Just over a week before the Presidential elections were scheduled to take place, Belarus’s security services arrested 33 Russian citizens. The authorities claimed these men were mercenaries working for a Kremlin backed private military company.
As protests erupted following the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent president claimed the unrest was part of a Russian backed coup to oust him and replace him with opposition candidate Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin has denied all the allegations made against it, claiming the men were merely transiting through Belarus.
This raises an interesting question, is Lukashenko merely using these mercenaries as a scapegoat? Or does Russia really seek regime change in Minsk?
In order to answer this, it is necessary to look at how relations have developed between the pair over the last number of decades.
Belarus’s independence and relationship with Yeltsin’s Russia
Belarus’s path to independence was similar to other republics in the western Soviet Union in that nationalism played an important role. Just like elsewhere in the Soviet Union, intellectuals and other reformers established a Popular Front, which sought greater autonomy and even independence for Belarus. The Belarusian Popular Front exerted a great deal of influence over local politics and encouraged the Supreme Soviet (the republics legislative body) to adopt a law which made Belarusian the sole official language of the republic.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union however, Belarus’s path quickly diverged from other Western republics. Support for the nationalist movement quickly dissipated, with many growing tired of the inflation and longing for the stability of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko rose to power by exploiting this nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The former chairman collective farm promised closer relations with Russia and to reverse many of the nationalist reforms.
Following his election in 1994, Lukashenko began to consolidate his power amidst the political chaos brought about by the Soviet collapse. He enacted on his promise by holding referendums on the adoption of Russian as a second state language and a new state flag.
Once elected Lukashenko set about increasing ties to Russia and in 1996 he and Yeltsin formed the Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus. This was followed by the creation of a Union State in 1999, which foresaw the pair uniting in a federation at some point in the future. The agreement did not stipulate when the Union would take place and some speculated that Lukashenko only signed the treaty because he had ambitions of becoming president of a future Russian-Belarusian Federation. However, with the selection of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, Lukashenko’s ambitions seemed to be spoiled.
Belarus’s relations with Putin’s Russia
Following Putin’s election, relations between Belarus and Russia began to cool somewhat. Lukashenko backed away from the Union Treaty, which he began to see as a vehicle for creeping annexation and a diminishment of his powers, rather than a realisation of his political ambitions.
Since Putin’s rise to power, Russia has cut off gas to Belarus on numerous occasions, including 2007, 2010 and even earlier this year. Ostensibly, these cut offs have been linked to disputes over rising gas prices and tariffs. However, it has been speculated that they have been linked to Lukashenko’s resistance to form the Union state.
In addition to these disputes, Lukashenko has resisted Russia on a number of foreign policy initiatives. While initially supportive of the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s right to self-determination, Lukashenko refused to recognise either state following their declaration of independence. This subsequently contributed to the 2009 trade war between the pair, dubbed the ‘Milk War’, when Russia attempted to pressurise Belarus into recognising the pair.
Belarusian resistance to Russian territorial expansion continued following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Undoubtedly afraid of potential Russian incursions into Belarus, Lukashenko claimed with regard to the annexation ‘I do not like it when the integrity and independence of a country are broken’. However, he also acknowledged it is de-facto part of Russia, whether it is recognised or not.
While relations between the pair have, at times, been strained, Belarus remains one of Russia’s closet allies in the post-Soviet space, with Moscow providing an estimated $10 billion worth of aid to Minsk. Furthermore, Belarus was one of the original signatories of the Russian led single market initiatives, the Eurasian Economic Union. As a result of their close ties, and in spite of their occasional disputes, Lukashenko regularly visits Moscow.
This raises the question: would Russia support a coup in Minsk? The short answer is no, at least not for the time being. There are main two reasons for this. Firstly, Lukashenko provides something that Putin values above almost all else: stability. Despite their occasional disagreements, the geopolitical orientation of the Lukashenko regime has remained rather consistent. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Lukashenko has never seriously toyed with the idea of joining Western led organisations such as the European Union or NATO.
In contrast to Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine and Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Lukashenko, from Russia’s point of view, has also been able to bring political stability within Belarus. Unlike his Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, Lukashenko has successfully stifled support for pro-European activists and avoided conflict, as was the case in Georgia and Ukraine.
The recent outburst of protests may have some wondering if Lukashenko is still able to maintain control. While clashes between protesters and police on the streets of Minsk, Gomel and other Belarussian cities is likely to irk the Kremlin, they are unlikely to be too worried, as this is not the first time that Belarusian citizens have taken to the streets. In fact, protestors have regularly taken to the streets: after the 2010 the presidential elections, as well as in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Both then and now, Lukashenko has demonstrated that he is willing to use violent tactics to supress dissent. Tactics Putin is supportive of.
Finally, the Kremlin is unlikely to support a regime change in Belarus because from Moscow’s perspective there is no viable alternative. Moscow is highly unlikely to support the election of Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, given that her platform is to move away from the union-treaty officially. In addition to this she also pledged to introduce democratic reforms and increased transparency within the government. In the absence of any favourable alternative, the Kremlin is likely to continue to support the Lukashenko regime for many years to come, even if just to ensure stability along its Eastern border.
The question remains then, why would Lukashenko blame Russia, an ally, for the recent street protests? Lukashenko’s blaming of Russia goes beyond efforts to discredit protestors. In response to internal crisis, Lukashenko has proven more than willing to bite the hand that feeds him or contradict himself. As noted above, Lukashenko rose to power on a platform of rejecting Belarusian nationalism. However, when disputes with Russia have emerged, Lukashenko has utilised Belarusian nationalism as a way to consolidate national unity in the face of opposition. Only to supress it once the situation had been resolved.
Lukashenko’s accusations towards Russia represent a similar pattern and do not mark an attempt to sever ties with his closest ally. Instead, Lukashenko sees it as a short-term solution to the current problem. Should he successfully supress the opposition, these accusations will quickly be forgotten and relations between the pair will normalise once again.
While the Kremlin may use the recent unrest in Belarus to expand its influence within the country, it will not support the Belarusian leader removal from power. As long as Lukashenko can retain control of the state security services and avoid a revolution similar to that in Ukraine, Putin is likely to continue supporting him. This likely means that only an internal movement, similar to the Rose and Maidan Revolutions, could remove ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ from power.