Belarus Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
© Reuters / Lehtikuva / Heikki Saukkomaa
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya during an interview with the media in Helsinki, Finland on March 1, 2021.
The West's favorite Belarusian opposition figurehead, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has been in Washington, asking lawmakers to impose sanctions on her country, in a bid to overthrow its embattled veteran leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

"I think it's high time for democratic countries to unite and show their teeth," she told politicians, articulating her dreams for her own country in pro-American terms. That has undoubtedly won her supporters in the West, and fits with Washington's classic regime-change template - hijacking popular protests to redraw the geopolitical frontlines of the world.

Tikhanovskaya appears to be the latest in a line of marginal opposition figures who are anointed as saviors by the West, like Venezuela's Juan Guaidó or Russia's Alexey Navalny. Once the narrative of a pro-democratic figure seeking to align with Western states has been planted and media follows the lead, it is then deemed legitimate for Washington to organize their "civil society" against that state. Much like in Ukraine, NATO countries undermine the sovereignty of Belarus under the auspices of supporting the people.

A narrative detached from reality

A recent poll by Britain's Chatham House demonstrates how far that narrative falls short of reality. In response to the question of who would make the best president of Belarus, only 4% backed Tikhanovskaya, while 23% answered in favor of Lukashenko. A colossal 25% named Viktor Babariko - the former chief of a Russian-owned bank now serving time on controversial fraud charges.

And yet, based on her supposed popularity, Lithuania has housed and recognized Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate president of Belarus, and denounced any agreements between Lukashenko and Russia as crimes against the Belarusian people. Babariko doesn't get a look in.

The poll by Chatham House reveals that Belarusians view Russia far more favorably than the EU, US or any other country. A clear majority of respondents support continued membership in the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, while a meager 7% of respondents want to join NATO. This, however, may not be an insurmountable obstacle, as only 17% of Ukrainians desired NATO membership when NATO promised in 2008 that Ukraine would eventually become a member.

In terms of membership in political unions, 32% of the respondents prefer a Union with Russia, 9% favor a Union with the EU, while 46% prefer to be in a Union with both Russia and the EU. Even though Russia is clearly the preferred partner for the Belarusian people, who showed a preference not to live in a divided Europe where they must choose between Russia and the EU.

Herein lies the source of all major conflict in Europe. By excluding the largest European state - Russia - from the main institutions of Europe, "European integration" means tearing apart countries in the shared neighborhood between the West and Moscow. Severing peoples with centuries of a history, a culture, of traditions and a language shared with Russia is crudely portrayed as liberating a freedom-loving people from the authoritarian clutches of Russia.

The narrative of Belarus is consistent with US efforts to recast the new Cold War as a rivalry between liberal democracies and authoritarian states. While good propaganda ideally depicts all conflicts as a competition between good and evil, the ideological framing makes little sense, as Russia and China are not fighting democracies as champions of authoritarianism.

Furthermore, Russia is perfectly capable of getting along with countries like South Korea, Japan, India and other democracies in the East. Yet, the narrative of liberal democracies versus authoritarian states serves the purpose of legitimizing Western interference and delegitimizing the Russian response.

The geopolitics of popular revolts

Western efforts to topple the Belarusian government demonstrate how democratic development is impeded by the geopolitics of a divided Europe. The Belarusians are ready for a power transfer, while Moscow is similarly not happy with Lukashenko and would not be opposed to a successor taking office, provided they were legitimate and chosen from within Belarus. However, in a divided Europe any domestic turmoil is vulnerable to exploitation by "democracy promoters" seeking to redraw the borders of Europe.

The lesson from the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine was that democratization is treated just as a pretext for interference by the NATO powers, it is not the primary objective. Anti-corruption and pro-democracy protests were immediately hijacked and linked to NATO and EU membership, while democracy and human rights became obstacles for cementing pro-West/anti-Russian governments.

In Georgia, the NATO powers made continuous excuses for [former president of Georgia Mikheil] Saakashvili's authoritarianism. In Ukraine, the US even hailed the clampdown on media and arrest of the opposition leader there as consolidating democracy. In Belarus, Tikhanovskaya with her 4% support can not rely on democratic support to implement Washington's agenda.

US regime-change operations in Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus have placed Russia in a dilemma. On one hand, if Russia stands down, the governments may falter and the US can install a pro-West/anti-Russian government to take its place. On the other hand, if Russia intervenes by supporting the legitimate government, then Moscow can be chastised as the defender of an unpopular and authoritarian leader.

This liberal democracy versus authoritarian narrative also conceals a great irony. As Western powers attempt to topple the Belarusian government with sanctions, Minsk becomes more reliant on Moscow. Washington is spinning the narrative that the independence of the country is threatened by Russia, while comprising its sovereignty from afar.

A dysfunctional Europe

After the Cold War, it was expected that countries striving towards democracy would naturally align themselves with the liberal democratic West, which, informed by its values, would act as a "force for good." Instead, the conflating of democratization with Western alignment is now at the center of an ideological project that fuels the new Cold War.

As polls demonstrate, the democratization of Belarus would not mean joining the Western bloc against Russia - there simply isn't public support for that. And so, organic movements for democratization and peaceful transfer of power have to be hijacked, corrupted and eventually destroyed by the bloc politics in a divided Europe.

The reasonable demand for political reforms by Belarusians has now been besmirched into parading Tikhanovskaya around Washington as the legitimate leader of Belarus, as she advocates for sanctions and regime change.
Glenn Diesen is a Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and an editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal. Follow him on Twitter @glenndiesen