. 9 Belarusian presidential election, Tikhanovskaya is not giving up the struggle to push strongman Alexander Lukashenko from power.

VILNIUS — After 10 days of silence, officially due to a quarantine, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is making up for lost time. Spontaneous and initially shy, the 37 year-old surprise candidate for the Belarusian presidential election is becoming more and more assertive, revealing an iron will. Currently a refugee from her homeland, in Vilnius, Lithuania, and living with her two children, Tikhanovskaya has suddenly found herself as the top opponent of the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. She met recently with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who said he was "impressed."

In an Aug 25 interview with Le Monde, Tikhanovskaya said she continues to rely on peaceful demonstrations and strikes to bring down the man described as "the last dictator in Europe."

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BBC
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Manon Dambrine

Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters

In two very different parts of the world, seemingly impenetrable authoritarian regimes suddenly appear under siege by popular democratic uprisings. But as protesters take to the streets in Belarus and Thailand — and garner widespread international support — it still remains unclear if they'll be able to turn their mass demonstrations into tangible change.

Flawed democracy, military rule: Thailand, which for years has vacillated between periods of a flourishing if flawed democracy and straight-out military rule, has been run by generals who took over in a 2014 coup and suspended the constitution. The junta has faced sporadic protests, but General-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's victory for another four-year tem in a sketchy 2019 general election did not cause a major stir, until the recent unrest.

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Belarus
Alexei Tokarev

Tanks From Moscow? What Prague 1968 Tells Us About Minsk 2020

A Russian political analyst asks whether it is in Moscow’s interest to send military forces into Belarus in support of embattled leader Alexander Lukashenko.

MOSCOW — August. Mass demonstrations in a Slavic country. Its leader is, of course, no enemy to Moscow, but the alliance isn't quite working out the way the Kremlin would like. The temptation here is to continue in the style of the armchair analyst; this analogy proves that the protests in Belarus are destined to be … But this isn't about 2020, and it isn't about Belarus.

In 1968, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia lasted for a couple of months. The Czechoslovak leadership wanted to push the window open a bit and allow the population to breathe the air of freedom. Moscow thought otherwise. In those days the Kremlin didn't beat around the bush with its allies (or even vassals), so half a million soldiers and more than 6,000 tanks and armored troop carriers from Warsaw Pact nations set off for Czechoslovakia. No military hostilities took place. The leaders of the country that had yearned for "excessive" freedom were swiftly taken into captivity by Soviet paratroopers and whisked off to Moscow, and a Soviet military presence was maintained in Czechoslovakia until 1991.

The Brezhnev Doctrine, that is the readiness to intervene in the internal affairs of Warsaw Pact states in cases where the Kremlin considered it necessary, was an effective military and political instrument at the time. In today's Czech Republic and Slovakia, however, it is hard to find anyone who will justify the decision to send in the tanks as in 1968.

In a historical sense, the USSR once again appeared as the strangler of freedom: You can encounter "tanks on the streets of Prague" in almost any debate about the fate of the Soviet Union. Post-1968, after all, the United States only strengthened its position in Europe (its allies gained an additional argument about protection from the "evil empire"), and Czechoslovakia ultimately liberated itself from Soviet influence in any case. The Warsaw Pact was bound to fall apart.

Mentions of "tanks in Prague" have become increasingly common on social media.

Following two phone calls in as many days between Russian President Vladmir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, mentions of "tanks in Prague" have become increasingly common on social media. Lukashenko has mentioned Russia's readiness to offer assistance on several occasions, and it's not hard to guess what such assistance might consist of. The two states have recalled the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but this is applied in cases of repelling external aggression. What do hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Minsk have to do with the CSTO?

I do not know what will happen and whether Lukashenko will hold on to power.

Look at any Facebook page right now and you'll find an erstwhile Ukraine expert, temporarily carrying out the duties of a Turkologist, an Orientalist, an Americanologist and a Balkanologist, and now playing the role of an expert on Belarus. They all have the answers.

I would like only to recall the recent past of Georgia and the role played by Russia in those events, since this was no less effective politics than tanks in Prague.

WC_inside_Prague_1968

Russian soldiers on a tank in Prague, August 1968— Photo: Mondadori Portfolio

Nov. 22, 2003. Evening in the Georgian parliament. Protesters break into the auditorium at the very moment that President Eduard Shevardnadze is giving a speech. The security detail hurriedly escort the head of state to safety. As the street protests mount peacefully outside, demanding resignations, a young Mikheil Saakashvili Georgia's future president runs up to the rostrum and takes a sip of the president's still-warm tea. Russian TV channels cover the protests in a fashion befitting a proper mass media, allowing both sides to give their point of view, without taking sides.

In 1999 Shevardnadze had already promised to "knock on NATO's door," but Russia remained the heavyweight player in the region. So Russia's foreign minister Igor Ivanov flies to Tbilisi late at night on Nov. 22. Nobody sends in the tanks. The head of the Foreign Ministry simply arrives at the presidential residence and on the morning of Nov. 23 Shevardnadze seats him at the head of the table. The Georgian leader then sits to his left. To his right — Mikheil Saakashvili and the prime minister, Zurab Zhvania. Photographs of this symbolic meeting can easily be found on the internet. As Igor Ivanov later pointed out, it was President Vladimir Putin who phoned the Georgian leader to offer Russian help.

The end of this story is not very uplifting. Back in 2004, Russia's Igor Ivanov, who by then had passed his foreign minister post on to Sergei Lavrov to head Russia's Security Council, flew to Georgia a second time. This trip was to Batumi, where he persuaded Aslan Abashidze, the rebellious leader of Georgia's coastal province of Adjaria to abandon the country and fly back to Moscow with him. In this way, Adjaria returned to Georgia's constitutional space without blood being spilled. And Georgia's drift toward NATO continued. In 2008, Russia would even manage to take on the Georgians, "coercing them into peace." Then diplomatic ties were severed for good.

So it turns out that there aren't many good arguments for those who want to dispatch tanks to any place where an allegedly pro-Russian leader is being overthrown.

What's the point of this tedious diplomacy, if we act as mediators in negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, and the new leaders, forgetting about gratitude, run off to NATO anyway? At the very least, so that in the historical context years later we won't be reminded of this by the addition of a comma: "Prague 1968, Minsk 2020." The Kremlin will not be deploying tanks any time soon.

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Belarus
Kirill Krivosheyev

'Joan Of Arc' In Exile: Can Tikhanovskaya Lead Belarus From Abroad?

Violent clashes continue to rock Belarus after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country, following President Lukashenko's reelection.

MINSK — As protests take over Belarus, following a presidential election that many are calling rigged, a new opposition government begins abroad. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lost the Sunday election to 26-year incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, is trying to gain international traction as the legitimate president of the Eastern European country.

Tikhanovskaya will manage affairs from exile in Lithuania, where she fled in the early hours of Aug. 11 after what appears to have been long and extremely distressing talks with representatives of the Belarusian authorities.

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Belarus
Claire Gatinois and Nicolas Ruisseau

In Belarus, An Unexpected 'Women's Revolution' Arises Ahead Of Sunday's Election

A largely unknown figure until recently, candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya is now challenging to end the 26-year presidency of Alexander Lukashenko.

Until a few months ago, she was just a simple housewife. An anonymous mother, modest and self-effacing, living in the shadow of a husband who had become a star on social media, a talkative and politicized man, ready to fight the power.

But on the evening of July 26, in Gomel, a small town in Belarus, it was she, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people. All around, supporters swayed their illuminated telephones to the tune of L'Estaca, the Catalan song that Spaniards sang to free themselves from Franco. It's the same song that the Poles of Solidarnosc used to hum before the fall of the communist regime.

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Belarus
Tereza Souskova

Coronavirus Lies Backfire On Belarus Strongman Lukashenko

People are taking to the streets in a challenge to the country's long-serving president, Alexander Lukashenko, who expects to win a sixth term in next month's elections.

-Analysis-

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus can't, by his own admission, afford to behave democratically. "I could lose the whole country," the long-serving leader said after the recent arrests of several opposition presidential candidates.

In the meantime, police are arresting participants in peaceful demonstrations. Journalists have been detained as well — live on air. Lukashenko has an explanation for that as well: It's to thwart an international conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the country before the presidential election.

Why all this if, until recently, authorities let the demonstrations take place without intervention?

It's because the leadership sees that after 26 years of one-man rule, people are running out of patience, especially in light of Lukashenko's approach to the pandemic, which his government completely denied until recently. The president is worried, therefore, about the elections — afraid that they may not go according to plan.

Belarusians compare the government's attitude towards the COVID-19 pandemic to the Chernobyl tragedy. In both cases, there was an information vacuum, a total lack of transparency, and people died unnecessarily as a result.

Empty Minsk — Photo: Darya Tryfanava

To prevent coronavirus infection, Lukashenko advised citizens to follow personal hygiene habits. He said that from time to time, people should "disinfect themselves from the inside with something stronger." They should drink vodka, in other words. He also said they should work — especially in the fields.

Lukashenko described the virus as a psychosis and let the police arrest opposition media that criticized the inaction of the authorities and questioned the government's coronavirus statistics.

In the beginning of April, he still claimed that no one in the country would die of coronavirus. The World Health Organization recommended that Belarus introduce limits on gatherings. But with no state of emergency declared, people kept going to work, schools or stadiums to watch soccer matches. Belarus was also the only post-Soviet country to hold a military parade marking the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The event attracted mass participation.

As of June 22, the virus infected approximately 60,000 in Belarus and killed 340. The number is based on official statistics, which are probably strongly underestimated.

The assumption was that people will be too busy with the pandemic to pay much attention to politics.

The government's hands-off approach to the pandemic resulted in the country taking practically no action. The disease spread rapidly as a result, and instead of informing the public, official information providers equivocate.

Evidence has emerged that doctors are forced to falsify the causes of death on death certificates. As in Russia, pneumonia is the most reported cause instead of coronavirus. The only verifiable evidence of the current situation in the country are overcrowded hospitals and testimonies from medics and families of victims, who are intimidated by the authorities to remain silent.

The government decided to take advantage of the situation and hastily announced a date for the presidential election: August 9. The assumption was that people will be too busy with the pandemic to pay much attention to politics, and that everything would thus play out as usual, that Lukashenko would win yet another term — his sixth.

Since then, however, people have taken to the streets, and in larger numbers than in the buildup to past presidential elections. Many of the participants are people who had previously supported Lukashenko or were not interested in politics. The protesters claim to represent 97% of the country, since according to independent surveys, Lukashenko's popularity has dropped to just 3%. This number has become a symbol of the current demonstrations.

The three most prominent opposition presidential candidates in this year's election are blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, former director of the Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko, and former diplomat Valery Cepkalo. The first two were arrested before they finished collecting signatures for their candidacy, after authorities "found" compromising material during house searches. They risk several years behind bars.

Opposition candidate Viktor Babaryko — Photo: Official Instagram

Immediately afterwards, two other candidates voluntarily resigned from the election race. Tikhanovsky's signatures, which must reach at least 100,000 for registration, were taken over by his wife Svetlana, who was threatened by the Belarusian authorities that her children would be taken away right after announcing her candidacy.

Babaryko, who has by far the most support and collected almost half a million signatures, was arrested together with his son on their way to the Central Election Commission, where they were taking more signature sheets for candidacy registration. Also, Belarusian criminal authorities launched an investigation into Belgazprombank's leadership for corruption and financial embezzlement. Babaryko ran the bank for 20 years before resigning in May to run in the presidential election.

In response to the intimidation of opposition candidates, Belarusians braved a heavy rain last month to form a human chain of solidarity that stretched several kilometers along the main avenue in Minsk. Every day, the chain extends to other cities and passing cars honk in solidarity. The movement involves everyone from students to retirees.

Security forces arrest people regardless of age, and sometimes non-uniformed men are seen cramming protesters into unmarked cars. A journalist at Radio Freedom, Alexandra Dynka, was detained together with a cameraman while filming a live report from the demonstrations. During the peak of the protests, the regime also turned off mobile data so people could not share the events online.

Frustrations built up over many years are boiling over.

There is a sense of tension and frustration in Belarusian society across all its layers. The coronavirus crisis has opened the eyes of those who typically shunned politics, even if they knew already that the regime is corrupt and dishonest. What changed is the painful realization that the state has been unable and unwilling to provide its citizens with the basic protections and treatments needed in the pandemic. That's what drove a record number of people into the streets.

Officials, as a result, see themselves on the edge of the same abyss that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Armenian leader Sergeant Sargsjan fell into recently. Exacerbating the situation even more are Lukashenko's claims about exposing an international terrorist center plotting a coup, his use of derogatory names to insult opponents, and comments about how Central Asian rulers bring order to their countries with assault rifles in their hands.

The authorities are trying to intimidate the population, but frustrations built up over many years are boiling over. So far the movement shows no signs of abating, because in the prevailing opinion, the situation cannot get any worse, especially with a global economic crisis approaching.

Belarus is completely unprepared, and the public knows it. No one is convinced by Lukashenko's claims that "tomorrow will be better." Instead, those kinds of shabby phrases just make people angrier still.

What's also certain is that the regime will cheat in the August elections, and that it will not allow any major opposition candidate to participate. Everything else will depend on the level of violence the regime will resort to and how angry Belarusians really are.

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Belarus
Igor Ilyash

Just The Two Of Us: Why Belarus' Lukashenko Is Betting On Putin

-Analysis-

MINSK — Following the Nov. 17 elections for Belarus" lower house of parliament, independent observers and opposition politicians unanimously rated this campaign as one of the dirtiest in the 25 years of Alexander Lukashenko's rule. The 65-year-old president of Belarus has once again demonstrated that he is not going to adjust the eastern tilt of his country's development: the West's democratic values ​​clearly scare him far more than the threat of anschluss from Russia.

Opposition campaigns, television programs and the written press were rudely censored or banned altogether if any direct attacks on Lukashenko were spotted. The turnout data was significantly overstated, the independent observers were deleted, and the process of counting votes was utterly opaque. "These elections have demonstrated a complete lack of compliance with democratic commitments," said Margaret Soderfelt, head of the local mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections.

A cold shower for all optimists.

The final composition of the parliament looks to carry no true political weight: 110 loyal deputies and not a single oppositionist got into the lower house. Attention was reserved for only new face: Maria Vasilevich, the 22-year-old "Miss Belarus-2018."

The election's outcome came as a cold shower for all optimists who dream of gradual democratization. A minimum nod of decency and the admission of 3 or 4 opposition members to parliament could have sufficed to help in negotiations with the European Union. However, the Belarusian authorities decided that there was no such need.

Counting the voices during the July 2019 snap parliamentary elections in Ukraine — Photo: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/ZUMA

Five days before the election, Lukashenko paid an official visit to Vienna. The Austrian voyage was just the second trip of the Belarusian leader to Europe over the past 10 years, after a purely symbolic 2016 visit to Rome. There was every reason to expect more from the current visit to Austria, because Belarus is facing extreme pressure from the Kremlin, and desperately needs Western support, including financial aid. However, meetings with top officials of Austria turned out to be insignificant, as Lukashenko mainly advertised the Belarusian order and discipline and also convinced interlocutors that everything is fine with human rights in his country.

Of course, no one expected Lukashenko in Vienna to announce Belarus' intention to join the EU. But he could have, for example, declared a readiness to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty to join the Council of Europe (Belarus is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe). However, Lukashenko made it clear that there will be no change in the course. "We do not ask the Council of Europe. If you take us, thanks. If you don't, we'll wait. Don't set conditions for us," said Belarusian president.

Still, Lukashenko is also sharpening his tone with the Kremlin, threatening to refuse to sign an integration agreement with Moscow. "If our fundamental issues are not resolved (regarding the supply of hydrocarbons, the opening of proper markets for our goods, the removal of barriers, etc.), no road maps can be signed," he said.

There is growing alarm about the country's sovereignty in the face of Russian ambitions.

Across Belarus society, there is growing alarm about the country's sovereignty in the face of Russian ambitions. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Belarusian president realized that Putin poses a real threat. But for Lukashenko, Moscow is only one of the threats to his power along with the West and the domestic opposition. And he may consider Russia to be the least of the dangers.

Moreover, today's Russia shares a mentality with Alexandr Lukashenko: the cult of power, contempt for human rights, anti-Westernism and a certain nostalgia for the USSR.

So what has this most recent, and notably filthy election campaign told us? It seems that Lukashenko is nervous. When the Belarusian regime felt confident, he could afford to at least pretend to lean toward liberalization and allow a couple of critics into parliament, as he did in 2016. Now the real threat of takeover is looming, economic prospects are dim, and Lukashenko himself, for a long time, has lost faith that the people actually support him.

Thus, any freedom frightens him, and there can only be one solution: tighten the screws inside the country, while negotiating for the best deal possible with the Kremlin.

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