Ksenia Kirillova (Op-Ed Contributor)
Ksenia Kirillova is an investigative journalist and analyst focused on analyzing Russian society, mentality, Russian propaganda (including in the US), “soft power,” “active measures” and foreign policy.
Following the meeting of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka with Vladimir Putin on September 14 in Sochi, one might get the impression that the Russian leader fully supported his counterpart amid the ongoing mass protests in Belarus. In particular, Putin confirmed his commitment to provide Minsk with a $1.5 billion loan and reiterated his recognition of Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus. In turn, the Belarusian president again tried to demonstrate his loyalty to Moscow and to the ideas of the “allied states” of Belarus and Russia.
However, in practice, relations between the two closest allies may not be as rosy as they seem at first glance. It’s possible that Vladimir Putin still does not trust the “last dictator of Europe”, and there are several reasons for this. First, until the presidential elections in Belarus held on August 9, Lukashenka made no secret of his view of Russia as a threat to his country’s sovereignty. In recent years, Minsk, which has positioned itself as a “security donor” in the post-Soviet space, has been able to significantly improve relations with Western countries, including the United States.
At the same time, Lukashenka has consistently refused to allow a Russian military base on his country’s territory and sabotaged Moscow’s insistent calls for closer integration. In response, the Russian media and some politicians accused him of Russophobia. The lowest point of Russian-Belarus relations was the arrest by the Belarusian KGB of 33 employees of the Russian private military company “Wagner” on July 29. According to the statements by the Russian side and some Ukrainian politicians, the members of “Wagner” were lured into the country as a result of a special operation by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). On the other hand, many Ukrainian politicians and public figures doubt the existence of such an operation. Be that as it may, the reaction of the Belarusian KGB and Alexander Lukashenka himself to the appearance of armed Russian mercenaries in Belarus suggests that Russia at that time was perceived in Belarus as a real threat.
After August 9, faced with a tough US and European Union reaction to electoral fraud and brutal suppression of protests, Alexander Lukashenka hastily began to mend relations with Moscow, trying to prove his vital importance to the Kremlin. He rather skillfully played on the main Kremlin fears, trying to convince Putin that the main goal of the “color revolution organized by the West” is not Belarus, but Russia, and it’s Lukashenka who allegedly stands guard over Russian security.
It’s significant that even against this background, some analysts close to the Belarusian authorities were trying to “sell” Lukashenka to the West as the most anti-Russian candidate of all. They explained the rejection of Lukashenka by Belarusian society as “a Russian conspiracy against Lukashenka.” Moreover, these analysts claimed that Western leaders hostile to the Belarusian dictator were part of the same conspiracy, allegedly because “Russia has agreed with the West to overthrow Lukashenka”.
Interestingly, before the meeting between Putin and Lukashenka, these analysts admitted that Moscow had chosen the “tactic of non-intervention” in relation to Minsk and reproached the Kremlin for such a policy, claiming that “non-interference is also a form of intervention, especially in cases when the Kremlin refuses to provide necessary forms of support to Minsk.” Thus, they actually called on Russia to interfere in the affairs of Belarus after claiming that Russia is engaged in secret attempts to oust the Belarusian dictator. Such logically contradictory statements indicate that Lukashenka, even after the elections, desperately tried to enlist the support of the West and the East at the same time, trying to shift the responsibility for his actions to an external conspiracy.
In this context, it is not surprising that a number of experts close to the Kremlin were skeptical about Lukashenka’s fiery assurances of friendship and loyalty. For example, commentators working for the business newspaper Vzglyad note that the falsified audio recording prepared by the Belarusian special services that they tried to present as an “interception of the conversation between German and Polish intelligence services about the poisoning of Navalny” only harms Moscow. In their opinion, by such actions Lukashenka is trying to blackmail the West by saying that he is “ready to completely come under the control of Russia,” and therefore the Western countries must “urgently demonstrate their support and readiness to accept him back” in order to prevent such a scenario.
However, the resolution of the European Parliament on Belarus, adopted on September 15, clearly demonstrated that European politicians no longer trust Lukashenka and are not ready to succumb to his blackmail. In particular, the resolution did not recognize Alexander Lukashenka as a legitimate president, demanded the release of all political prisoners, and also expressed support for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the Coordination Council of the opposition of Belarus.
It’s also quite possible that Aleksandr Lukashenka’s constant “reversals” caused Kremlin to no longer believe his promises. The well-known American analyst Paul Goble believes that Moscow is considering different scenarios under which the current president of Belarus would leave his post. According to the American expert, it depends on the degree of independence that Russia is ready to allow Belarus, as well as on whether it succeeds in finding common language with the opposition and whether it can make Lukashenka’s departure to look as something other than a “victory of the revolution”, since this would set a dangerous precedent in Putin’s eyes. According to one version, Moscow is considering a “transitional period” of one year so Lukashenka can stay in power until the next presidential election.
Be that as it may, the Belarusian protests showed that it is impossible to ignore the demands of a civil society while resolving the crisis that has arisen in the country. Even Moscow, which is used to ignoring any manifestations of the popular will, seems to be forced to consider the degree to which its support for the odious dictator can alienate Belarusians from Russia.