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Belarus One Year On: An Insecure Regime Under Russian “Protection”

2021 / 10 / 18

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributing Researcher, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)
 

It has been more than a year since the fraudulent elections in Belarus, and the country is still making newspaper headlines worldwide. The Lukashenka regime has been suppressing opponents and civil society activists, and, to date, around 715 remain behind bars. In August, the Belarusian government went even further and attempted to forcibly return sportswoman Kristsina Tsimanouskaya to Minsk for merely criticising the national team’s management for signing her up for a different event she had not planned to take part in.

While the EU and US sanctions against Minsk, enacted due to the regime’s crackdown on the protests and hijacking a Ryanair plane to arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich, are still in place, it is clear that Western measures have not had any efficient impact on the regime. Belarus has been moving closer to Russia and withdrew its participation from the Eastern Partnership Initiative in June. It seems that the Lukashenka regime has become insecure, and it is prepared to persecute any individual critical to the regime- even the management of the sport sector.

 

An insecure dictatorship

The August 2020 presidential elections in Belarus were domestically and internationally seen as rigged, as Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared himself the winner with 80 per cent of the votes. In the vote, Lukashenka lost the election to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher who entered the race after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested and blocked from registering for the vote. Belarus was rocked by thousands of protesters, who were triggered by Lukashenka's re-election to the sixth term. The government violently cracked down on rallies and started massive repression of the opposition and media. During the demonstrations, more than 35,000 people were detained.

The government has arrested and harassed almost all opposition representatives, civil activists as well as independent journalists. Lukashenka pledged to keep up his accelerated “sweep” of the media and civil society, referring to them as ‘thugs and foreign agents.’ Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who led the Belarusian opposition, was also forced to flee the country and move to Lithuania, where she started an international campaign to drive democratic change in Belarus. The main aim of her campaign has been seeking support for beleaguered Belarusian opposition and driving tough sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Initially, both the EU and the US were hesitant to enforce anything other than individual sanctions against prominent figures in the government.

Map 1. The isolation of Belarusian airspace by Western airlines (Source: BBC)

The West was prompted to weigh measures only in May, when Belarus forced a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk in order to arrest a dissident journalist, Raman Protasevich, a move Western leaders called “an act of state piracy.” EU foreign ministers subsequently agreed on a new round of targeted economic sanctions to hit Belarus’ major source of taxes and foreign currency, such as financial transactions and key industries of potash and oil products. The organization banned Belarusian airlines from entering the EU’s airspace and airports and urged EU-based banks to halt new loans and investment services to Minsk. The US, in coordination with the Union, also introduced a wave of sanctions against members of the Lukashenka regime associated with ongoing abuses of human rights and corruption.

Following on from the harsh response from the West, the Lukashenka administration has started to further tighten its grip on power. Checks and balances that the regime took into consideration to maintain friendly relations with the West have faded with the sanctions. Minsk has been left empty-handed to bargain with the West, unless Lukashenka steps down. Thus, the regime, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has fallen into such “desperation” that it is harassing not only its direct opponents but also non-partisan athletes, such as Kristsina Tsimanouskaya, for merely voicing her disappointment towards the Belarusian Olympic Committee. The regime’s insecurity is so deep-rooted that Minsk has risked global outrage for harassing its opponents and violating international rules multiple times. Lukashenka cannot rule the country, as he has almost no popular support, and that is why he has opted for repressions. The only actor Belarus can now turn to is neighboring Kremlin, which is set to take advantage of the situations to advance its interests in the region.

 

All roads lead to Moscow

After the West weighed sanctions against Belarus, the country suspended its participation in the Eastern Partnership. Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko stated that  the country would ‘now count on the support of its closest ally, the Russian Federation.’ Western ostracization of the regime has unprecedently pushed Belarus closer to Moscow than ever before. Russia has been stably expanding its leverage over Minsk since the 2020 protests, when the Kremlin sent Belarus a 1.5 billion USD loan and agreed to deepen trade linkages. This gesture was direct assistance for Lukashenka to effectively overcome months of street rallies demanding his resignation. The patron-client relationship which the two countries have entered, has become a new opportunity for the Kremlin to deepen the integration with its neighboring former Soviet republic. Belarus is an opportunity for Moscow to exert its economic and political influence in the region, and represents a significant hurdle against “the Western encroachment” upon the territories of its “special interest”. Furthermore, the Kremlin favors a stable authoritarian regime in power that is hostile towards colorful revolutions and can be more easily influenced.

Picture 1. Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandar Lukashenka in Saint Petersburg, Russia (Source: Ap news)

For Minsk, Russia is a powerful economic and political partner, which has supported the current authoritarian regime for 27 years. Despite “close friendship,” Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka have always been uneasy partners. Belarus has never been interested in being part of “the Russian World,” and it dared to “flirt” with the West and antagonize Moscow. Lukashenka openly refused to support Russia in the conflict with Ukraine, and even removed “pro-Russian elements” from the country’s security apparatus. This was symbolically demonstrated through a tiny change in the new Belarusian national coat of arms, that depicted more of Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean and much less of Russia and Eurasia. In 2014 and 2015, the Belarusian President showed enthusiasm to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, hosting the Minsk peace talks. Despite that, Russian assistance to Lukashenka has not come without a price, and having been isolated by the West, Belarus has no choice but to stick to the Russian orbit and play the game according to the Kremlin rules. At the Sochi Summit in June, Lukashenka stated that Belarusian national airline Belavia would launch flights to Crimea. Many believe that this statement indicated that Minsk is ready to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory. This largely contrasts with the Belarusian government’s refusal to acknowledge the annexation due to fears of a similar scenario threatening Belarus’ sovereignty. Yet, tides have shifted now, and on July 30, the president stated that he would not hesitate to invite Russian armed forces if necessary. On September 9, after meeting with Putin for the fifth time in 2021, Lukashenka showed his interest in closer economic integration with Russia.

Even though Russia has accrued extensive political and economic leverage over Minsk, cracks between Lukashenka and Putin have been growing for years. The Belarusian strongman has clashed with Moscow on a range of issues, including a deeper political union. Russian thus seeks ways to deepen its meddling in the country’s domestic politics. The Kremlin has even pressured Lukashenka to ‘modernize the Belarus political system’ and change the Belarusian Constitution for the sake of increasing the authority of parliament at the expense of presidency. Thus, it seems that even though Moscow is the only guarantee for the survival of the Lukashenka regime, it might be the reason for its eventual downfall as well. In the past several years, the Kremlin has been showing its willingness to garner more control over Belarusian politics through pro-Russian parties, to overcome Lukashenka in case he does not live up to the Kremlin’s expectations. 

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