For almost a year, Belarus, a small nation in between the European Union and Russia, has been pulling in everyone's attention, primarily due to it being a case of a dictatorship trying to withstand any kind of societal modernization and political change. The country's first and only president, 66-year-old Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka), still holds power despite losing last year's elections, and all his adversaries have either been jailed or have fled into exile.
Alexander Lukashenko (Source: TASS)
The Belarusian Leader's Enormous Appetite For Personal Power
Belarus is unique among all post-Soviet republics in the way it has safeguarded Soviet political institutions and even the Soviet lifestyle. After quite a short period of democratization in 1994, it switched from a parliamentary to a presidential system and elected a young populist politician, who had earlier served as chief of an agricultural cooperative, to become its new leader. Since then, Belarus has turned into a kind of icebreaker, setting the course for a bigger but slower vessel: Russia. In his first year in power, Lukashenko abandoned the white-red-white flag and restored the Soviet-style red-and-green one, reduced political competition, crushed his opponents, some of whom were even killed, banned the privatization of large industrial enterprises (he famously said he sometimes wishes to shake hands with the last surviving Belarusian entrepreneur), and made the country's economy almost completely controlled by the state. He later changed the constitution such that he could be re-elected limitless times and equated any challenge to him to state treason. Not less than ten presidential candidates have been jailed, at least for a short term, since the 2010 elections. I have said several times that Lukashenko actually took almost all the steps that Putin later repeated, but led him by three to seven years.
The Belarusian leader possesses an enormous appetite for personal power, and for years he saw his country not only as a "little Russia" but as a place d'armes from which he could begin his path to the Kremlin. In the mid-1990s, the perspective of the creation of a single state with Lukashenko as its vice president behind gravely ill Boris Yeltsin seemed quite realistic, and the Belarusian president has been called the most trusted politician by the Russian public. But, as in the 1990s so in the 2000s, these hopes were bust: the Russian elites decided to get their own Lukashenko, installing Vladimir Putin as president. Therefore, since the early 2000s, relations have become extremely complex: Belarus, a part of the so-called "Union State" with Russia since 1999, was deeply dependent on the Russian Federation while behaving as if it were an equal party and defending its own sovereignty and freedom to act. Year after year the Belarusian leader received economic concessions from Russia in exchange for almost nothing – he has not even recognized either the independence since 2008 of the two Russian puppet states of Abkhasia and South Ossetia or Russian sovereignty since 2014 over Crimea. For all this time, Lukashenko played a sophisticated game, siding either with Russia or Europe but never conceding even a fraction of his power to anyone.
Russian Leaders Realize Quite Well That Belarus's Path Is Closely Tied To Russia's
Some experts suggest that Belarus completely depends on Russia economically, and this is true: It owes Russia more than $9.4 billion out of its $18 billion foreign debt; Russia is by far the largest foreign investor in the Belarusian economy; more than 50 percent of imports come from Russia and up to 45.2 percent of exports go there. The major source of "pocket money" for Belarusian leaders comes from the ability to buy Russian oil at low prices (but not as low as on the Russian domestic market), to process it and to sell gasoline and gasoil to European consumers. Many Russian experts, as well as those of the International Monetary Fund, estimate the benefits of such transfers to be more than $100 billion from 2005-2016. The Kremlin announced comparable annual figures several times, but for shorter periods (for example, around $30 billion for 2011-2015). I would say these estimates might be true, but they neglect a number of quite important issues: First of all one should bear in mind that Belarus is a Soviet-like economy where the state subsidizes large enterprises both directly and through cheap loans – so they are able to sell their produce and other agricultural goods to Russia at prices well below production costs, thus compensating, at least partially, Russian oil subsidies. I will not dig deeper into the issue as its main point remains unchanged: Belarus depends on Russia economically and financially. Its currency reserves are four times smaller than the hard currency deposits held by the public in Belarusian banks, its currency has lost around 9/10 of its value vs. the euro and dollar since 2005, and there are no nations or financial institutions who might wish to issue new loans to the country's government.
But all this means not much, as Russia still needs Belarus and is seemingly ready to bail it out of any financial trouble as well as to protect its president from any kind of political pressure, either domestic or foreign. I would argue that Putin's Reich has at least three strong reasons for doing this.
First, for years Belarus has been Russia's closest ally, and this friendship was thought to be based on long historical tradition. The Belarusians are not counted as a nation in Russia, and the Russian language is used in the country more widely than the Belarusian one. Therefore, the Kremlin has viewed Belarus as "another Russia" that could be useful because its political sovereignty was completely manageable. I mentioned that in the 1990s, many people from among Russia's elite supported a plan of allowing Yeltsin to stay in power longer by creating a single state with him as its president and Lukashenko as his deputy. The same scheme was debated in 2019 as Putin started what was supposedly his last presidential term. Kremlin insiders liked the idea, but this time Lukashenko was offered a much lower position, like that of the speaker of either State Duma or Federation Council, which he rejected several times during three meetings with President Putin from October to December 2019. After the deal collapsed (some commentators still suggest the option was on the table as recently as April 2021), the Kremlin has used pure "Lukashenkian" tactics, amending the Russian constitution in 2020 in the way that Lukashenko changed the Belarusian constitution in 2004. But the idea of consolidating the two states is still considered, making the formal legitimization of powers by creating a new "shell" for both "commercial states" one of the issues that hold the political elites together.
Second, the Russian leaders know quite well that Belarus's path is closely tied to Russia's, with both countries' similarities producing an intensifying effect: As something changes in one, the other may follow suit. Therefore, the dictatorial regime in Belarus has become a kind of a bellwether for Russia: If it shatters, the fate of the same regime in Russia might come into question. Since Belarus is a much more "European" nation than Russia, open to foreign influence, the people in the Kremlin rightly believe that any political change in Belarus may challenge Putin's own endless rule. I believe this is the main reason why Russia never tried to depose Lukashenko and put a more loyal and able person in his place, even though this would benefit Moscow enormously, both economically and socially, since the Belarusians are becoming more and more tired of Lukashenko and feel more and more discontented with Russia as Moscow continuously supports him. After Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the Russian regime ruled out any chance for political modernization, making itself forever tied to its Belarusian "twin brother."
The third strong reason for Russia to support Belarus to the end is that such support is now a part of the Kremlin's two integrationist projects: the "Union State" and the Eurasian Union. The first dates from the 1990s, the second was established in its current form when the Ukraine rejected Russia's influence following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Both "unions" are almost senseless for Russia. The EAEU's combined GDP is only 16.8 percent larger than Russia's, so it would be better to secure two consequent years of rapid economic growth, as happened in the early 2000s, than to create such a controversial conglomerate at a time when the Russian economy is stagnating. But Putin's geopolitical ambitions fly high, and he still believes in a reconsolidation of the post-Soviet space, saying either the "Soviet Union was the same Russia, just called by another name" or reminding others that Russia granted the former Soviet republics huge territories that they enjoyed possessing without due reasons. Moreover, Belarus looks vitally needed, also because the Kremlin sees Russia as a "bridge" between Europe and Asia, trying to build a "transit superhighway" between China and the EU nations, so if Belarus opts out of the Eurasian Union, the entire construct turns into a classical "bridge to nowhere," with which Moscow cannot comfortably live.
Russia And The West Play A High-Stakes Game Over Belarus
The immediate future of Belarus, after Lukashenko suppressed the popular revolt that emerged after the rigged 2020 presidential elections and recently intercepted a commercial airliner to arrest and jail a young opposition journalist, looks extremely challenging. As we all have seen, Russia is siding with the Belarusian leadership in claiming it acted correctly in ordering the plane to land in Minsk. Even the underlying version looks completely misleading, but as Putin's rhetoric has been for years based entirely on lies and omissions, Russia will support the Belarusian authorities even in these hard times. During their meeting in Sochi on May 28, Putin and Lukashenko agreed on another $500 million in Russian aid to Belarus – and even though the figures were not disclosed, I would expect it to be as high as $3-5 billion for 2021-2022. What looks more disturbing (and promising) is the Western reaction to the latest events in Belarus.
For the first time ever, I would say, the European Union reacted extremely quickly, and imposed sanctions that bite both the Belarusian economy and the Belarusian people as it cut Belarus off from air traffic with the EU. I expect more sanctions to follow, including those against the local oil-processing industry and transit businesses. The struggle for Belarus may become very tough, first of all because the "collective West" has little or no interest in preserving the Belarusian economy, while it does care about Russia's economy, due to its dependence on Russian energy supplies and the scope of the Russian markets. Therefore, I would expect the sanctions against Belarus to intensify gradually, forcing Russia to increase its economic and political support for Lukashenko. Everyone, on both sides, realizes that Belarus is a "frontier" country with strong ties to Russia and to Poland and Europe, so the sanctions would be to reignite protests that might bring Lukashenko down. Belarus, I would argue, looks like a more promising battlefield than Ukraine since, on the one hand, a Western turn by Belarus would impress Russians much more than such a turn would in the Ukrainian case. The Russian people realize that Ukrainians have been for decades more nationalistic and pro-independence than Belarusians, so the departure of their most loyal ally would have a greater impact on Russian strategic culture. On the other hand, Belarus's economy is smaller and much less corrupt than that of Ukraine, making reform easier and potentially more effective. Belarus, if it turns westward, might become a true success story that Europe still lacks in Ukraine. Moreover, direct Russian military involvement seems less probable there since Belarus is not as divided as Ukraine was, and because there is no appetite for territorial expansion these days in Russia. The Crimean adventure has not improved the country's economic performance, and now the Russian public seems to be more preoccupied with everyday problems than with the Kremlin's imperial grandeur.
These days Russia and the West play a high-stakes game over Belarus. As the country underwent an authoritarian transformation ahead of Russia, and drove into complete madness, it now faces the Western reaction earlier than Russia may. The 2020 protests reflected the internal weaknesses of the regime, making it a natural target for Western policymakers, since Belarus stays much closer to Russia than Ukraine does and its loss may damage the Kremlin's positions more than Ukraine's departure did. The West supports the Belarusian opposition since it believes in the virtues of democracy and human rights, while Russia stands behind Lukashenko since it realizes it cannot afford to lose another ally on its Western border. I would say the West's chances in this game look better since, as Belarusian society has been exhausted by Lukashenko's quarter-century reign, it becomes more concerned with Russia threatening Belarusian sovereignty, and the successes of close neighbors like Poland and Lithuania become more and more appealing.
Russia these days cannot offer Belarus anything valuable except cheap oil and larger loans, both of which profit Lukashenko and his security apparatus rather than the Belarusian people (these days 33.5 percent of the Belarusian budget is used for financing bureaucracy and security services). So I think Russia will fail in this battle but the most sensitive – and least-debated – question is the price the Belarusian people will pay for this. These hardworking and decent individuals are now facing both Western sanctions and local police brutality, with each reinforcing the other, since as society becomes more pro-Western, government pressure increases, and as the elites become crazier, the sanctions become more aggressive. Of course, one might remember that Belarus was one of the major battlefields during the Second World War, and its people suffered more than the others because of their three-year fight with the occupying forces, which left one in four local residents dead. I hope these days the East-West struggle over Belarus will not turn into a military encounter, but it is difficult not to think about the hardships the Belarusian people are now facing just because they want to become free while this want confronts the harsh reality of a geopolitical "great game."
*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor
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