Belarus protesters vs “Psycho 3%”

What will it take to bring change to the one European country where nothing ever changes? Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus long enough to consider his Russian neighbor Vladimir Putin "the new guy." Since 1994, he's beaten back periodic calls for political change. That's now getting harder.


Years ago, Lukashenko was popular. Many Belarusians were gratified that, in the years that followed Soviet collapse, their country avoided the economic chaos of Boris Yeltsin's Russia and the political upheavals in next-door Ukraine.

But over time, his popularity has withered, particularly in Minsk, the country's capital. Protesters, who have gathered in city streets in recent days in historically high numbers, have dubbed their president "Psycho 3%."

The "psycho" part refers to his insistence that the coronavirus is merely a "psychosis" that can be managed with saunas and vodka. Lukashenko rejected calls for a COVID lockdown in his country with a warning that it would leave citizens without enough to eat. (Not a ringing self-endorsement for a man who has been in power for 26 years.)

The "3%" refers to his approval rating in a recent informal online poll. A more credible survey from the Belarus Academy of Sciences, conducted in April and leaked to Western media, suggested that about one-third of Belarusians still trust Lukashenko, but that's not impressive in a country where the president controls nearly all traditional media. The "Psycho 3%" label has even become a fashion item among protesters.

Outsiders are watching. Russian officials remain interested in Lukashenko's fate because they believe Belarus remains a bulwark against the further expansion of Europe toward Russia's border. Europe takes an interest, because Belarus has often been labelled "Europe's last dictatorship" — and because Belarus has long been a transit point for Russian oil headed West.

Time to vote. Lukashenko's immediate problem is a national election on August 9, and his campaign strategy might look familiar to Mr Putin. For example, Lukashenko is now a lock to win a sixth term, in part because two leading opposition figures, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko, have been barred from running.

Babariko, the stronger of the two candidates, faces money-laundering charges that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calls "politically motivated." Tsepkalo had more than half the signatures on his election petition invalidated. In Belarus, as in other authoritarian states, the law exists not to protect the people from the excesses of their leaders but the other way around.

These moves then triggered protests that quickly got the president's attention. When the Psycho 3% idea became a popular internet meme, Lukashenko shut down mobile internet connections nationwide, and his police then hit the streets of Minsk to beat some protesters and arrest others. A few journalists went to jail, too.

Pointing fingers at Russia. The interesting twist on Lukashenko's new campaign messaging is that he claims his strongest rivals are agents of the Russian government — Babariko is the former head of a Russian-owned bank, and Tsepkalo has been linked to a deep-pocketed Russian oligarch.

This is the latest sign of friction in the long-complicated relationship between Minsk and Moscow. Putin has pressured Lukashenko to lead Belarus into a "Union State" with Russia, while Lukashenko fears that "union" might make Belarus into a Russian province. Russia has long shipped fuel to Belarus at a discounted price that Belarus can then sell to Europeans at a markup. A lack of progress on the union project has ended that economic support, at least for now.

The enemy within. But like all long-time dictators, Lukashenko's greatest challenge may be demographic. No Belarussian under 30 can remember life without him, and the number of older voters, his most reliable backers, is dwindling.

He also has a more immediate worry: Any dictator can rest easy if he believes that soldiers and police will follow his orders to pull the trigger. But Lukashenko can't help but notice that the Psycho 3% internet memes include photos of anonymous protesters in both police and army uniforms.

Unfortunately for Lukashenko, not even Europe's last dictator can shut down the internet forever.

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You've probably heard a lot in the past three days about Senator Kamala Harris, her background, and the ground-breaking nature of her candidacy for US vice president.

But now that the cheering crowds have logged off and the virtual confetti has been swept away, we're left with a basic question: will Kamala Harris make a difference — on the campaign trial and maybe in the White House — for Joe Biden?

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Kevin Sneader, global managing partner for McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on how corporate business leaders think in response to the coronavirus crisis:

What is the role of HR going into the next normal?

Well, this is a time of reset and one big reset that I see is around the role of HR. I think it's time for HR to shift from being a transactional partner around compensation, organization charts, and benefits to being a truly integral architect of change. Now, that's been happening for years in the best performing HR departments. It Involves rethinking talent requirements, capturing what was learned about individuals and organizations during the course of this pandemic, and even learning and growing in a world in which remote working has to be combined with working back in the office or the manufacturing facility. A world where incentives needs to be rethought. And where employee experiences need to reflect a very different reality. So, there's a big reset going on and I think that reset needs to embrace HR both in terms of what HR can do, the role of the CHR role, and indeed the way in which together HR becomes a true architect for change, just as it has done for many years, perhaps unnoticed, and not give enough credit by those who really should know better.

An open letter in Politico by a group of foreign policy experts says the US should take a much tougher approach on Russia. In this edition of The Red Pen, Ian Bremmer is joined by Eurasia Group analysts Alex Brideau and Zach Witlin to point out some reasons why diplomacy and realism are critical in the US approach to Russia.

And today, we're taking our Red Pen to an open letter titled "No, Now Is Not the Time for Another Russia Reset." It was published in Politico and signed by 33 foreign policy experts, including diplomats Bill Taylor and Kurt Volker, who both testified at the impeachment hearings, as well as a bunch of military intelligence and diplomatic figures. And as it turned out, actually, we were Red Penned here, because it's a response to this piece, also in Politico recently, that I cosigned with a different group of Russia experts, including Fiona Hill and Jon Huntsman.

Both letters talk about the road ahead for US relations with Russia. The one I signed argued that the US needs to know when there will be opportunities to work with Russia and when Washington has to push back. The central argument in this article is that there's no point in talking to Russia until Putin changes his mind. So, what we have here is an open debate about the issue. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty we agree on and plenty of places where no red ink is required.

We agree that Russia bears plenty of responsibility for the current state of affairs. It occupies territory that belongs to Georgia and Ukraine, two sovereign states. And it interfered in the 2016 US election and continues to do so as we speak. Moscow has also killed dissidents in Europe, assassinated them. So, I mean, you know, no one is trying to justify any of that belligerent behavior. And we also agree that while the United States can fine tune its policy all we want, it actually takes two to tango. Recent talks with the Russians have not been too successful, but since the red pen is here, it is time to highlight some areas of disagreement. So, here they are.

Point one, the authors argue that there's no point in talking to Russia about much of anything until Putin changes his act. They write that "by arguing that it is the United States and not Russia that needs a 'current change of course' the authors of the open letter (that's us) get it exactly backward."

If the US takes an all or nothing approach with Russia, it will end up with nothing. Look, I mean, I certainly expect and understand that we should have a more hawkish line on a bunch of things with the Chinese as well, but that doesn't mean you can't work with these countries on climate change, on space, on a bunch of areas where it's actually really important. These are still large economies. In the case of the Russians, the largest nuclear arsenal in the world along with the United States, and I would argue that leaving the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement was a mistake, leaving the Blue Skies Agreement, the Open Skies Agreement was a mistake. That you have to work even with your antagonists, and that's important. That means that we should be pursuing diplomacy and cooperation where we can while also vigorously defending our own interests where we can't. This strikes me as a fairly obvious baseline understanding of international diplomacy, and I'm always surprised when people push back against it.

Point two, the authors write that the US should "maintain, even enhance sanctions" on Russia unless a long list of demands are met, like withdrawing troops from Ukraine, including Crimea, and ending cyberattacks and election interference.

Nobody is saying we should give in to Russia on any of those issues. The bottom line is that the above list of demands is already US policy. How more sanctions would change Russian behavior? Doesn't make a lot of sense. You need your allies on board for sanctions to work. And sanctions work best when they're calibrated and targeted. When they have clear benchmarks that when met, lead to easing of those sanctions. And when they're paired with diplomacy. Russia's a big nuclear armed country, unlike, say, South Africa. Russia's not going to simply be sanctioned into surrender. Maintain the sanctions but expanding them at this point strikes me as having very little likelihood of return and only marginal increase of sanctions that we could do.

Point three, the authors say that the US should not resign itself to accepting "Russia's repression, kleptocracy and aggression" as that provides no incentive for Putin to change.

Now, we agree. The US cannot accept Russian misbehavior, but we need to be realistic about what we can actually change, like stopping Russian election meddling, and what we can't, like Russia's kleptocracy. We can and should do our part to stop dirty money from coming into the US and Europe but changing Russia's domestic system is another story.

So, in conclusion, the Russians are an antagonist of the United States. Their revisionist power, they're in decline. They are trying to undermine the Americans, the Europeans, and the transatlantic relationship. All true. But I actually think that there are areas where we still need to be working with lots of states that we really don't like and don't trust, and yes, Russia is one of them. By the way, New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed in 2010 by the US and Russia expires in February 2021. Open dialog right now could save it and I think it's worth saving. Let's work on that.

"We now have for the first time, pre-COVID, a very good sense of where the gaps are" says former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden on pandemic preparedness. But in order to prevent another pandemic from bringing the world to its knees, he argues, the United States must play a more proactive role on the global stage. First step: work much more closely with the CDC (and don't, for starters, pull funding during a pandemic).