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Belarus: Master of the Art of Fence-Sitting

For six weeks now, Belarus has been gripped by protesters decrying the recent renewal of President Alexander Lukashenko’s leadership mandate in an election broadly viewed as illegitimate. Amid popular unrest, Lukashenko has publicly requested assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin, inflaming fears of a Russian military intervention. For virtually his entire tenure, Lukashenko has been a master fence-sitter, carefully balancing his rhetoric and actions to maintain goodwill both with Russia, a neighboring power and historic benefactor, and with NATO states, who have courted Minsk with offers of political and economic independence. Should Putin intervene to preserve the political status quo in Belarus, Lukashenko may well find himself toppling off that fence and into Moscow’s lap.

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 30 August 2020. Minsk, Belarus. Image by Homoatrox.

Belarus’s geography and status as a former Soviet state has traditionally bound it to Russia, and up through the mid-2000s the two countries kept in lockstep on foreign policy issues. It was Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea that signaled the start of a new era in Minsk’s global relations. Almost overnight Lukasheko began to promote the image of an independent Belarus, making overtures towards NATO countries and speaking, for the first time, of cooperation beyond the former Soviet sphere.

For a country that has been under Russia’s thumb since the 18th century, a liaison with the West is understandably appealing. Economic diversification is certainly a driving factor, given Belarus’s anemic growth and conflagration of state-run industries. But senior leaders in Minsk have also spoken on the possibility of Belarus as a key actor in global diplomacy, bridging the gap between Russia and NATO on issues as contentious as Ukraine. Other efforts in recent years, including military-to-military cooperation with the U.S. and Western European states and doing away with a cap on American diplomats in the country, seemed to suggest a willingness to open new ties with NATO. 

Initially, Russia was largely ambiguous to Lukashenko’s flirtations with the West, counting on Belarus’ economic reliance on Russia to secure continued loyalty. Receiving roughly USD$10 billion worth of oil and gas subsidies from Russia every year, Lukashenko could ill-afford to fully disregard Moscow. The change in Russian posture came in 2018 amid growing pressure from the Duma, arguing that the Kremlin should be receiving greater political concessions given their level of investment in Belarus.

Over the last two years, Putin and Lukashenko have consistently met to discuss plans for deepening political integration between the two countries. While the results of these talks have not been made public, analysts have suggested that an integration plan could result in concessions as extreme as the two countries unifying under a single president. Lukashenko has resisted these overtures from Russia, but a series of carrots and sticks dangled by Putin — Russia has skyrocketed energy costs in Belarus while promising cost-savings below original levels should integration move forward — has gradually coaxed Lukashenko’s cooperation.

President Putin is now enjoying the best possible outcome of the Belarusian election. Although Lukashenko has striven to distance himself from Russia in recent years, he is still an established friend of Moscow and certainly a more viable ally for the Kremlin than the liberalizing Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But in the face of domestic protests, Lukashenko is a more pliable partner. Importantly, protesters have demonstrated their willingness to sustain pressure on the Belarusian government. These are not election day skirmishes, but an organized movement that has spent weeks demanding their president’s resignation, in spite of violent repression by security services. Lukashenko does not have the capabilities to quash these protests on his own.

Putin is unlikely to intervene militarily in Belarus, being hesitant to invoke the ire of European states in what is already being called “the next Ukraine.” Analysts have warned, however, that Kremlin agents are pursuing targeted information campaigns to shape the media discussion around Belarusian protests, the same kind of disinformation activities as those used to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election. Russia will surely demand repayment for this assistance.

Lukashenko is already showing signs of deepening ties with Putin, after publicly accusing NATO of aggression in its positioning of forces on Belarus’ borders, a claim which NATO has vehemently denied. This denunciation, which likely signals Lukashenko’s final break with NATO, was almost certainly directed by the Kremlin. Now, as the two leaders resume integration talks, Putin will hope to secure an agreement decided on Russia’s terms, relying on a major foreign policy coup to carry him through growing threats to his popularity at home.

The popular unrest surrounding the recent Belarusian election undoubtedly weakened Lukashenko, limiting his ability to push back on Russian dominance in the region and diminishing NATO’s hopes of expanding into Central or Eastern Russia. It would be misguided, however, to mark these events as a seminal moment in Moscow’s foreign policy. Amid steadily worsening relations between Russia and the West, it is likely that Moscow would have forced a reconciliation with Minsk anyway, decidedly ending Belarus’ days of fence-sitting.

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Kathryn Urban

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