Russia and Europe's Last Dictatorship
After a rigged election handed the public mandate to their president of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko about a month ago, Belarus has been colored with protests and political upheaval. Even though political instability is a common characteristic of many countries across the globe, multiple features set Belarus apart. The image of civic protests against a leader who ruled for over a quarter-century is not only rare, but serves as a testament to evolving collective consciousness and political awareness of people. The leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is commonly hailed as the leader of the Belarusian democracy movement, was forced to flee the country and exile herself in Lithuania. Despite garnering mass support, both domestically and internationally, the reins of Belarus remains intact with Lukashenko. The current security for him is a gift of the pillars of the Belarus-Russia nexus, whose resistance to the turmoil has taken the world by surprise. With Putin to factor into Belarus’ equation now, a lot is contingent on how strongly Russia decides to back Belarus, and how negotiations between the two countries pan out.
Russia-Belarus relations have a colored past. While both these countries operate out of centered motives, their geographic proximity has forced them to yield on more than one level. The two countries signed Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus on 8 December 1999. About twenty-one years into the treaty, the manifestations of the same are hazy at best. Prior to the elections of 2020, both Putin and Lukashenko held two rounds of talks in December and February, to attempt to zero down on terms of integration. However, public protests and statistics highlighting Belarusian people’s opposition and scepticism to the move proved to be a deterrent to the talks, more so around December. The opposition parties in Belarus participated actively in these protests too.
The two countries share a joint air defense and external border control system. Their nexus on the military and intelligence front is strong, with regular collaboration and exchange between corresponding agencies. Russia shared military weapons in exchange for military positioning in two strategically favorable military positions in Belarus. While the lease for both these sites currently awaits approval, Russia made a bold request for land for a third station, which was eventually denied by Belarus in an equally bold response. Despite public dismissals of the possibility of integration by Lukashenko himself, the dependence of the Belarusian economy on Russia weaves the countries together. Lukashenko was heavily dependent on loans and cheap energy to maintain and fuel the Belarusian economy.
Image Source: Voice of America.
Russia’s benevolence with energy resource sharing was primarily birthed out of the fulfilment of its strategic ambitions. The exchange facilitated Moscow’s access to Belarusian lands, thereby linking them to NATO countries – Latvia and Lithuania. However, late last year, Russia ceased to hold up the generosity plank and raised tax on oil production for 2019-24. It was estimated that Belarus would lose over 300 million dollars a year post this move, especially given the lack of substitute oil suppliers for Belarus – a fact known to and played on by Russia. This was largely perceived to be a warning signal to Belarus to concede to Russia, and to not take aid for granted. Sensing Russian doors close in, Belarus was quick to resort to diversification of foreign policy and brushing up on trade relations, especially with the USA, EU and China. Identifying the gap, Belarusian proposals met with enthusiastic responses, especially from the USA, who much like Russia, wishes to exploit the strategic positioning of the land and gain proximity to post-Soviet land. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo himself paid a visit to Belarus in a public exhibit of the spirit. Furthermore, a US diplomat was posted in Belarus late July, 2020 after a massive gap of over a decade, since 2008.
Despite their differences, the similarities between the governments of Russia and Belarus are evident, especially now. The manner of crackdown and dismissal of protests, in addition to the the arrest of members of Opposition Council in Belarus, reads like a leaf right out of a Kremlin book. Interestingly, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader is currently undergoing treatment for what is believed to be a poisoning case in Germany. Multiple attempts have been made at Navalny’s life, who was imprisoned over 13 times last year for organizing anti-Putin protests. The Opposition Council, as well as Navalny, are facing consequences for what was perceived to be an attempt to seize power by Lukashenko and Putin respectively. While the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has called for a free and fast investigation of the case, it isn’t extremely promising, especially after Putin asked Germany and France to back off from interfering in Belarusian matters, calling it ‘unacceptable’ to Russia. The European Union (EU) had previously refused to recognise the elections as legitimate and had threatened sanctions. However, with Russia aggressively backing Lukashenko, the ambit of EU’s sanctions are severely limited and challenged, and it will be interesting to see how the said sanctions would manifest tangibly, if at all.
Russia’s urgent need to help Lukashenko remain in power stems essentially out of the ambition of keeping the region rid of Western influences. In light of the international response to the Belarusian elections, especially from the West, this falls exactly in line with what is best for Lukashenko too. Ironically, he was looking to wriggle out of Russia’s pressure of integration by resorting to forming and bridging western alliances, such as those with the USA. However, this support from Russia does not come without concessions from Lukashenko’s end.
The fabric of public space in Belarus is set to change significantly, especially after pro-Kremlin organisations, previously sidelined by Lukashenko himself, will now flourish in light of his silence. Lukashenko confessed to inviting Russian journalists to work at Belarus state TV, who have now replaced actual employees, who are on strike as a sign of protest against Lukashenko. Russian journalists have intermingled into his pool of presidential press too. This is especially dangerous as Belarus state TV is the source of a lot of information for those within the country too. Pro-Lukashenko rallies are also seen flushed with Russian and pro-Kremlin flags. The sharpening of these propaganda tools spells danger, especially since these entities can dissipate pro-Russian narratives laced with disinformation easily. Interestingly, prior to the 2020 election, Lukashenko himself heavily objected to, monitored and curbed Russian – individual and organisational - presence in Belarus. Ironically, building up to the elections that have now strengthened their nexus exponentially, Lukashenko had ordered the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries because of planning a “terrorist” unrest in Belarus.
Lukashenko has already exploited this machinery by painting the image of a vulnerable Belarus against an in-the-pipeline North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion to remove him from power.
Against NATO’s strict denial of any such activity, experts believe that this was Lukashenko’s attempt at creating a pretext for Russian military intervention in Belarus, which would stand to benefit Lukashenko’s government, as well as insulate both nations from international backlash. This allows Russia to maintain an overt distance from the situation – unlike in Ukraine – while continuing to influence events from the backstage.
Belarus and Russia currently appear to be brothers in arms. It is evident, however, that the equation is more of a culmination of an accidental congruence of ambitions and needs of the political and geographical climate than collective self-identity. Belarus has been opposed to Kremlin annexation and Moscow has been aiming to pull off a Ukraine with Belarus. However, the balance is delicate – if Moscow begins to recognize an over annexation as difficult or too costly, it will work to sabotage the Belarusian State even further. At that point, Belarus might have to resort to western influences to protect itself against potential Russian sanctions and to keep its economy afloat, which would be difficult to obtain unless the protestors are accommodated. Lukashenko’s silence suggests his acceptance of this reality, and a victory for pro-Russian entities. However, he needs to remain cognizant of the fact that hereon, Moscow perceives Lukashenko only as a leader of a client State. Should a more credible candidate from a Russian perspective emerge, Lukashenko could soon see his only friend turning hostile.
References for Further Reading
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/24/alexei-navalny-was-probably-poisoned-says-germany
Belarus' Incorporation into Russia: https://apnews.com/a0fe50fd1b7d45c5aa188c87f2aa2289
Potential for a Russian Invasion: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/08/26/russia-may-not-need-invade-belarus-its-already-there/
Russia, Belarus and the Future: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/russia-belarus-relations-future-union-state-65288/
This article is part of our Special Report on the crisis in Belarus. You can view the complete catalog of articles on this subject here.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is a student of Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, India.