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Does Putin Really Want to Destabilise Belarus?

In the most dynamic and interesting election in the past 26 years, Nikola Mikovic analyses why President Lukashenko is playing the Russian Interference card

Photo: PA Images, Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Does Putin Really Want to Destabilise Belarus?

In the most dynamic and interesting election in the past 26 years, Nikola Mikovic analyses why President Lukashenko is playing the Russian Interference card

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Belarusian law enforcement arrested 33 Russian mercenaries allegedly plotting to destabilize the country ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 9 August. Last month Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused his ally Russia, as well as some Western countries, of meddling in the election and trying to force a coup d’état in Minsk. Is Moscow really pushing for a regime change in Belarus?

For Belarus, Russia is its main and most important trade partner. The former Soviet republic contracted Russian companies to both construct and supply the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant, which is set to begin operations next year. Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation (Rosatom) is the general contractor.

Belarus had to take out a $10 billion loan from Russia to build the nuclear plant, and once the facility becomes fully operational, Minsk is expected to become even more dependent on Moscow, especially in terms of nuclear fuel demand, maintenance needs and – last but not least – debt repayments.

In addition, the two countries have recently signed agreements on Russia’s oil supply to Belarus, even though Belarus started diversifying its crude import after Moscow halted oil supplies to Minsk in January due to their contract dispute. It remains to be seen how the two countries will resolve their gas disputes, and what concessions will Lukashenko have to make to the Kremlin in order to keep getting cheap natural gas. 

The Problems of Dependency

Since Belarus is already heavily dependent on Russia, it is unlikely that the Kremlin aims to overthrow its main client in Eastern Europe. As Russia has been closed for flights since March due to COVID-19 pandemic, it is almost certain that Wagner mercenaries have been using Minsk airport for transit to Sudan, Turkey, Libya and Venezuela, rather than to oust Lukashenko.

Still, for political reasons during the election campaign, Belarusian authorities have accused Kremlin-linked military contractors of sending 200 fighters to destabilize the country ahead of 9 August election, and organizing a Ukrainian-style Maidan revolution and overthrowing the country’s leader.

It is worth noting, however, that the Belarusian President has played similar games in the past. This scenario is very similar to the events in Montenegro in 2016 when Russian mercenaries allegedly attempted to destabilize the small Balkan country prior to parliamentary elections. Unlike Montenegro, which joined NATO in 2017, it is very unlikely that Lukashenko, who is expected to win the election, will make a radical political manoeuvre and completely distance itself from Russia.

Still, he can try to politically benefit by claiming nefarious Russian plots and get a carte blanche from the West. In other words, pretending to be under attack from Russia is a winning electoral strategy, not only in Belarus but in many other countries as well.

This could be the reason why Lukashenko started playing Russian threat card. Though he would most likely win the election anyway since he firmly controls the whole election process, his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has held several rallies where thousands of people came out to support her, even in small provincial towns, he may have a hard time rigging the election.

On the other hand, it is still uncertain if Tikhanovskaya and the rest of the opposition have a critical mass to stage mass anti-Lukashenko protests after 9 August which could potentially lead to a regime change. Without foreign aid, be it from Russia or from the West, any attempts to overthrow Belarusian president do not seem very promising. 

Besides the Wagner mercenaries, a Russian political consultant, Vitali Shkliarov, was recently arrested in Minsk. He was a senior advisor to many opposition and presidential candidates in Russia, Georgia and Ukraine, and has worked on both Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns.

A Repeat of Ukraine?

In the past, Lukashenko mainly accused Western powers of trying to undermine Belarusian sovereignty. This time, the main foe seems to be the Kremlin. That, however, does not necessarily mean Russia indeed intends to overthrow its only ally in Europe. It is more likely that Moscow, through its actions in Belarus, is sending a certain message to Lukashenko.

Over the years, Russia has been insisting on Minsk’s deeper integration into Russia – a Belarus Union State. After the election, it will be more difficult for Lukashenko to preserve the status quo and keep balancing between the West and Russia. He will either have to make concessions to Moscow in order to get cheap energy, including nuclear, or he could make a U-turn and seek for close ties with the West.

In that case, however, he would have to completely transform the Belarusian Soviet-style economy, which could lead to mass unemployment and would certainly affect his position. That is why such a scenario seems very improbable unless Russia decides to completely abandon its ally.

On the other hand, there are speculations that Russia could eventually militarily intervene and annex Belarus, in case Lukashenko cannot successfully cope with the mass-protests after the election. Such an option is not very probable either, as from the Kremlin perspective that would mean feeding additional nine million people. Given that Belarus, unlike the Donbass that is de facto controlled by Russia, does not have any natural resources, any annexation does not look very realistic. Thus, Russia’s actions in Belarus are likely a warning to Lukashenko.

In any case, this election campaign in Belarus is by far the most dynamic and interesting one in the past 26 years. After the election, Lukashenko and the Kremlin are expected to reach a deal over the fate of the Wagner mercenaries, and that could be the beginning of the new trade era between the two countries. Although Wagner formally does not exist in Russia, as its legal status is uncertain, Moscow can easily put pressure on Lukashenko to release Russian mercenaries. Since Lukashenko’s position will be weakened, he will have very little room for manoeuvre.

The era of the political balance between the West and Russia is coming to an end. 

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