Putin’s Strategy on Belarus
Since his widely contested re-election on August 9, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko has become completely dependent on Russia for his rule over Belarus. As the anti-Lukashenko protests continue, Moscow is gaining more leverage than ever over Minsk. However, there is a growing sense that Moscow, while backing the regime in public, behind the scenes encourages talks on a transition plan. The EU should seize this opportunity to support internal dialogue and help preserve the sovereignty of Belarus.
On September 14, 2020, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time since protests escalated in Belarus last month. The two presidents negotiated for four hours behind closed doors in Sochi. This was not followed by a joint press conference which indicates that talks were far from pleasant.
After the meeting, Putin announced that Russia was ready to grant a $1,5 billion loan to Belarus, and he reiterated the importance of defence co-operation with Belarus. He also praised Lukashenko’s announced intention to reform the constitution. No statements were made about deepening the structures of the Union State, which is a decades-long, stagnating bilateral integration project between Russia and Belarus.
Behind the scenes, Moscow is aiming at a transition of power in Belarus
Given the circumstances of the Sochi meeting, it is likely that Moscow is aiming at a transition of power in Belarus. The first stage would be constitutional reform, probably followed by a new round of presidential elections in which Lukashenko would no longer take part. If successful, this kind of transition would be much slower and, most importantly, under much closer Russian management than either the Belarusian opposition or many EU member states would prefer.
Sole Guarantor of the Regime
Long before the current protests erupted, Belarus relied on Russia to be the main guarantor of the country’s military and economic security. But since the elections in August, Lukashenko’s dependency on Moscow has substantially increased. Russia is playing a key role in keeping him in power by various overt and covert means
Much of Belarusian public television has been operated by Russian professionals from the state-controlled RT company since several hundred Belarusian specialists quit their jobs in protest against post-election repressions. In addition, Russian state media, which are very influential in Belarus, are amplifying the official narrative of the Lukashenko regime about the opposition protests.
Moscow is also providing security assistance. It sent specialists and riot control equipment to support the Belarusian internal security forces. Putin also said that at Lukashenko’s request, Russia’s National Guard had formed a special reserve contingent close to the Belarusian border which was ready to be sent in if Lukashenko called for it. After the Sochi meeting, an announcement was made that this force would be disbanded.
High-level leaders of Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) have visited Minsk multiple times, indicating close cooperation between secret services. In addition, a security detachment from Russia has been providing personal protection to Lukashenko during the peak of the protests. All in all, Russian support has been crucial to maintaining the coherence of the state administration behind the president.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s massive crackdown against the post-election protests has had the effect of alienating the regime from the EU and the United States. This put an abrupt end to Lukashenko’s post-2014 strategy of maneuvering between the West and Russia. As China is too far away and also reluctant to get involved beyond economic engagement, Russia remains Belarus’ only foreign policy partner, which further increases Lukashenko’s dependency.
How Much Union State?
It is yet unclear how exactly Russia intends to capitalize on Lukashenko’s dependency. Contrary to the fears of many, the meeting in Sochi on September 14 did not bring an announcement of closer integration of the two countries, which would build on the Union State project of 1999.
In fact, Russia is apparently not moving toward any kind of such integration, which would abolish the sovereignty of Belarus as a state. Russian public opinion is not supportive to the deeper integration of the two countries. Taking over Belarus with 9.5 million inhabitants and an unreformed economy would constitute a massive burden for Russia’s already overstretched state budget. Foreign policy consequences would also be devastating. Besides, such an effort would probably further antagonize the Belarusian population, which is already strongly set against both Lukashenko and Putin. As the 2021 Duma elections are approaching soon, it is unlikely that the Kremlin would decide on such an unpopular and costly move.
Instead, narratives about strengthening the Union State serve as a framework and vehicle for Russia to force Belarus into making even more economic, financial, and possibly military concessions. The $1.5 billion loan announced in Sochi will be partially used to re-finance some of Belarus’s debt. While nothing has been said about the conditions of this help, it is clear that this amount is not enough to keep Belarus financially stable. Further loans will be needed, also because the Belarusian ruble has been in rapid decline since August. In just one month, the National Bank was forced to spend 15.8 percent of its gold and foreign currency reserves to stabilize the currency. Since the beginning of the year, reserves have shrunken by more than 20 per cent, clearly indicating the unsustainability of the current policies. In exchange for further loans, Russian business leaders may intend to take over some of Belarus’s most profitable enterprises, particularly in the oil and military industries, as well as in vehicle and fertilizer production.
Moscow is Eyeing a Transition
The most important part of the Sochi meeting was Putin’s open endorsement of a reform of the Belarusian constitution. This indicates that Russia may be willing to endorse a gradual transition process, including new elections once the constitution has been reformed. Lukashenko himself has indicated that, given the right conditions, he will not oppose new elections. “Perhaps I have sat in this chair already a bit too long,” he said. Yet he insists that constitutional reform and the transformation of the current super-presidential system into more decentralized power structures need to come first. No time frame is known yet. In any case, Lukashenko, who is now 66, will insist on guarantees for his personal safety after his rule comes to an end.
Neither Germany nor the EU is able or willing to seriously challenge Russia’s plans for Belarus
Timing is critical for Russia, though. In the short run, Moscow decided to keep Lukashenko in power, partially due to the lack of a suitably pro-Russian successor. In the long run, however, Moscow clearly understands that Lukashenko’s legitimacy is gone for good. Even if the protests dwindle or get repressed, public trust in the president will not be restored. This means, as many prominent Russian analysts point out, that keeping him in power for too long may also erode the generally pro-Russian sentiments of the Belarusian population. In brief, Russia needs a transition in Belarus, but a closely managed one, which does not endanger Moscow’s vital security and economic interests.
The EU’s Scope of Action
Neither Germany nor the EU is able or willing to seriously challenge Russia’s plans to manage the transition of power in Belarus. Both need to design their steps by factoring in Russia’s dominant position as a limitation.
Hence, a two-track strategy seems to be advisable. One the one hand, the EU and its member states need to do everything possible to support the victims of Lukashenko’s repression. Special attention should be paid to political prisoners, particularly to the jailed leaders of the opposition. The EU needs to approve, maintain, and even expand sanctions, should the human rights situation deteriorate. It should also help the Belarusian opposition to establish institutionalized, functioning party structures, as the constitutional reform is likely to strengthen the role of the parliament.
On the other hand, the envisaged constitutional reform offers the EU an important opportunity to engage both the regime’s administrative elites and the Belarusian civil society. By providing politically neutral, technocratic platforms for discussion, as well as legal-technical assistance, Brussels could facilitate the constitutional reform and encourage a dialogue between society and the regime. Whatever Lukashenko’s long-term future may be, neither he nor the administrative elites – which will remain in place – are keen to let Moscow seriously limit the sovereignty of their country. Hence, they may be willing to accept Western legal-technical assistance, particularly if it helps fend off uninvited Russian political interference.
Brussels’ overall geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Belarus remain unchanged: For the EU, it is of essential importance to help preserve what is left of the country’s sovereignty and freedom of maneuver. By assisting the Belarusian elites with the elaboration of a constitution that would uphold Belarusian sovereignty, the EU can support and shape the transition of power without risk of turning Belarus into yet another geopolitical battleground between the West and Russia.
Please note: The Republic of Belarus recognizes two official languages, Belarusian and Russian. The choice of transliterating Belarusian names on the basis of their Russian equivalents was made here in order to help the wider public to more easily comprehend the situation in Belarus; thus, it does not represent any political or other preference.
DGAP Online Commentary, September 17, 2020