BSF founders Olevs Nikers and Otto Tabuns: “Extensive destabilization of Belarus can lead to a humanitarian disaster at worst”

  • 2021-04-04
  • Linas Jegelevicius, The Baltic Times editor-in-chief

What will the geopolitical fallout be from the global COVID-19 health contingency? How will the glo-bal super-powers stack up against one another afterwards? What challenges will the Baltics be facing? The Baltic Times asked the founders of the Baltic Security Foundation (BSF), Mr. Olevs Nikers, President of the BSF and Mr. Otto Tabuns, Director, to share their insights. 

What do you believe will be the long-term fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic geopolitically?

Olevs Nikers: It is an overwhelming problem for any national policy planning and crisis management, not really seen for a century, yet aggravated by increased interconnectedness. The United States has a tough balancing act, as the harsh domestic situation is letting many to question assigning additional resources to restore American leadership in the international arena. European cohesion is tested by both domestic and interstate pressure to an extent not seen since the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The resulting instability may allow revisionist powers to achieve their objectives faster than before 2020.  

The Baltics were eager to accept the China-made face masks last spring during the breakout of the pandemic when we had a shortage. But now the Baltics maintain that the Chinese vaccine cannot be accepted because China ostensibly is using it as soft power. What do you make of that?

Otto Tabuns: China has been a major producer of medical supplies for a long time and many European countries depend on Beijing for such imports. International competition for urgently needed goods applied with regard to masks as it does for vaccines at the moment. The position on the vaccine may stem from a united European stance that has been established. 

Do you believe a disciplined society like that of China stands a better chance than the US with the liberal, anti-vaxxers-rich society in coming out victorious in handling the COVID-19 pandemic? Also coping with the economic fallout from it and ramping up its economic and geopolitical standings across the world?

Otto Tabuns: Owing to the more centralized governance, China has the opportunity to mobilize faster and skirt any blame cast upon it by other countries in connection with the original outbreak. Beijing may rapidly use international political and economic tools to increase influence, especially in Western countries with currently despondent economic situations. While open informational space is more vulnerable to manipulations, a controlled information space with little transparency regarding the pandemic may create risks for trust in government and long-term economic effect. The latter may pose the greatest risk to China’s government, as it would not be possible to divide or shift blame over economic failures to anyone other than the centralized leadership.

What do you believe will be history-making events and trends this year?

Olevs Nikers: The developments in the Middle East have fragile yet far reaching potential to make history. The top highlights would include the persistence of recent Israeli-Arab peace treaties, progress at the Afghan peace process, and the reestablishment of an Iranian nuclear deal. All of these would benefit, among others, Europe as a regional neighbor and bring potential opportunities to the Baltic States as well. 

In Europe, the list starts with Germany - who will take Merkel’s place and will NordStream 2 be finished? Both will have serious implications for European cohesion and the future of the European Union in the coming decade. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the first year of the Biden presidency will be largely responsible for whether Democrats keep dominating the Congress in 2022 midterm elections and impact the likelihood of holding the White House in 2024. For the Baltics, this will have the greatest significance for the future of American security policy in Europe.

Do you see Alexander Lukashenko gone soon? Can he cling onto power for years to come, provided Russia, and Putin help him? Would that mean that Belarus will turn into a second Venezuela?

Olevs Nikers: It is not a question of whether Lukashenko will go. It is a question of when it happens and to what extent. Russian support makes the scenario of Venezuela more likely than that of Libya. Violence has suppressed the protests, but so has the very cold winter. Spring is likely to bring people back to the streets. However, the government has even bigger control over many sectors of employment and education in comparison to Russia, giving protesters less alternatives than across the border. So the opposition may get back to proposing a negotiated solution that would allow Lukashenko to save face and some status, while avoiding further violence and possible integration with Russia.    

How likely are the Kremlin, and Putin, to act to secure a win in the Duma (Russian Parliament) elections this autumn? Do you believe the pro-Navalny rallies in Russia can grow into a country-wide revolution sweeping away Putin?

Otto Tabuns: Putin is most likely to secure the election. The many people who depend on public employment or benefits would be less likely to question their current social contract. Election transparency, already an issue, would be even tougher to maintain with any additional regulations and restrictions for the election procedure associated with Covid-19. As regards the rallies, the situation is further away from the boiling point than in Belarus, yet it has come closer to it than any time since 1993. The Russian economy is less nationalized and centralized and that makes direct government repercussions less easy than in Belarus. The treatment of Navalny in jail may influence the reaction of the opposition, and there may be a stronger focus not to make him a martyr that would bring out more people in the streets. Despite Covid-19, the economy is in better shape than it is in Belarus, so that alone will not be a reason for the rallies to expand.

With the rise of China, it seems that Russia stops being a major geopolitical player. Is that so?

Otto Tabuns: Looking at the international system, Beijing has overgrown its former big brother, accumulating power more quietly and methodically than the former Soviet Union. In the European Union, Chinese influence has expanded at the expense of Russia. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, the American role has been put in question in certain areas. In contrast to Russia, the Americans have been more active in countering it. Differently from Moscow, Beijing has used more carrots and less sticks in its interaction with Brussels, as indicated by the signing of the investment treaty. If the Russian warning to freeze relations with the EU goes beyond just words, China may be more than happy to try to fill any vacuum that follows. 

Where do you see security threats to the Baltics?

Olevs Nikers: Russian hybrid warfare and, to a lesser degree but still, a potential conventional conflict remain key threats. Threats associated with China are more relevant in terms of digital security, yet are also important when considering the Baltics as members of the EU and NATO. Extensive destabilization of Belarus can cause a humanitarian disaster right at our borders, potentially causing a refugee crisis and ecological issues. The outcome of NordStream2 will have implications for European unity and trust that would certainly not help at this difficult time. 

Further away, the Baltic capitals have been concerned about uncertainty regarding American policy in Europe by the previous administration. President Biden has been quick to address these concerns,  as in Munich. However, domestic pressures may limit the time and attention that Washington can give to the Baltic States, so we have to keep up and develop our national defense efforts as well as the contribution to collective security. 

Can US President Joe Biden turn things around and convince the world that a second Donald Trump will never rise to power in the United States again? What are things to watch out for?

Otto Tabuns: A guarantee to that effect would be hardly possible in any country. However, the debate on constitutional amendments that Biden proposed about the Supreme Court could also be extended to the matter of the Electoral College. We will have to see whether the proposal remains a slogan that was enough to calm those citizens who were outraged by the Republican approach to selecting new judges and indicting the former president, or not. The national situation with the pandemic may prevent this issue from translating into actual policy considerations this year. 

You’re about to publish the book “Baltic Sea Security: Regional and Sectoral Perspectives.” When is it due? What topics does is it cover?

Olevs Nikers: Our new book presents the complex discussion of the security issues in the Baltic region that are as important to the involved nations as they are for the Transatlantic and European cohesion. The countries in the same region answer similar security concerns using differing designs, keeping the Baltic strategic situation a challenging puzzle for the future.

The Baltic Sea Security Initiative joined security experts from around the world and sought to establish the current key concerns of regional security. Baltic experts and security professionals provided an in-depth analysis of the current volume of defense and security cooperation with regard to military cooperation and interoperability in maritime and air defense; societal resilience in resisting information warfare and other hybrid threats; a joint approach to dealing with economic, financial and critical infrastructure threats. Beyond the different national perspectives and consecutive international arrangements, the work of the experts indicates the significant regional and sectoral issues that overstep the boundaries of national policy and the current limits of mandates given to international organizations such as NATO and the EU. 

The long-term strategic coordination between all Baltic partnering nations must be on the minds of all regional security and defense stakeholders. The book is intended to aid in this endeavor as a valuable resource for policy makers, professionals and scholars. The book will be published this month in cooperation with our American partners, the Jamestown Foundation. 

Can you talk a little about your Foundation? Who are its stakeholders? How does it interact with the Baltic legislatures, the NGOs, the societies?

Otto Tabuns: In 2017, we ran the successful Baltic Security Strategy Project in cooperation with the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation and throughout this project we established a strong partnership with the Jamestown Foundation. The project created as many valuable answers as additional new research questions on regional security. So we saw that this direction had potential beyond a stand-alone program. We established the Baltic Security Foundation as an independent non-governmental organization in 2019, joining security experts from the Baltics, U.S., Brazil and UK. Together, we are contributing to Baltic security in several ways. The Foundation is organizing international research on Baltic security. We have given public lectures in universities on both sides of Atlantic and hosted workshops involving several hundreds of experts, decision makers, field professionals and scholars. Our work has been presented at the Baltic Assembly, U.S. Congress, many governments and think tanks. We have had a promising start and look forward to expanding our expertise and impact.