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Hello, my name is Pavel Slyunkin.
I am Belarusian, a political analyst and former diplomat. Former because in the summer of 2020 my work in the Foreign Ministry began to contradict my beliefs and ceased to bring any benefit to the country. I resigned in protest against the falsifications in the presidential elections and violence against peaceful protesters.
Since then, the situation in Belarus has only gotten worse. Hundreds of thousands of people have left, tens of thousands have been through prisons and torture, thousands are still in custody (and some are facing the death penalty). Today, Belarus, which for many Russians is associated with a clever farmer from memes and clean streets, is one big colony of a strict regime for nine million people.
This colony is being built by people who call themselves “patriots”. On February 24th, 2022, they turned Belarus into an accomplice of war crimes. In my article for Kit, I will explain the role that Alexander Lukashenko’s regime plays in Russia’s war against Ukraine. And, of course, what this war will mean for Belarus itself (sadly, nothing good).
How Lukashenko “crawled” towards Russia
And why did free elections lead Belarus to dictatorship?
In 1994, the first and so far the only truly democratic presidential elections took place in Belarus. As a result, Alexander Lukashenko came to power in the country.
From the very beginning of his rule, he saw Russia as a support for Belarus’ not very effective economy. And literally from the first press conference as president, he called Russia the country’s main political ally.
As part of the USSR, Belarus performed the functions of a “union assembly shop” – it was there that large industrial enterprises were located, which supplied products to all Soviet republics. Belarus supplied the Union with tractors, televisions, radios, computer equipment, cars, fertilizers, and chemical fibers. At the same time, unlike some other republics rich in natural resources, it was not economically self-sufficient.
The collapse of the USSR had a strong impact on the Belarusian economy: the country maintained its dependence on Russian raw materials, but faced a disruption of production chains and customs and currency barriers. At the same time, Belarusian society as a whole remained pro-Soviet, sympathizing with Russia and Russians. In the all-Union referendum of 1991, Belarusians voted to preserve the USSR – despite the general dissatisfaction with the economic situation, mass strikes, and fatigue from elderly party officials in power.
It is largely thanks to the skillful combination of pro-Russian populism and active criticism of the Soviet nomenklatura addressed by Alexander Lukashenko that he was able to achieve success in politics so quickly. His path from the chairman of a state farm to the highest state office took him less than seven years.
A significant political springboard for Lukashenko became his parliamentary mandate, which he received as a result of an unexpected victory in the parliamentary elections in 1990. After taking a parliamentary seat, Lukashenko effectively used the image of “a simple peasant man from the people”. At that time, parliament sessions were broadcasted live on central television channels. During these sessions, Lukashenko charismatically criticized the government and his political rivals, accusing them of corruption and nationalism, promising to restore order in the country, revive factories, pay pensions on time and deal with crime. In one of his speeches in 1993, the future president of Belarus declared that he was “ready to crawl on his knees to Russia” and that “the only chance of salvation from destruction is the creation of a single state with the former republics of the USSR, primarily with Russia”.
Having established democratic institutions and freedom of speech in the country, Lukashenko paved his way to the presidential chair. In order to block this path for everyone else, the newly elected leader blocked it with stones: first, he took control over the press and television, then he subdued the parliament and the Central Election Commission, and finally physically eliminated his main political opponents.
Becoming president, Lukashenko reached the peak of popular love, not only in Belarus. In the 90s, he traveled across Russian regions, telling about the economic successes of his country under his firm hand. At that time, Lukashenko was very popular in Russia – especially among those who dreamed of the revival of the Union. This popularity even gave the Belarusian leader hope that he could replace the aging Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin cabinet (which was written about by federal Russian media). However, Lukashenko himself later denied that he wanted this, while also adding that in Russia they are afraid to compete with him and that these fears are justified.
Thanks to Lukashenko, the idea of a “Union State of Russia and Belarus” – a union with a single governing body and common currency – appeared. The countries signed the corresponding agreement on December 8, 1999. Presumably, the President of Belarus believed that the union would create an institutional mechanism for expanding his power.
However, the operation “predecessor”, organized by Boris Yeltsin in 1999, destroyed these plans. When it became clear that it would be impossible to lead a union of two countries, Lukashenko stopped seeking political integration of the states and emphasized economic integration – that is, obtaining access for Belarus to the Russian market, cheap energy resources and loans.
Now the gradual decline of his political career, which we seem to have been witnessing since 2020, is unfolding in the same way as once its rise – Lukashenko is once again “crawling” towards Russia (over the past year and a half he has met with Putin eleven times) and calling for the revival of the Soviet empire.
How does Lukashenko manage to trade “kisses” for oil?
And why does Moscow either have to pressure or pay (not always successfully)?
During Lukashenko’s years in power, the dependence of the Belarusian economy on the Russian one has practically not decreased, and all systemic problems in it have been preserved.
For decades, Russia has remained the dominant trading and investment partner of Belarus. For example, in 2021, Russia accounted for 41% of Belarusian exports, 57% of imports, and 42.6% of all foreign investment. In addition, Russia is the largest creditor of Belarus. As of April 1, 2021, Belarus’ total national debt was $18.1 billion, and the debt owed to Russia was more than $8 billion.
Belarus is dependent on Russia not only economically but also politically. In 1996, Moscow for the first time saved Lukashenko when he was on the verge of impeachment. At that time, the President of Belarus had a conflict with parliament and decided to organize a referendum to expand his powers. By that time, a serious political crisis had developed inside the country, and parliamentarians launched an impeachment procedure against Lukashenko. Moscow acted as a mediator in the conflict: the President promised that the results of the referendum would be of a recommendatory nature, and some parliamentarians withdrew their signatures under threats from law enforcement. When Lukashenko regained control, he violated his promise and declared the results of the referendum mandatory, and the parliament was dissolved. Russia supported Lukashenko – and thus, the system of unilateral presidential power was finally established in Belarus.
Subsequently, Russia recognized the results of all elections and referenda in Belarus without exception. And of course, it supported the Belarusian economy by providing the country with credit support, as well as selling it oil and gas at reduced prices.
In addition, at the peak of the record protests (in August 2020, from 250 to 400 thousand people protested in Minsk – this is like if 1.5 to 2.5 million residents took to the streets in Moscow), the Rosgvardia was sent to the borders of Belarus – in case the country does not have enough forces to suppress popular discontent.
In short, it can be confidently stated that without Russia’s political, financial, and military support, the Lukashenko regime would not have been able to survive, especially after the 2020 protests. Since then, the Belarusian economy has been under constant pressure from international sanctions, and the Western world does not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president.
The stronger the sanctions become, the more Belarusian economy becomes dependent on Russian resources. However, Lukashenko’s behavior in these conditions remains the same: he counts on receiving credit and financial support from Russia, preferential or even subsidized prices for energy resources, simplified access to the Russian market for Belarusian goods – and in return, he tries to give as little as possible. This trademark exchange loyalty for protection scheme between Belarus and Russia even has a humorous name in Belarus – “oil in exchange for kisses.”
Such an exchange has not always worked smoothly. Over the past 28 years, Russia and Belarus have experienced numerous crises in their relationship – the countries have waged gas, oil, dairy, and sugar wars against each other. Against this background, Lukashenko has attempted to reduce his dependence on Russia several times, seeking reconciliation with the West, embracing Mike Pompeo (US Secretary of State from 2018-2021) and Petro Poroshenko (President of Ukraine from 2014-2019). In meetings with Western and Ukrainian colleagues, he secretly shared how difficult it is to resist Russian imperialism, and even planned to import American oil into Belarus instead of Russian oil – after the protests of 2020 and the ensuing Western sanctions, deliveries naturally ceased.
But every time when protest sentiments intensified within Belarus and mass rallies took place (which happened after every presidential election starting from 2006, the only exception being the 2015 elections), he intensified repressions, which he temporarily slowed down during the period of “friendship” with the EU, fell under Western sanctions, and again went to Vladimir Putin in Sochi or Moscow. And Russia, realizing its strong connection with Belarus and having a wide range of tools for coercion at its disposal, patiently dealt with Lukashenko’s behavior.
After all, the dependence of countries has always been mutual. Despite Lukashenko’s pro-Russian position, Moscow failed to create its own mechanisms to influence domestic events in Belarus over almost 30 years. Political parties or movements that would be loyal to Russia rather than Lukashenko never appeared in the country. In addition, Moscow could not introduce any pro-Russian party into the Belarusian parliament – they were not even allowed to register (this is just one recent example of many). The Kremlin also failed to buy out the most profitable Belarusian state assets.
That is to say, Moscow had to reconcile itself with the fact that the final decision on internal Belarusian issues always remained with Lukashenko. And to obtain support on sensitive issues in foreign policy, it was necessary either to exert strong pressure or to pay a lot. For example, Lukashenko openly talked about the conditions he had presented to Dmitry Medvedev in exchange for Minsk’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As you can see, applying pressure and paying doesn’t always work. Despite all its promises, Belarus has still not recognized the independence of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, LNR and DPR.
Why Belarus has not yet united with Russia
And what role did Belarusian authoritarianism play in this?
The nature of the friendship between Moscow and Minsk is well illustrated by the negotiations on the integration of Russia and Belarus, which have been going on since the 1990s. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, Lukashenko managed to “drag out” the process of this integration, which the parties saw very differently.
Russia has always viewed integration as a transition for Belarus to adopt Russian norms and standards, as well as the Russian currency. According to this logic, Belarus’ weight in decision-making would be proportional to the weight of its economy in the new union (which is quite modest). In turn, Lukashenko insisted on more favorable conditions for himself: full parity with Russia in all supranational bodies, unified prices for energy resources, and equal rights to issue a common currency.
In December 2018, the then Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev issued an ultimatum to Minsk. Moscow effectively presented the Belarusian authorities with a choice: either full implementation of the 1999 agreement on the creation of a Union State (with a single parliament, currency, customs and taxes) signed by Alexander Lukashenko and Boris Yeltsin, or Russia’s refusal of mechanisms for economic support for Belarus. Despite Lukashenko’s sharp negative reaction to such proposals, he agreed to discuss the nuances of implementing the agreement, thereby launching the process of negotiations on the so-called deep integration.
However, these negotiations predictably got stuck in endless discussions and consultations. They were either elevated to the level of presidents and governments, or returned to the level of experts. And each time, the parties’ positions ran into the same contradictions that could not be resolved over the previous 20 years.
It is unknown how this whole story would have ended if it were not for the political crisis in Belarus in 2020 and the international isolation that followed. And in 2021, Moscow finally managed to pressurize Lukashenko to sign agreements – 28 union programs. The final document does not contain a word about the prospect of creating supranational bodies or introducing a single currency. The parties agreed on less principled issues such as “harmonization of tax and customs legislation,” “unification of transport market regulation,” and “convergence of macroeconomic policies.”
The “Anschluss” of Belarus has not happened so far not because Lukashenko presents himself as a “guarantor of sovereignty” of the country, as some lobbyists in the West and propagandists in Minsk try to portray him. It is because for him the highest value has always been his personal absolute power.
Over the years of his rule, he has given up a lot to Russia, exacerbated the dependency on it. But he always tried to keep in his hands just enough resources to remain the sole “master” of Belarus.
However, it seems that the legitimacy crisis that hit him in 2020 and then the war against Ukraine have shown that he is increasingly failing to cope with this task.
What is Belarus’s role in this war?
Was Lukashenko informed about Putin’s plans?
By the time Russia attacked Ukraine, Belarus was in a sad state. After the 2020 elections, the local regime found itself in such a deep international isolation that practically the only foreign ally left for Lukashenko was Vladimir Putin.
In the Belarusian expert community, there are two fundamentally different opinions about the role played by Lukashenko in the preparation for the invasion.
According to one version, Putin and Lukashenko planned the attack on Ukraine together – and not for just one month. Allegedly, this explains the phenomenal frequency of meetings between the two politicians, after which society was practically given no information about the content of the negotiations. In support of the version, there are promises to “take Kiev in three-four days” and “return Ukraine to the bosom of Slavic people” made by Lukashenko even before the invasion began. Those who share this version believe that Lukashenko hoped to triumphantly enter Kiev after the Russian tanks. And that he was sure: Ukraine had no chance against the Russian army.
Supporters of another version believe that the Kremlin put Lukashenko in a position when Russian troops were on the territory of Belarus, sent there under the guise of exercises – and he could not do anything with it. Could it be so? Quite possible. After all, in several pre-war interviews, Lukashenko specifically stated that he did not believe in the prospect of war, and on February 17, he laughed at the “uselessness” of American intelligence (US intelligence agencies claimed that Russia would invade Ukraine on February 16). In turn, the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Vladimir Makei, even called a special press conference to publicly promise that after the exercises, all foreign troops would leave the territory of Belarus.
According to analysts who hold this point of view, the idea of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is insane in its essence, and allegedly surrounded by Lukashenko, they could not fail to understand this. Therefore, the Belarusian authorities were confident that Putin was intentionally playing on raising the stakes and bluffing. Having received some concessions from the West, he would return the troops to their places of deployment, as happened in the spring of 2021. The peculiarity of the whole situation is added by the “referendum” on amending the Constitution of Belarus, which took place after the beginning of the war on February 27. It approved the provision according to which “the Republic of Belarus excludes military aggression from its territory against other states”.
Each of these versions has its weak points, but in the end, the fact of Belarus’ complicity in the aggression is important. The Russian army wouldn’t even be able to get close to Kiev, let alone surround it, if the northern borders of Ukraine were secure.
Russian troops continue to use both military and civilian infrastructure in Belarus. Planes take off from military airports in Baranovichi, Lida, Gomel, Mozyr, and Machulishchy to bomb Ukrainian cities. Russian military launches missiles from installations (the media reports on the use of Russian missile complexes “Iskander”), reliably covered by the Belarusian air defense system. Russian tanks and other military equipment receive free fuel at Belarusian gas stations. And Russian military (probably including those responsible for the massacre in Bucha) receive medical treatment in Belarusian hospitals.
The combination of these facts fits clearly into the definition of aggression adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974. Aggression includes “the action of a state allowing its territory, which it has placed at the disposal of another state, to be used by that other state to commit an act of aggression against a third state.”
However, another fact is undeniable: the Belarusian army has not (yet) invaded Ukraine. And this is stated in the April report of the OSCE – the organization does not consider Belarus as a party to the conflict and even compares its role to that of NATO countries, which supply weapons to Ukraine.
There were many rumors about the invasion of the Belarusian army into Ukraine, especially in the first weeks of the war. Both Ukrainians and Belarusians feared this. The Kremlin probably hoped for this. So why didn’t soldiers from the allied country come to the aid of the Russian army when it was so desperately needed, stuck near Kiev, Chernihiv, and Hostomel?
There is no convincing and unequivocal answer to this question yet. This is one of the mysteries of the current war.
How Lukashenko is running out of arguments for Western partners
And what will happen next?
Lukashenko’s rhetoric is inconsistent, it adjusts to the news flow from the front line. If in the first days of the war he promised to help the Russian army and send the Belarusian army to Ukraine after the first request from the Kremlin, now his enthusiasm has faded.
Now he regularly repeats that Belarus “does not intend to participate in a special operation”, and also advocates for peace and against war (although he asserts that he will not betray Russia under any circumstances).
By summer 2022, many things had changed. Previously, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs used two types of arguments to improve relations with the West. The first can be described as “what we do” (freeing political prisoners, softening repression, liberalizing legislation), and the second is “what we do not do, although we could” (not recognizing the annexation of Crimea, independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, refusing to host Russian military bases on its territory). But now, there are practically no arguments of the first type left.
Of course, the Belarusian authorities are hoping to restore substantive dialogue with the West. To achieve this, Minsk unsuccessfully tries to use negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on Belarusian territory, the withdrawal of a significant portion of Russian troops beyond the country’s borders, and even appeals to the UN Secretary-General and heads of EU countries. However, the gap between the minimum expectations of the EU and the maximum concessions that Lukashenko can make at present is too great.
Therefore, Belarusian authorities find it easier to use the second group of statements: “You don’t want…?” And then, you can finish the sentence with anything – Russian nuclear weapons appearing in Belarus, Belarus joining the war, recognizing the independence of LNR and DNR, acknowledging the legitimacy of occupation administrations, uniting with Russia and other countries in the region into an even closer alliance.
And it should be noted that such a tactic bears fruit. When nothing good is expected of you, simply not doing anything bad already seems like great progress.
If Lukashenko complains that “the special operation has dragged on” or accidentally praises the Ukrainian army, journalists at international conferences begin approaching me with questions: “Is he changing his tune?” or “Is it reasonable to enter into dialogue with him now?”
The answers to these questions are easy to find. Thousands of political prisoners are still being held in Belarusian prisons. The counter is here, but in reality there are many more – out of fear for their relatives, many ask not to include them in the list. Moreover, it is possible to end up in a Belarusian prison even for a careless comment on Facebook or a yellow-blue ribbon in your hair.
Therefore, when Lukashenko truly wants to change his ways, believe me, we won’t confuse it with anything else. Yet, for now, the entire country remains hostage to his animal fears and primitive desires.
If the Putin system is able to withstand the sanctions and war of attrition without significant social and political upheaval, it will have sad consequences for Belarus.
By being isolated from the world alone with revanchist Russia, the Belarusian state will inevitably lose its sovereignty. Even if the formal independence of the country as a subject of international relations does not disappear, the real process of making decisions on internal issues will increasingly shift towards Moscow.
Only sociology adds optimism (although it cannot be trusted in conditions of mass repression). A stable consensus against Belarus’ participation in the war has formed in the country. According to various independent sociological studies (for example, this one and this one), no more than 11% of the population supports Belarus’ participation in the war, either on the side of Russia or Ukraine. Only 4% advocate for the country’s incorporation into Russia.
But will these people have another chance to try to save their country from falling into the abyss?