As Vladimir Putin tries extend his reign, Belarus, a country of nine and a half million people, may soon be absorbed by Russia reports Stephen Komarnyckyj.
Minsk, 30 December 2020. The Belarusian Parliament is surrounded by crowds waving Russian flags; 29 years after the Soviet Union collapsed the Belarus Parliament has voted to reunite with Russia. Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms prowl the streets. The country’s last president has disappeared after shots were heard at his residence.
How likely is it that we will be seeing scenes like this next year?
Putin certainly dreams of absorbing Belarus, a nation of nine million souls sandwiched between Russia and Ukraine. Belarusians were a people without a state for many centuries, whose language was similar to Russian and Ukrainian.
When the Russian empire collapsed in 1917, Belarus, which had been part of Tsarist Russia, declared independence. It was soon overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks and became a Soviet Republic. The country suffered mass killings under Communism and was devastated by World War Two, losing a third of its population including 90% of its Jews.
The Russian ambassador to Belarus was recalled in April 2019 having been suspected of planning a coup.
In 1985 it bore the brunt of the fallout from the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in north Ukraine which left a legacy of pollution and disease. Belarus became independent again in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed but due to this tragic history inherited massive economic and social problems.
Many Belarusians yearned for a Soviet past from which the atrocities had been airbrushed and where there were sausages in the shops. Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, won the country’s first presidential election in 1994 on a wave of nostalgia. Under his rule, the country readopted the flag of the Belarusian Soviet Republic. The opposition was crushed and journalists disappeared.
In 1999, Lukashenko signed a reunification treaty with Boris Yeltsin to secure Russia’s support but nothing came of it. His real aim then and now is to rule Belarus until he drops dead.
Will Belarus Welcome Putin?
In 2019, Putin eyed Belarus as he considered his own re-election. He has always believed that Belarus and Ukraine are really Russian. He will also be unable to run for president in 2024 under Russia’s existing constitution. If a new state is created and a new presidency he could be its leader and bask in the glory of reuniting the two countries.
Russia would also be able to threaten Ukraine’s capital Kyiv from the north and have a new border with Poland, a NATO country which Russia is systematically intimidating.
Belarus is vulnerable to Russian pressure because it relies on Russia for fuel and is heavily subsidised by its northern neighbor. Lukashenko is facing his own election in 2020 and needs Russia’s support. Nevertheless, he doesn’t trust Putin. The Russian ambassador to Belarus was recalled in April 2019 having been suspected of planning a coup. Then, in May 2019, an anonymous source told Russia’s Kommersant paper that Putin had given Lukashenko a year to sort out Belarus’s integration with Russia.
Many Belarusians may love Russia but they do not love its bandit capitalism.
Initially, the Belarusian president played along to save his own skin. In November 2019 the two countries announced plans for a common parliament and a single energy market. But the talks stalled.
Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist, explains what the stumbling block was. “Lukashenko won’t accept full integration and a new president for the unified country who isn’t Lukashenko,” she told Byline Times. He won’t subordinate himself to Putin.”
Public opinion is also a problem for the man once called ‘Europe’s last dictator’. Liubakova notes that “50% of Belarusians support the country and only 7.7% would be happy to see it disappear”.
“Even those who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union or consider themselves Russians would rather see a united country based on the Belarusian model. That would mean no oligarchy, better roads and a stable pension system,” Liubakova told Byline Times.
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Lukashenko has strangled civil society but in December 2019 there were protests against the planned union with Russia. Many Belarusians may love Russia but they do not love its bandit capitalism.
Liubakova argues that these rallies, running into the hundreds, were quite large when you consider the scale of the oppression Belarusians face. In her view, Belarusians are unified enough to mobilise if the unification plans go too far.
“They view Russians as a fraternal people,” Liubakova says, “as long as there is no open aggression from Russia.”
But Moscow is engaging in hybrid war against its neighbour. Several supposedly local news sites have appeared which promote a pro-Russian agenda. They are largely coordinated by a Russian organisation the CIS-EMO (Commonwealth of the Independent States – Election Monitoring Organization) with ties to Russian and European Neo-Nazis.
Aleksandr Vlantsevich, a Belarusian journalist, argues that Russia can’t afford a military invasion so is hoping to destabilise Belarus, topple Lukashenko and blame the West. Russian peacekeepers would then be sent in.
Putin is, however, backing two horses to ensure he stays in power after 2024. On 14 January he announced plans to change Russia’s constitution and create a new post which he would fill having left the presidency.
In fact, whether or not Russia grabs Belarus and whoever is Russia’s president, Putin will run Moscow until they nail down the lid on his coffin. And Russia’s present elite will never stop trying to raise their flag above the parliaments of Kyiv and Minsk, the capitals of two countries they regard as Russian soil.