Belarus: Between the Hammer and the Anvil

by Nikola Mikovic

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has won the presidential election, as well as the first round of clashes against protesters, but the battle is far from over. In spite of mass arrests and police brutality, demonstrators are still challenging Belarusian riot police, and political turmoil in the Eastern European country will not end any time soon.

Belarusian opposition – whose candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, according to the official results, got only 9.9 percent of the vote on August 9 – claims that the presidential election was rigged, and demands that Lukashenko recount the votes, hold new elections, negotiate, and resign. According to Lukashenko’s recent rhetoric, he does not plan to enter into any negotiations with the opposition. His victory was recognized by Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko emphasizing that “future Russia-Belarus cooperation will deepen in the framework of the Union State, that integration processes within the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States will intensify, and that military-political ties in the Collective Security Treaty Organization will strengthen.” Besides Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping congratulated Lukashenko on his victory in the presidential election, as well as leaders of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Vietnam, among others. On the other hand, the United States and several European Union member-states criticized the election claiming it was neither free nor fair, and expressed concerns over how protesters in Belarus were beaten and arrested. While the West raises pressure on Belarus to end crackdown on protests, Russia is sending confusing signals to Minsk. Even though Putin recognized the election results, several senior pro-Kremlin politicians, including Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, said that the election in Belarus was rigged and thus results are questionable. Also, Sergey Mironov, who leads the faction A Just Russia in the Russian Parliament, backed the anti-Lukashenko protests.

In addition, French President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart discussed the situation in Belarus and Macron reportedly expressed concern over the situation in the former Soviet country and called for dialogue between Lukashenko and the opposition. If Russia joins the Western demands and starts pressuring Lukashenko to negotiate with his political opponents, he will have a tough choice to make. If he refuses to call new election, protests and nationwide strike will continue until he eventually gets overthrown. On the other hand, he is aware that any dialogue or concessions to the opposition would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and that their demands would grow. According to Russian media, he already agreed to release Russian Wagner mercenaries, whom he accused to coming to Belarus to force a regime change. Such a move can be interpreted as a demonstration of weakness, although their release will be unlikely to improve relations between the two countries. Unlike Lukashenko, who tends to preserve the status quo and continue his “multi-vector” foreign policy, the Kremlin does not seem to be interested in keep providing cheap energy to Belarus, which was the key part of Russia – Belarus relations. Instead, Moscow expects Lukashenko to make significant concessions to Russia, either by allowing Russian oligarch to privatize some successful Belarusian state-owned companies, or by deepening integration into a Russia – Belarus Union State, which would de facto limit Belarusian sovereignty, especially in terms of monetary and fiscal policies. However, if Lukashenko gets ousted, the very idea of the Union State will be buried.

Given that the West, particularly neighboring countries such as Poland and Lithuania, firmly support anti-Lukashenko protests, Belarusian leader will likely be forced to turn to Moscow, despite his recent harsh anti-Russia rhetoric. That, however, does not mean that Russia is interested in unification with Belarus, as such a move would bet unlikely to be recognized by the EU and the US, which means that the Kremlin would get another Crimea – a region it has to financially support from the central budget. Unlike Crimea, that has a strategic importance as well as significant gas reserves, Belarus is an energy-poor country which, from the Kremlin perspective, means that Russia would have to “feed” additional nine million people. Thus, any unification, or annexation of Belarus does not seem realistic. Moreover, it is quite questionable if the Kremlin still needs Belarus as a client state, and if it still needs Lukashenko in power.

In any case, relations between Russia and Belarus will have to change. Even if Lukashenko manages to (politically) survive the protests, his policy will not be the same that it was over the past 26 years. The Belarusian society has entered a very turbulent period and will hardly get back to normal in the foreseeable future. The opposition, backed by the West and certain Russian structures, will certainly not give up fighting. It will try to impose a nationwide road blockade and will create more and more troubles for Lukashenko. Without serious concessions to foreign powers, he will unlikely manage to stay in power until the end of his sixth presidential term.

This piece was republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Leave a Reply