As social unrest grows in Belarus, throwing both the country’s future and Alexander Lukashenko’s grasp on power into the abyss of uncertainty, it helps to take a step back and look at Minsk’s geopolitical profile prior to the election that sparked these protests of historic proportions.
Looking at this wider picture can offer some ideas on what the future holds.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and during its tenure), Belarus and Russia have been closely linked. For Russia, Belarus serves both as a convenient buffer against western encroachment, and as a strategic position on the Great European Plain should it need to launch an attack from the east.
For Belarus, Russia is its largest trading partner and supplier of hydrocarbons. Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenko has spearheaded a policy of integration with Russia, including modelling the government on its Soviet legacy, promoting the Russian language in schools at the expense of Belarusian, and constructing a cultural identity centered around the country’s role in the USSR. The two countries even created a Union State in 1999, which facilitates the free movement of goods, services and people (sound familiar?).
They are also interlinked militarily, having conducted military drills in western Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that spooked NATO and prompted a greater concentration of its forces in Poland and the Baltic states.
With this convenient partnership centered on culture, economics and security in mind, it seems absurd that Moscow would let Belarus fall out of its sphere of influence. Putin’s promise to lend support to quell unrest should certainly be believed.
However, while still firmly within the Kremlin’s crutch, Minsk has in recent years sought to develop an independent foreign policy. In December 2019, the two countries failed to negotiate on the price of oil that flows from Russia to the Belarusian refining facilities (which refine the oil that makes up approximately half of all Belarusian exports to Europe). Consequently, Russia cut supplies by one third. This pushed Lukashenko to court other oil producers like Norway and Azerbaijan to fill the gap.
Moreover, Mike Pompeo’s trip to Minsk in February rebooted diplomatic relations with Washington (having been largely frozen since 2008) under the promise of hydrocarbon assistance. Lukashenko also recently secured funding from China, further diluting Belarusian reliance on Russia.
Other points of contention between Minsk and Moscow are reflected in the former’s decisions to sign on to the EU’s Eastern Partnership in 2009 and remain ambiguously neutral during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. This demonstrates a lack of blind loyalty to the Kremlin, and therefore leads one to question whether the Kremlin will blindly support Lukashenko during this pivotal moment.
Lukashenko was probably quite worried by how easy it was for Russia to annex Crimea. The Russian-speaking majority there didn’t put up a fight when the “little green men” took control of the peninsula. The fear of this happening in Belarus would explain why Lukashenko pushed for an augmented embrace of pre-Soviet Belarusian history, culture, national symbols and the Belarusian language.
By strengthening the Belarusian identity, it would be harder to fall victim to Russian annexation. He himself got the ball rolling in November 2014 when he gave a rare speech in Belarusian on the eve of a state visit by President Putin.
However, this pivot from the rigid Soviet-era culture has not come without its consequences. In opening the eyes of Belarusians to the proud moments of pre-Soviet history, such as when it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or as its own independent People’s Republic, sentiments of the past, incongruous with the present, emerged. In widening the scope of what it means to be Belarusian, Lukashenko helped fortify the country from Russian annexation, but also opened it up to its ties with the past that might very well play a role in shaping its future.
Polish soft power seizes upon this, attracting some Belarusians (especially the Catholics in Grodno) with a shared past and relatively prosperous present. The situation today has echoes of the Intermarium (meaning “Between seas”) period of the early 20th century, when Poland’s leader, Józef Piłsudski, sought to revive the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The strategy, known as Prometheism, was to sow seeds of discontent in the countries of the Russian Empire (including Belarus) so that they could more easily come into the fold.
In 2016, Poland spearheaded a new Intermarium project known as the Three Seas Initiative. Its objective is to connect countries upon the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas and those in-between with integrated regional infrastructure, thus creating a new central European bloc that can counter the east-west divide that has defined the continent for much of the past century.
Belarus would be an integral piece in this geopolitical jigsaw, and Warsaw’s soft power is the new Prometheism that could get some Belarusians onboard with the promise of unshackling them from their dependence on Russia and moving into a new era. The recent plan unveiled by the Polish government, which opens its border and labour market to Belarusians, as well as provides support for academics, civil society and the media, is an example of this in action.
The situation is messy, that is for sure. The Kremlin has supported Lukashenko because he has provided ironclad stability for 26 years. However, that stability is rapidly diminishing – a point made painfully clear by his Ceausescu moment at the tractor factory in mid-August.
Meanwhile, his attempts to project power by jumping out of helicopters and trundling around, AK-47 in hand, were met with ridicule and scorn. His violent crackdown on the opposition has only invigorated it further. As Lukashenko loses control, he might very well lose the backing of Moscow, which may in turn seek to appeal to the peoples’ wish for new elections and back a candidate that would continue to keep Belarus firmly in the Russian orbit.
This shouldn’t be too hard to manufacture, as the opposition is neither anti-Russian nor pro-EU; its predominant Geist is anti-Lukashenko. However, free and fair elections are obviously a more western tradition, so the candidate that wins such a contest would be in an awkward position should they maintain close ties with their autocratic neighbor to the east.
A free and fair election would be a novelty that Belarusians would probably want to preserve, which would spark a growing consensus towards the EU’s sphere of influence, accelerated by the soft power projection of its western neighbors.
Russia could attempt to control the outcome of an election, but word of that would probably just perpetuate the current state of unrest. Alternatively, the Kremlin could sit back and watch the situation unfold like it did during the 2018 Armenian Revolution, when the opposition that eventually triumphed declared it would maintain the status quo regarding relations with Moscow.
However, the geopolitical stakes for Russia are much higher in Belarus than in Armenia, so it seems unlikely that Moscow would take the same laissez-faire approach, even with such assurances from the opposition. The Kremlin’s best bet is probably to promote a new fresh-faced leadership that satisfies the protesters’ demand for change, whilst ensuring that the pro-Russian elite in Minsk keep their positions of power and keep the relationship stable.
If that fails, there is little doubt that military force, justified by the threat of NATO encroachment, would be applied. But how would the west respond to that? Words of condemnation and beefed up sanctions have been the go-to response, but aggressive military posturing right on its doorstep will require firmer action.
Of course, doubling down on the attempts to break the opposition might pay off for Lukashenko. Perhaps enough of the brutal tactics of suppression will break the will of his citizens who are sick of him. But as it stands, that doesn’t look like it will be the case.
As the streets grow more and more colorful with the red and white flags of pre-Soviet Belarus, a symbol of the opposition, the winds of change blow harder. The international community, which was until recently warming up to the government in Minsk, is overwhelmingly siding with the opposition.
Lukashenko – or “the cockroach” as he is sometimes referred to – seems to finally be under a stomping boot that he can’t escape. When it lifts, the country will still be deeply reliant on Russia. Whether or not the Belarusians accept this is the question.