Staunton, June 25 – There is an old joke among lawyers that when in a case, the facts are against you, you argue law; when the law is against you, you argue facts; and when both are against you, you raise your voice. Something similar helps to explain why Alyaksandr Lukashenka has just now stated openly Belarus could disappear from the face of the earth.
On the one hand, given Vladimir Putin’s aggressiveness, need for ever new foreign policies to distract from his failures at home, and his oft-repeated desire that Russia and Belarus become a genuine “union state,” Lukashenka’s remarks may appear to many as nothing more than stating the obvious.
But on the other, few leaders are going to state the obvious if it makes them look as desperate as Lukashenka’s suggestion at the end of last week that unless Belarus makes an economic breakthrough, he does not exclude the loss of Belarus’ independence and its annexation by a neighbor, which certainly won’t be Ukraine, Poland or Lithuania.
And that prompts two questions: why is he doing this and why is he doing it now? There are at least five reasons why Lukashenka may have decided on what can only be described as such a desperate public confession before his own people and the world of weakness and danger (stoletie.ru/lenta/lukashenko_ne_iskluchil_poteru_nezavisimosti_belorussijej_195.htm).
They include the following:
1. The Belarusian economy is in increasingly bad shape, losing its market share in Russia and increasingly harmed by Russian government tax policies and Moscow’s unwillingness or inability to subsidize him as it has in the past (iarex.ru/news/58475.html, belsat.eu/ru/news/belarus-mozhet-poteryat-20-byudzhetnyh-dohodov-iz-za-nalogovogo-manevra-moskvy/ and belsat.eu/ru/in-focus/belorusskaya-promyshlennost-zarabatyvaet-na-sanktsiyah-protiv-kremlya/).
2. Lukashenka’s personal relationship with Vladimir Putin is deteriorating even more rapidly, with the two failing to agree on any of the three agenda items at a recent meeting and the Russian leader taking an ever harsher line against Lukashenka (rusmonitor.com/telegram-kanal-nezygar-putin-pokazal-lukashenko-mesto.html).
3. Putin is pressing for the establishment of a Russian air base in Belarus, something Lukashenka has on occasion said he opposes, undoubtedly recognizing that such a base, were it to open, would end any chances for a rapprochement with the West anytime soon (belaruspartisan.org/politic/429416/).
4. Lukashenka’s pursuit of closer ties with the West has not been going well. He continues to be criticized and even sanctioned by both the EU and the US for his brutal treatment of his own citizens. He is no longer “the last dictator in Europe” for them: Putin has certainly claimed that title in the minds of most. But the West can demonize him and his regime and feel good about making equally justifiable condemnations of Putin’s Russia.
5. Lukashenka faces a newly mobilized opposition as a result of his foolish willingness to allow a restaurant to open on one of the holiest spots in Belarus, the site of the Kuropaty mass graves from Stalinist times. That has infuriated many who in the past have stayed on the sidelines of protest, promising more problems for Lukashenka in the future.
The Belarusian leader has thus decided to begin talking about the danger that his country could disappear entirely with three distinct audiences in mind:
First of all, the Belarusian people who certainly do not want to become six faceless oblasts in the Western part of the Russian Federation and thus may again turn to him as the lesser of two evils because they may conclude they have no other choice.
Second, the West, which is generally allergic to border changes as its reaction to Putin’s Anschcluss of Crimea shows and which might be expected to decide that backing Belarus and its president is its only choice if the prospect is that Putin might move to seize that country.
And third, Vladimir Putin as well. Clearly, Lukashenka by stating the obvious has sent a message to the Kremlin that he recognizes what Putin wants and that he will do what he has to in his own country and with the West to prevent the Russian leader from eliminating his country and with it his position.
Lukashenka’s calculation may not work, but at least it makes sense in terms of his interests and at least in part the interests of his own country.