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.
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.
*Alexei Tokarev is a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations