By Alex Foster
When the Belarusian parliament convened on May 8, 2020 to formally set the date of the country’s presidential election for August 9, few would have predicted that the intervening months would be anything but a cynical demonstration of the “soft dictatorship” of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, the incumbent now running for his sixth term in office after first consolidating power in 1994.
However, as the day of what will ostensibly be the first of two rounds of voting looms ever closer, the facts illustrate that for the country where life goes on “without politics,” the situation on the ground has reached a hitherto unseen boiling point. Indeed, between May and August, Belarus has seen some of the strongest expressions of domestic political turbulence since the country left the Soviet Union in 1991.
The 2020 presidential election has been characterized by politically-motivated arrests, and human rights violations and protests as the Lukashenko administration has sought to censor and outright disqualify those opponents most capable of challenging it.
The most significant opponents, Valery Tsepalko, a former ambassador to the United States and founder of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park, and Viktor Babariko, the head of Belgazprombank, have been eliminated from the competition; Tsepalko has fled to Russia with his children out of fear of arrest, while Babariko has been left to languish in a detention centre of the State Security Committee.
The election has thus taken a shocking turn, and though it is primarily a domestic affair, its geopolitical implications cannot be ignored. The vital issue facing Belarus in this respect, as it was prior to the election, is whether or not the country’s policy of neutrality between Russia and the West can be maintained, and at what cost.
The 2020 election has closely coincided with ruptures between Belarus and both of these spheres. Outstanding issues with Russia arising from energy disputes have only been aggrandized as Lukashenko’s rhetoric and actions have hastened the decline of the country’s relations with Moscow, culminating in the recent arrest of alleged members of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group.
At the same time, the conduct of the election campaign, and the many abuses carried out by the Lukashenko administration, have undone what initially appeared to be an indication of a thaw in Belarus-West relations since the historic visit to the country by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this year.
Given the convergence of negative forces taking place, it is becoming increasingly clear that the narrow tightrope between West and East that Lukashenko has managed to balance upon over the last several years is showing signs of breaking.
The ‘Russian Question’
By far the most stunning geopolitical development in the Belarusian presidential election has been the shape, role, and centrality of the “Russian Question.” In a move that was, in all likelihood, calculated for domestic public consumption, the Lukashenko administration signaled a departure from the generally friendly policy that has characterized its relations with Moscow.
For the better part of the last three decades, Lukashenko has presented himself as the singular, pro-Russian voice on the Belarusian political scene, effectively barring other political actors from challenging him in this space. However, the 2020 presidential campaign has seen Lukashenko make a stunning rhetorical reversal through which he now portrays himself as the guarantor of Belarusian independence, while his campaign and its supporters have cast opposition candidates, Babariko and Tsepalko chief among them, as “stooges” of the Kremlin.
The political stances of the two candidates were hardly conducive to repelling these accusations. In particular, Tsepalko’s positions on a number of important Russia-related issues made him an easy target for Lukashenko’s smear campaign. At a press conference in late May, he dismayed Belarusian nationalists when he emphasized the cultural proximity and centuries-old interaction between the Belarusian and Russian nations as a valuable factor in determining the country’s relations with Moscow, though he also underscored the necessity for cultivating relations with a broad range of international partners, including the United States and the EU.
In an interview with Vitebski Kurier a few weeks later, Tsepalko urged that Belarus’ dependency on Russian energy resources was “not a serious problem” and stated that the “current structure of the economy that exists in our country assumes and conditions this dependence on Russian raw materials.” He proposed that the country orient its course away from the state-managed economy and towards a “knowledge economy” that would, in the long-term, reduce the country’s dependence on Russia and allow the country to live within its energy-consumption needs.
Tsepalko’s generally “pro-Russian” position does not, of course, mean that he is the “Kremlin’s candidate,” but the climate created by the Lukashenko administration during this presidential election campaign has blurred these distinctions. By contrast, Babariko’s stance on Russia was much more difficult for the authorities to confront directly.
When asked about his attitude towards the Union State between Russia and Belarus in an interview with the Russian edition of Moskovsky Kosmolets, Babariko insisted that deeper integration between the two states should not impact the sovereignty of either, or, if it must, it should do so in equal proportions. Similarly, he remained ambivalent towards recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia, suggesting that a decision on the matter could only be reached through consultations with local legislation and international law.
Elsewhere, Babariko has struck a resoundingly patriotic tone. Speaking with one of the leading Polish newspapers, Rzeczpospolita, he strongly rejected the idea that Belarus belongs to Moscow’s sphere of influence and stated that the country’s foreign policy is dictated by its national interests alone.
Nonetheless, the cushioning effect of Babariko’s political stances, in addition to his startling popularity (if unofficial polls are to be believed), ultimately did little to prevent his elimination from the electoral contest. On June 11, detectives belonging to the State Control Committee conducted a raid on the head office of Belgazprombank and arrested a number of Babariko’s colleagues. An investigation into tax evasion, money laundering and bribery was initiated leading to Babariko’s arrest on June 18, only two days before the deadline to turn over signatures of support to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).
Despite the fact that Belgazprombank is a Gazprom-controlled entity with virtually no Belarusian capital, it is almost certain that the charges against Babariko were politically motivated. Only a day prior to Babariko’s arrest, a pro-government commentator, Piotra Piatrouski, suggested that such a response by the authorities was only a matter of time. Babariko had already fallen afoul of one of the Lukashenko administration’s propaganda arms, Belarus Segodnya (a state-backed newspaper), several weeks prior.
An investigative report by one of the newspaper’s top publicists, Yuri Terekh, alleged impropriety in the conduct of Babariko’s son, Eduard, who oversaw the management of the crowdfunding platforms that financed his father’s election campaign – the implication being that foreign money was entering the country in order to influence the election. In a Facebook post published shortly after, Terekh expounded on these allegations even further by suggesting that Babariko’s presence in the election was the result of intrigues conducted by Gazprom and the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB).
Lukashenko’s ‘Belarusianization’ Strategy
What Lukashenko hopes to gain by these actions is unclear. Moreover, his courtship of latent Belarusian nationalism at the expense of his public, and cooperative position toward Russia has confounded critics of his administration. However, when one considers the incremental changes made to the state’s official, ideological discourse over the past half-decade, Lukashenko’s about-face does not appear as impulsive as previously thought.
As the director of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, Piotr Rudkouski, points out: the Lukashenko government has made small steps towards building a semblance of a unique, Belarusian identity as a counter-weight to its more prevalent, Russo-centric conceptualization through a process of “soft Belarusianisation.”
The precise nature of this process has proven difficult to discern. The ideology of the Belarusian state has been largely amorphous, devoid of a clear message, and deeply entrenched in its Soviet legacy. Indeed, for many years, authorities in Minsk, along with state-sponsored ideologues, have actively combatted versions of Belarusian identity that emphasize the Belarusian language as distinct and separate, or that are critical towards the Russian imperial and Soviet eras of Belarusian history.
As such, the concept of “Belarusianess,” until relatively recently, has not rested principally upon cultural or historical differences, but rather fealty towards Slavonic civilization, and specifically, Orthodox Russian civilization. Conceptualizations of the modern Belarusian state have typically drawn a direct line to the ascendancy of Bolshevik power beginning in 1918, and have eschewed earlier epochs as sources of inspiration. Moreover, the Belarusian language has been allowed to languish, with little support from state authorities, and even scathing criticism over its perceived lack of practicality.
Nonetheless, indications that the government would alter this narrative first began to appear in 2014, as its anxieties over Russia’s annexation of Crimea came to the fore. In this period, and on a personal level, Lukashenko himself addressed the Belarusian language question positively, and with greater frequency than before.
That same year, the Belarusian parliament also adopted a resolution “On Belarusians abroad” which not only regulates the Belarusian state’s cooperation with diaspora, but also places this cooperation within the framework of building a supra-territorial community founded on national culture. Since 2014, this shift has become more pronounced; Lukashenko has repeatedly criticized Russia on its violation of international law, underscoring the nascent ideological break between himself and Putin; economic disputes over the costs of energy products have become more frequent and more protracted, recently culminating in a significant dispute over oil and natural gas prices between December 2019 and April 2020; and progress on the development of the Union State between Belarus and Russia has also been halted.
Whether the move towards emphasizing ‘Belarusianess’ represents a genuine change of heart on the part of Lukashenko and his administration, or if it is the latest in a series of balancing acts between domestic and foreign policy considerations (this is the more likely scenario), it is unclear what the payoff is meant to be.
At a glance, it seems that the only impetus for many of these changes over the past six years, at least from the perspective of vertical power, has been Lukashenko’s “signals.” In other words, Minsk’s other political actors have understood that the presidential administration has changed its course on the issue of Belarusian identity, and have calibrated their engagement with it accordingly. Thus, what under normal circumstances would be a robust process of nation-building, with cultural changes underpinned by legislative measures and pressure from civil society, has instead become a series of piecemeal adjustments that are not binding or particularly effective.
In terms of its geopolitical implications, the “soft Belarusianisation” approach, which Lukashenko’s recent rebranding as the “guarantor of Belarusian independence” falls under, has strengthened the country’s position. If anything, it has served to make it more ambiguous given the lack of underlying changes that would be necessary to turn the vision into a reality.
Belarus Between Russia and the West
Russia’s responses to the electoral chaos and Lukashenko’s “anti-Russianness” has remained surprisingly muted, even as the Belarusian president publicly accused Russia of interference. Without a doubt, the accusations levied against Gazprom, which benefits from state protection, have drawn the ire of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov demanded that evidence of the corporation’s wrong-doing be presented.
Even so, Moscow has officially washed its hands of what it considers to be Minsk’s internal affair, going only so far as to deny accusations of meddling in the electoral process, and to warn other countries from doing so. As restrained as these immediate responses may appear, Russia nonetheless has few reasons to be happy with Lukashenko. The last several years, and particularly the last two, have shown that he is an often unpredictable and disloyal partner, aptly demonstrated by the country’s recent shift toward renewed relations with the West. Minsk’s recent bid for independence has also proven to Moscow that her coercive pressures have failed to yield the expected results.
On July 1, Belarus’ ambassador to Russia, Vladimir Semashko, unveiled several details regarding Russia’s integration offers. Chief among these was the startling suggestion that Belarus transfer as much as 95 percent of its power to the supranational level, that is, the Union State, in a particularly blunt show of disregard for Belarus’ sovereignty. Provided that this information is true, Lukashenko’s departure from the negotiating table at Sochi in early December 2019 can hardly come as a surprise.
In spite of Lukashenko’s apparent gradual break from Moscow throughout the first half of 2020, the Kremlin may still find reasons to treat him as a partner. Part of this may come simply from the fact that Lukashenko is “the devil they know” – after over two decades in power, few political actors in Belarus, virtually none, can have their records quantified to the same degree as Lukashenko’s.
From Moscow’s perspective it is, therefore, much easier to determine a modus operandi for Lukashenko than it would be for candidates like Tsepalko and Babariko, even considering his recent, “erratic” behavior. At the same time, Belarus continues to play an important role in Russia’s integration projects, and also plays host to a number of military installations which Russia views as a vital to the defense of her Western flank.
If for no other reason than this, Moscow cannot “lose” Belarus as it did Ukraine. In this respect, it may be useful to Moscow if Minsk retained its continuity of leadership. Yet, Moscow’s hands-off approach to Belarus in the weeks and months preceding election day may bear fruit for two reasons: 1) the inherent structural problems underpinning Belarus’ tenuous geopolitical position will not be resolved in the near future, regardless of who is president, and 2) the damage done by the Lukashenko administration’s drastic interference in the electoral process will make rapprochement with the West difficult, thereby pushing Belarus back into the arms of Russia
Behind the shifting official rhetoric of the Belarusian state has been the vastly more important development of an oil supply diversification strategy, ostensibly aimed at weaning the country off its dependency on Russia and Russian markets.
The issue of Belarus’ energy independence has been intrinsically tied to the policy of neutrality; however, as Mateusz Kubiak, a senior oil and gas analyst with the Warsaw-based consultancy firm Esperis, suggests, it is highly doubtful that the former will necessarily lead to the latter. Kubiak points out that even as Belarus diversifies its oil supplies, Russian deliveries may continue to prove attractive against their competitors’ for the simple fact that they are logistically sound.
Cheap crude deliveries from Russia render it possible for Minsk to maintain its margins on oil product exports, while simultaneously keeping the domestic market satisfied with low-cost fuel. These conditions undermine the feasibility of a diversification strategy. A diverse oil supply could mean a major increase in the purchase price of oil and would also require costly investments in the Mazyr and Navapolatsk refineries – the two major oil refineries in Belarus – that would make them capable of processing other types of oil other than the Urals oil for which they are currently designed.
Given the global slump in demand for oil products, and the legal structure of the Belarusian petrochemical sector, which places restrictions on access granted to foreign investors, it remains unlikely that the diversification strategy will transcend its role as a bargaining chip in Minsk’s negotiations with Moscow in the foreseeable future.
The price of oil is not the only lever Moscow can pull to apply political pressure: it may also seek to raise the cost of its natural gas exports, place restrictions on the import of food products coming from Belarus, or withhold loans and direct investment on which Minsk heavily relies. Given the poor outlook of the Belarusian economy, it is unlikely that any administration, be it led by Lukashenko or one of the opposition candidates, will want to upset the overall balance of Belarus-Russia relations.
In spite of the Lukashenko administration’s best efforts to insulate the country’s economy from the deleterious effects of the coronavirus pandemic (mainly by refusing to initiate a lockdown of the country), Belarus has nonetheless experienced a series of severe economic shocks over the first half of 2020. The decline of oil prices has led to low prices for oil products exported by Belarus, and has caused a 0.6% reduction in the GDP between January and February.
The oil shock has, in turn, lent itself to a currency shock, as households have seen growing inflation and a decrease in real income and purchasing power. Though economic activity in the country has not shutdown as a result of the pandemic, for the export-dependent nature of the Belarusian economy, the closure of key markets has been enough to cause a crisis. Chief among these has been the Russian market, where pandemic-induced restrictions and an economic downturn has led to decreasing demand for Belarusian energy, agricultural and industrial products.
Compounding Belarus’ economic woes and its deteriorating relationship with Russia has been Minsk’s inability to reverse its poor relations with the West. Indeed, Lukashenko’s interference in the election process has once again turned the spotlight of Western critics onto his administration’s fundamentally undemocratic approach to governance, and has rekindled trepidations over human rights abuse, which have remained dormant for some time.
On July 3, Belarusian Independence Day, the United States expressed concern over the conduct of the elections, and called on Minsk’s authorities to ensure that they are “free and fair.” In a post published on the website of the US Embassy, Mike Pompeo stated that the United States strongly supports “the continuing aspirations of the Belarusian people for democratic principles, which include universal freedoms, civil rights and the rule of law.” Pompeo himself made a historic visit to Belarus earlier this year, seeking to normalize relations with the country while also promising to deliver 100 percent of the country’s energy needs.
Whether or not the rhetoric on upholding democratic principles will have any bearing on the future course of Belarus-US relations after the elections remains to be seen; however, it is worth noting that Belarus may become a significant piece in the US’ strategy to dominate European energy markets and subsequently contain Russia.
Closer to home, criticism of the Lukashenko administration has been much more scathing, and indicates the damage done by the chaos of the presidential elections. At a meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament in early July, Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius presented recommendations which compared the current wave of repressions to those witnessed in the 2010 presidential campaign, and suggested that the EU’s decision to lift certain sanctions against Belarus in 2016 was a “premature and hardly justified” decision.
Markéta Gregorová, the deputy head of the EuroNest delegation, echoed Auštrevičius statements, saying that the EU should be ready to renew sanctions against Lukashenko, and went so far as to suggest that financial assistance given to Belarus as part of the pan-European coronavirus pandemic relief effort should be “more strictly tied to democratic conditionality.”
At the same time as the EU has signaled that it will not be “business as usual” with Lukashenko, Belarusian diaspora in Europe have also lent their weight to the growing backlash towards against Lukashenko, simultaneously underscoring the failure of the supra-territorial, community-building component of his administration’s Belarusianisation strategy.
The Belarusian community in Lithuania urged the president of that country, Gitanas Nausėda, to introduce sanctions against Lukashenko, specifically by eliminating financial assistance and refusing to trade with state-owned companies. Similarly, the Association of Belarusians in Italy wrote a collective letter to Pope Francis, asking him to recognize the abuses of the “dictatorial regime in Belarus, which brings so much suffering to the Belarusian people.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lukashenko has remained unrepentant in the face of the West’s criticism and seems indifferent to the notion that Belarus may lose the modest anchor of support it has enjoyed, especially in the space of the last several months. For the most part, Lukashenko seems to believe that a Belarus under his leadership can continue to walk the same tightrope it has for years, keeping both Russia and the West at arm’s length in the process. An excerpt of a speech, given to Minsk Oblast officials in late June, is perhaps the best indication of his mindset, as concerns the country’s geopolitical position:
“The European Union has done many bad things to us: they imposed sanctions, built a fence on the eastern border in Poland, they did not want to talk to us. That was not because we were pursuing the wrong policy, but because Belarus did not fall under their sway. We did not want it… We suggested meaningful cooperation, they accepted it. At last we came to America’s notice. It turned out that Belarus was also important for them. The arrival of many U.S. officials, including the U.S. Secretary of State made our eastern neighbor very nervous. However, we are a sovereign and independent state and we have the right to pursue our own domestic and foreign policy. I proceeded from that being fully aware that I am squeezed, together with you, between the hammer and the anvil: Russia from one side and the European Union from the other side…”
What is not clear, however, is precisely how Lukashenko intends to deliver an exit from the situation that is largely of his own making.
With the presidential election coming to a close, it appears that Lukashenko has painted himself into a corner, and it is clear that the post-election landscape will be a difficult one for him to maneuver. Lukashenko has had very few successes, if any, to bank with the Belarusian people. His government’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the weak economic situation in the country, and the lack of a clear course in foreign policy are just some of the outstanding issues which will continue to plague Belarus for a considerable time after the election’s conclusion.
The lack of direction in foreign policy will be a particularly daunting hurdle to overcome, and relates to the aforementioned ambiguity of Belarus’ geopolitical position: the West is no longer the same “enemy” it once was, but, in all likelihood, will not want to strengthen cooperation with Belarus (should Lukashenko win) over the electoral violations and human rights abuses that have occurred during the election campaign.
Russia is no longer a clear “friend,” but the ties that bind Belarus to its eastern neighbor show no signs of disappearing, and a continued, working relationship with Moscow will likely be predicated on deepening these same ties at the expense of sovereignty and maneuverability in the international space. In addition, the underdeveloped “soft Belarusianisation” policy, exercised by the Lukashenko administration since 2014, has had little to no discernible impact on the country’s geopolitical position, nor has it had acted as a “release valve” for domestic tensions.
It is thus with some irony that the man most responsible for the situation that Belarus currently finds itself in recently said, “If we take at least one incautious step, we will collapse under the rubble of disagreements, conflicts and empires.” Over the course of the 2020 presidential elections Lukashenko has made many a misstep, and though the end result may not necessarily be a collapse under rubble, these mistakes lay bare the fact that Minsk’s policy of “strategic solitude” is becoming increasingly untenable. The time has come for Belarusians to choose their president, and the time may soon come for Belarus to pick a side in the geopolitical game going on above its head.
This article was published by Geopolitical Monitor.com