Staunton, March 23 – Moscow’s decision, already taken, to “export instability” to Belarus shows that “the post-Soviet era is over,” that the Kremlin is prepared to play for the highest stakes across the entire former Soviet space, and that “the post-Soviet era is over,” according to Yury Tsarik.
The Minsk analyst at the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research posted this argument not in Belarus or in a Western outlet but rather on the Azeri Today portal, an indication of just how sensitive the issues he is discussing are not only for Belarus but for the entire post-Soviet space (azeri.today/articles/3719/).
Tsarik begins by observing that Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s declaration last week that he has no intention of ending cooperation with Russia in the military sphere because of differences elsewhere represents “the local continuation of the foreign policy course” Minsk has adopted since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.
“The essence of this course,” the Minsk analyst says, “consists of playing the role of ‘a restraining ally’ with Russia” by simultaneously remaining “a completely loyal participant” in Moscow-led integration measures “and “not supporting the aggressive intentions and plans of Moscow.”
That “gave Minsk a strategic advantage” by allowing Lukashenka to avoid being attacked in Moscow for disloyalty while continuing to find some support in the West for standing up to the Kremlin. But Moscow has now figured this out and has decided that it is time to bring Lukashenka and his regime to heel.
“Moscow’s goal is the transformation of Belarus into ‘a gray zone,’ a territory of instability, a source of risks and threats for neighboring countries … and at the same time a military-strategic place des armes for the Russian Federation in its conflicts with the European Union and NATO.”
The Kremlin has two possible ways to achieve that: It could potentially get agreement from the current Belarusian regime to do what Moscow wants, or it could “destabilize Belarus and implement control of its territory by hybrid means.” Lukashenka has signaled that the first isn’t going to happen, and so Moscow is now working toward the second, Tsarik says.
It is doing so by weakening the Belarusian economy, launching propaganda attacks on Minsk, and tightening control of the border between the two countries, the Belarusian analyst says, in addition to other measures which so far have been mostly held in reserve. The only real constraint on Moscow is that it doesn’t want to appear to be behind the worsening of ties.
If Lukashenka behaves relatively well, Moscow will ramp up the pressure “slowly.” If he doesn’t, Moscow will do so “quickly.” But the important point is this, Tsarik say: “the path back to the normalization of relations” between Minsk and Moscow “no longer exists. Many in Minsk are still suffering illusions about that.
Evidence of that sad fact, the Minsk analyst continues, is the effort of some in the Belarusian capital to talk about divisions within the Russian elite, seeking to play one group off against another. That worked in 2010 to Lukashenka’s advantage, but it will have disastrous consequences now.
Indeed, he says, “the use of it today, after the formation in Russia of ‘the Crimean consensus’ is the crudest possible mistake.” Minsk looks like it is trying to undermine the unity of Russian society and that is only intensifying “the anti-Belarusian consensus among the Russian establishment.”
“At the same time, it is not bringing any positive results either inside Belarus or in the international arena. Rather just the reverse because for the international community it is creating an impression that Minsk is only trading for better conditions within Moscow’s sphere of influence and not struggling for real independence and sovereignty.”
At one level, of course, none of Lukashenka’s statements matters. “All the strategic decisions regarding Belarus have already been taken in Moscow” and there is nothing that will change those decisions. The only thing Minsk can try to do is to maintain as much of its sovereignty and independence as possible while it develops its economy.
“Belarus,” Tsarik says, “can count only on its own forces, on its ability to modernize the economy, diversity its foreign ties, build new coalitions, unions and partnerships, secure agreement in society and internal stability, and defend its borders, territorial integrity and constitutional order.”
If Minsk is able to do all this, then “a new window of opportunity for the construction of a new type of relationship with the Russian Federation on a genuinely equal civilized basis will arise in the future.” And that will be a bellwether “for all other countries of the post-Soviet space” because “the post-Soviet era has come to an end.”