Staunton, February 28 – Despite the sometimes prickly relations between Moscow and Mensk, the Russian government can live with Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his dictatorial regime. But if that regime were to be overturned by a Maidan-like movement, the Kremlin would not have the same levers that it is now using against Ukraine.
That reality, Aleksandr Klaskovsky suggests in Naviny.by, means that Moscow is even more dependent on Lukashenka than it was on Viktor Yanukovich and that Lukashenka may thus have even greater freedom of action relative to the Russian Federation than many now suspect (naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2014/02/27/ic_articles_112_184734/).
Entitling his article “Can Moscow count on its ‘fifth column’ in Belarus?” Klaskovsky says that Lukashenka by his authoritarian suppression of the opposition has convinced Moscow that there is no one in Belarus who could replace the dictator however independently of the Kremlin’s line he might become.
Andrey Kazakevich, the director of the Institute for Political Research, says that “today Moscow ‘does not have a particular need to change power in Belarus,” but other analysts say that the Russian authorities continue to monitor the situation closely in order to ensure they could move in Belarus if necessary (bsblog.info/about/).
Kazakevich says that in the 1990s, Moscow was particularly interested in supporting groups like “the Slavic Assembly ‘Belaya Rus’” in the eastern portions of Belarus in much the same way the Russian government has promoted ties with the leaders of predominantly ethnic Russian regions in Ukraine.
But with the rise of Lukashenka, who viewed such groups as “competitors,” Moscow backed away, given that the Belarusian leader insisted on “a monopoly of ‘fraternal integration.’” When tensions between Mensk and Moscow increased in 2010, however, the analyst says, Russia again focused on such groups as “a soft force” to promote its interests.
Many analysts, however, suggested that Moscow had missed whatever chance it had in this regard by its on again-off again approach. Some older Belarusians were still interested, but in the words of one analyst Klaskovsky cites, “there are almost no young people” involved in such efforts.
It is very much the case, he continues, that Belarusian society is split between those who look east and those who look west, “but this split does not have such a clearly expressed geographical character as it does in Ukraine. There are no regions in Belarus of the compact settlement of [ethnic] Russians.”
Moreover, the share of ethnic Russians has dropped significantly over the last decade to about eight percent, a decline that reflects not outmigration but rather the aging of the population. The most “’Russian’” Belarusian cities are no more than 15.5 percent ethnic Russian, compared to Crimea where Russians form “about 58 percent” of the population.
And Belarusians are increasingly opposed to the absorption of their country by the Russian Federation. In 2007, 44 percent of Belarusians said they would vote for unity with Russia if a referendum were held on the subject with only 32 percent opposed. Last December, those numbers had changed to 24 percent for and 51 percent against.
As Klaskovsky puts it, “support for ‘fraternal unity’ in Belarusian society is gradually weakening,” at least in part, the analyst says, because of the propaganda of the Lukashenka regime on its behalf and against Moscow’s pretensions.
In looking for leverage against him, some in Moscow have viewed the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus as an ally, but despite installing a Russian citizen as its metropolitan, the church does not play that role, at least not effectively. Moreover, analysts say, that because of Lukashenka’s actions, there is “no organized pro-Russia cell in the Belarusian force structures.”
Nonetheless, analysts of Belarusian affairs say that Moscow continues to look for possible levers there in the hopes of being able to bring a pro-Russia politician to power “after Lukashenka” and to do so without the risks that a direct military intervention would necessarily entail.
Lukashenka unquestionably is aware of this, Klaskovsky says, and he may be especially concerned about the consequences of allowing the Russians to use an air base in his country, given the way in which Moscow is currently using its Sebastopol naval base in Crimea against Ukraine.
The deteriorating state of the Belarusian economy and the unwillingness of the West to engage with “’the last dictator of Europe’” mean, Klaskovsky says, that he may have little choice and that his country will remain “a hostage of Russia for a long time if not forever,” even if there is no possibility for the emergence of a Belarusian analogue to Crimea.
But Lukashenka’s very suspiciousness of Russian intentions, his actions to ensure that the Belarusian security forces are loyal to him, and the absence of a compact ethnic Russian community there also mean that in the event of his departure from the scene, Belarus could turn sharply to the West and Moscow would have far fewer means to prevent that from happening.