Despite a four-hour-long, mostly secret meeting Monday between Belarus’ disputed president, Alexander Lukashenko, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a solution to Belarus’ month of tumultuous protests over alleged electoral fraud appears no closer.
But there is no longer the slightest doubt that Russia intends to back Mr. Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy, after Mr. Putin promised him a lot of cash, political support, and other forms of assistance that remain unspecified.
While this may increase Mr. Putin’s leverage over Mr. Lukashenko, who has promised much to the Kremlin over the years while delivering little, Belarusian and Russian experts say that it does not solve the most glaring, immediate problem for both Russia and the Belarusian opposition: Mr. Lukashenko’s continued hold on power. Without an acknowledgment of the opposition, they say, a resolution to Belarus’ crisis will remain murky.
“What we have learned is that Putin will unambiguously back Lukashenko with money and political support. There were probably some other informal agreements made to strengthen the union state,” says Alexei Dzermont, a political analyst who heads Northern Eurasia, an independent think tank in Minsk. “There is nothing inherently bad in the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko. Any way out of our predicament would require Russian help. …
“But Russia might also have made some efforts to establish relations with the Belarusian opposition as well. They could do that. But in Moscow it seems they see the opposition as anti-Russian, and they don’t believe claims by opposition leaders that they are not.”
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Russia’s involvement, EU’s absence
Mr. Putin publicly offered Mr. Lukashenko an immediate $1.5 billion lifeline to rescue his struggling economy from imminent collapse, reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to the ill-defined “union state” economic integration project, and vowed full allegiance to the NATO-like military alliance that binds Russia and Belarus. Mr. Putin vocally approved of Mr. Lukashenko’s road map out of the crisis, which involves rewriting Belarus’ constitution, holding a public referendum to adopt the new document and then, after some time, fresh elections for a new president and parliament.
The Kremlin leader denied Belarus’ opposition protesters what they most wanted – recognition of their grievances and support for their demand that Mr. Lukashenko depart immediately – but offered vague assurances that Russia wishes to see Belarusians resolve their own differences free of external interference. Perhaps as an olive branch to Belarusian protesters, he ordered the withdrawal from the Belarusian border of a “reserve unit” of Russian police that had been pledged to help restore order in the event of civic breakdown in the protest-hit country.
The Kremlin’s prominent role in resolving Belarus’ future highlights how dependent Belarus, with 9.5 million mostly Russian-speaking people, is upon the economic largess, political approval, and security weight of Russia. The cautious response of the West might also be an indicator of how much the world has changed in the past couple of decades.
Just six years ago the European Union offered full-throated support for Ukraine’s efforts to change its geopolitical allegiance, including EU association and massive financial assistance. Today, apparently more leery of getting directly involved, the EU declared Belarus’ Aug. 9 election invalid, sanctioned a few dozen top Belarusian officials, and will likely confine itself to verbal expressions of disapproval going forward. Only Lithuania has so far declared Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to be the country’s legitimate leader.
For her part, Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee to Lithuania last month, addressed Mr. Putin with the warning that any deals he strikes with Mr. Lukashenko will be regarded as illegal and added, “I regret that you have decided on dialogue with a dictator and not with the people of Belarus.”
Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. and a business leader, would probably have been Mr. Lukashenko’s top contender in the election if he hadn’t been barred from the ballot and forced to leave the country in July. He says that, given Mr. Lukashenko’s record of perfidy – including arresting 33 Russians and accusing them of subversion before the elections – Mr. Putin should know better than to make any agreements with him.
“We want to see relations between the Belarusian and Russian people continue to reflect the level of trust and friendship that exists,” he told the Monitor by phone. “Lukashenko has already deceived everyone many times, and can be expected to continue doing so … It’s important to recognize that he is not legitimate in the eyes of the Belarusian people.”
Russian financial aid to Mr. Lukashenko will only prop up his regime, he says. “The salaries of most state employees have already been delayed. Huge amounts of money are being paid to riot police and security forces. They are receiving big bonuses, and we can see that the redistribution of resources is aimed at rewarding those whom Lukashenko’s regime relies upon. …
“It seems to me that if Russia wants to be constructive, it should demand the release of political prisoners and the termination of criminal cases that were opened on absurd grounds,” he says. “As for the constitutional reforms, we need to discuss not just general terms but the nuts and bolts of the road map that Lukashenko is proposing. Otherwise it’s just empty talk that Lukashenko is giving to Belarusian society and the Russian leadership.”
Lukashenko’s limbo, and after
Belarus has been joined in a largely theoretical union state with Russia since before the Putin era. The economic part of that arrangement has enabled Mr. Lukashenko to maintain his quasi-Soviet paternalistic regime in which everyone gets fed, housed, and educated, but most development is frozen. Belarusians have watched over the past 20 years as neighboring Poland and Lithuania joined the EU and radically improved their lives. Meanwhile next door Russia underwent a different transformation under Mr. Putin that brought order and relative prosperity. To the south, Ukraine is still going through a concerted effort to detach itself from Russia’s sphere that some Belarusians find inspirational, and others view as cautionary.
“Lukashenko built his system on cheap Russian oil supplies, which were processed in Belarusian refineries and sold on to Europe. He, his family, and government profited from the margins,” says Oleg Sosna, a business leader in Belarus’ information technology sector. “Using the rhetoric of the union state, he received huge loans from Russia. Playing his ‘pendulum’ diplomacy [playing Russia against the West], he also negotiated big loans from the World Bank and the EU. … Over 40% of our exports go to Russia, including things that would not be competitive in the EU, like our agricultural production and the vehicles produced by the Minsk Automobile Plant.”
But Mr. Lukashenko’s economic model has been collapsing for some time. With global oil prices plunging and Russia growing weary of subsidizing his archaic system, an economic crisis has been creeping up. By many accounts, the Belarusian banking system is paralyzed, the ruble is sinking fast, and reforms are going to be necessary regardless of who is in charge.
The political trappings of the union state, which include a joint parliament and government agencies, have remained toothless talking-shops for almost two decades, and their only utility appears to be to provide sinecures for retiring politicians. The joke – or rumor, depending on who you ask – going around is that a special chair is being prepared for Mr. Lukashenko in that apparatus.
Polls in both countries show that majorities value good relations, but that enthusiasm for the union state has been falling, with almost half of Russians saying it’s not needed in a recent survey by the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
“I understand that Russia wants the level of our relations to remain. And this is a legitimate concern,” says Mr. Tsepkalo. “We should maintain our relations with Russia, but we should also seek normal trade and investment relations with the West. We also need to build new values inside our society: the principle of the separation of powers, the right to choose our own leaders, civil liberties. I’m sure that Russians can understand this. We can’t develop just in one direction, we need several vectors.”
As Belarusian protesters continue to flood the streets, Russia holds many advantages in its efforts to maintain Belarus’ geopolitical allegiance, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. But it lacks the ability to inspire the youth and professionals who yearn for greater freedom and civil rights, and risks alienating them if it continues to support Mr. Lukashenko.
“Belarus is always going to be the object of geopolitical competition between East and West,” he says. “Just now there seems to be little appetite in the EU to get engaged with this crisis as they did in Ukraine a few years ago. That puts a damper on the hopes of pro-Western Belarusian liberals. But it doesn’t really help Russia. …
“Russia has money, and raw power, but no good ideas. For those Belarusians who are transfixed by the aspirations of nation, liberal values, or joining the global mainstream, Russia has nothing to offer.”