Australian Outlook

Unrest in Belarus

01 Oct 2020
By Chris Cheang

Russia, not Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko or the EU and the West, holds the key to Belarus’ immediate and medium-term future. It will have the final say on whether he stays in power or not.

Electoral results challenged

Mass demonstrations against President Lukashenko continue, weeks after his re-election in early August 2020. The protesters claim that his election was fraudulent and rigged. In office since 1994, he is determined to hang on to power. His unannounced inauguration on 23 September is a testament to that. Thus far, his position appears to be secure.

His challenger, presidential candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania. Political pressure from her has come in the form of active support from some EU countries. According to media reports, on 4 September, she addressed the UN Security Council via video link at the invitation of Estonia. The event was co-organised by the US and the UK, as well as Iceland, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and Denmark.

In her address, she appealed to the UN to condemn the use of excessive force by the Belarusian security services against protesters, to convene a special session of the UN Human Rights Council to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus, and to send an immediate international monitoring mission to the country.

The EU and the US do not recognise Lukashenko’s reelection, and the EU has threatened to impose sanctions on Belarussian officials whom it holds responsible for the conduct of the election.

Lukashenko’s response

He has tried to weaken and defuse street demonstrations not only by resorting to arrests and detention but also by suggesting that he might be open to changing the constitution and to engaging in a broad public dialogue. He has stressed however, that he is opposed to conducting such a dialogue “with the street.”

To counter EU pressure, Lukashenko had earlier placed the military on alert along the country’s borders with Poland and Lithuania, claiming that NATO was interfering into his country’s affairs. This strategy could have been interpreted as a warning to the opposition that military force might be used against it.

Russian interest in backing President Lukashenko   

While President Vladimir Putin is said not to be particularly enamoured of Lukashenko, Russia has compelling reasons not to upset the political apple-cart in Belarus. Russia is cognisant that its actions will be decisive in shaping his and Belarus’ political future, with or without Lukashenko.

The Putin-Lukashenko meeting in Sochi, Russia in mid-September clearly manifested Russia’s assessment that Lukashenko, for now, is still worthy of Russian support and that he has not lost control of the situation in Belarus. Signs of that support and confidence were seen in a Russian state loan of US$1.5 billion and pre-planned military drills between the two countries taking place.

Significance of Belarus to Russia

First, both countries enjoy close relations in the Union Treaty, Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The first, concluded in 1999, commits both countries to integration. However, the process has been delayed all these years due to Lukashenko’s cunctatory tactics. Evidently, they were meant to extract as many economic concessions from Russia (mainly energy subsidies) as possible. They were also a manifestation of Lukashenko’s fear of becoming a vassal of Russia and losing his political status.

Second, Belarus’ strategic position between the EU/NATO states and Russia means that Moscow has little choice but to support Lukashenko. He has been a known quantity all these years, while Russia appears to be suspicious of the Belarussian opposition. Moreover, the CSTO and EAEU are key elements of Russia’s security and economic policies in the former Soviet states, and Belarus’ role in it cannot be dispensed with.

Third, Russia seeks to ensure that Belarus does not fall into instability and worse, assume a pro-Western government. Russia cannot afford to lose its current high level of influence over Belarus in its current geopolitical struggle with the West over Ukraine. Were Belarus to follow the route of Ukraine or Georgia, Russia’s strategic position and prestige as a great power in Europe and in the former Soviet space would be dealt a huge blow.

When the crisis began in August, President Putin warned EU leaders against foreign interference and pressure on Belarus, in a number of telephone calls with them.

Russian leaders suspect that the West is behind the demonstrations against Lukashenko.  In mid-September, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), said that “according to the SVR’s information, the US is playing a crucial role in the current events in Belarus.” He added that “the protests from the start were well-organised in nature and coordinated from abroad.”

Fourth, Russia’s leaders want to ensure that their own domestic opponents do not take a leaf from or become inspired by the Belarussian mass demonstrations. In the last several weeks, President Putin has had to face demonstrations in Khabarovsk and other cities in that Russian Far Eastern region over Moscow’s decision to remove its popular governor and charge him with criminal acts.

Assurance from President Lukashenko’s opponents

Thus far, the Belarussian opposition and its leaders have assured Russia that their movement is not directed at Moscow. This gesture not only assuages Russia but is also a reflection of the Belarussian opposition’s realistic assessment that Moscow will look askance at any anti-Russian or pro-EU/Western political movement which seeks the removal of Lukashenko from power.

Russian military intervention on Lukashenko’s behalf seems unlikely. However, Russia might consider it, even if only reluctantly, should the Belarussian security forces disintegrate. President Putin is keenly aware that intervention would alienate the Belarussian people, and worsen Moscow’s already tense relationship with the West.

The immediate future

At this juncture, one cannot conclude that Lukashenko’s days are numbered. However, ultimately, whoever is in charge in Belarus needs continued massive Russian economic support to run the economically weak country.

Russia has key advantages that the EU and the West do not. It is the largest investor in the Belarussian economy – over 50 percent of Belarus’ foreign trade is with Russia. Almost 2,500 enterprises with Russian capital operate in Belarus.

The EU cannot match Russian economic position in Belarus which is also heavily dependent on Russian energy subsidies. The EU is badly affected by the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its economies. Other challenges like Brexit, the ongoing and unresolved issues between Russia and Ukraine, the migrant crisis, and the ramifications of the US-China trade war have sapped the political will and resources of the EU to replace Russia as Belarus’ main supporter.

Even the EU’s threatened sanctions against Belarus have thus far not gained any traction. EU foreign ministers recently failed to break the deadlock over sanctions on Belarus, after Cyprus blocked the plan citing the lack of EU action against Turkey.

Russia can wait but not for too long

Russia’s long-term interests might not be served in a sustained and drawn-out contest with the EU and the West over Lukashenko’s future. Issues such as the recent poisoning of Russian opposition critic  Alexei Navalny, the contestation over Ukraine, and the weakening of the Russian economy from the collapse of the international oil and gas prices only increase the possibility that Russia might be forced into a stronger but more dependent relationship with China. President Putin would not want to put a great power like Russia into such a position just to ensure Lukashenko’s political future.

Chris Cheang is a retired Singaporean diplomat who has spent three tours in Moscow, and is now a Senior Fellow in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.