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Will Putin Trap Belarus Further As It Struggles for Freedom?

Nikola Mikovic explores the extent to which the eastern European country’s fate is tied to Russia and its dependence on it for resources

‘How much more blood will it take?’ is written on a poster with the face of Alexander Lukashenko held by a young man in Independence Square, Minsk, on 16 August 2020 Photo: Ulf Mauder/DPA/PA Images

Will Putin Trap Belarus Further As It Struggles for Freedom?

Nikola Mikovic explores the extent to which the eastern European country’s fate is tied to Russia and its dependence on it for resources

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Mass protests and a nationwide strike have shaken Belarus. Protestors, backed by the West and also by certain Russian structures, are demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko resign.

What could be the outcome?

On 9 August, a Presidential Election was held, with the Central Election Commission announcing that Lukashenko had won with 80.23% of the vote, while his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya trailed at 9.9%.

The opposition to Lukashenko did not recognise the official result and staged mass protests that turned into violent clashes with riot police.

The President’s sham victory was, however, recognised by Russia. President Vladimir Putin congratulated his Belarusian counterpart noting that “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 (CIS) will intensify, and that military-political ties in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation will strengthen”.

Interestingly, Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, said that the election in Belarus had been rigged and that its results were questionable. Some Russian media outlets referred to Lukashenko as the “self-proclaimed President” and even the state-owned TASS Russian News agency has sentiment towards Belarus’ protestors.

Moscow seems to be playing a double game with Belarus, which can be interpreted as applying another method of pressure on Lukashenko.

Over the past two decades, Russia has been providing cheap natural gas and oil to Belarus, and subsidising a Belarusian Soviet-style economy. In other words, the Kremlin has been buying Lukashenko’s loyalty. Such a policy now seems to be over.

Given that the West has condemned Lukashenko’s actions against protestors, and has threatened various sanctions if he does not recount the votes, hold new elections, negotiate with the opposition, or resign, the Belarusian leader will likely have to make certain concessions to Russia in order to obtain at least partial support from the Kremlin even though there is no guarantee that Moscow would assist him in a potential crackdown on protests that continue to grow.

Lukashenko has already released the 33 mercenaries arrested ahead of the election and handed them over to Russia, having previously accused the Kremlin of trying to stage a coup d’état in Minsk. Also, over the past few days, he spoke twice with Putin and asked him for help.

The Russian leader reportedly promised Lukashenko that Russia would help to protect Belarus in the case of an external threat. Even though some analysts speculate that Russia could eventually send its troops to Belarus, such a scenario seems very unlikely, as Western leaders would immediately accuse Russia of aggression, and protestors would likely resist the Russian military. The risk is that Belarus could turn into another Ukraine.

However, unlike the Ukrainian territories of Crimea and the Donbass – which are under the de facto control of Russia – Belarus does not have any natural resources. That is why some structures within the Kremlin see its ally as an “energy vampire” – Belarus constantly seeks cheap energy, primarily natural gas and crude oil but has little to offer in return. Even if Lukashenko is eventually ousted, a new government would have the same problem – it would have to find a way to get energy, be it from Russia or from other countries.

A Changed World

The economic situation in Belarus is expected to get worse and it is likely that Lukashenko’s position will continue to weaken.

Faced with nationwide strikes that have paralysed the Belarusian economy, Lukashenko can hardly find an easy way out of this political crisis. He does not seem to be willing to resign nor to make any significant concessions to the opposition, which means he could eventually folow the fate of the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was overthrown and executed.

So far, opposition activists have not attempted to capture any television stations or Government buildings, as they probably do not have firm guarantees that the police will not intervene.

The police and army still appear to be loyal to the President, but since he was hesitating to give security forces a freehand to completely disperse protests, it is now a matter of time before they turn against him – as they will fear that they could fall victim of his policies.

At the very start of the mass protests, there were rumours that Lukashenko could impose a martial law. He has not done that as it is likely that he was unsure if the army would obey his orders. Belarus is a country that has a mandatory military service, which means that the army is of the ‘people’ rather than a professional one with no conscripts. Its soldiers are not professionals who work for a monthly salary, but just ordinary young men who are forced to spend 12-18 months in the military. It is not highly likely that they would be ready to shoot at their fellow countrymen if martial law was introduced. That is why Lukashenko is still relying on the police – although it seems to be a matter of time before high-ranked members of the security structures ‘join the people’.

But the genie is certainly out of the bottle and the days of stability in the eastern European country are gone.

Although Lukashenko tends to preserve the status quo, his main problem now is the fact that the world around him has changed, both politically and economically.

Theoretically, he could survive the current crisis, but the price that Belarus would have to pay would be heavy. The concessions he would have to make to Russia would be painful as he would eventually have to agree to the Kremlin’s conditions regarding energy prices and the privatisation of some of Belarusian state-owned companies.

Even in the mid-term, with or without Lukashenko, Belarus will unlikely be able to go its own way and pursue a sovereign policy. The former Soviet republic is approaching its political and economic transition – and Russia and the West will act as vultures, looking at the country as prey.

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