Staunton, August 22 – The five key assumptions on which Moscow’s policy toward Mensk over the last decade have been built appear increasingly shaky, as Belarus distances itself from Russia on Ukraine and other policies, a shift that has largely passed unnoticed the West which views Lukashenka as “the last dictator in Europe” and as an inevitable ally of the Kremlin.
On the one hand, these changes open the way to a fundamental reordering of the security environment in Eastern Europe given that Belarus not Ukraine is between Moscow and Berlin. But on the other, they also mean that Moscow may consider more radical means of imposing its will on Belarus, including hybrid war and the possible ouster of Lukashenka himself.
For the past decade or more, Moscow has operated on five assumptions about Belarus all of which are either completely false or are becoming so. They include:
· Moscow has assumed that Belarusians are not a separate nation. Even more than in the case of Ukraine, the Russian leadership has assumed and acted on the idea that Belarusians are not a self-standing nation. That was never the case, and ever more evidence of that is coming to the fore. See, for example, “Belarusian Language and Identity On the Rebound …,” windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/belarusian-language-and-identity-on.html.
· Moscow especially under Putin has felt that Belarusians are among those most likely to be comfortable with authoritarianism in Russia because they live under an authoritarian regime of their own. But that view understates the size and strength of the Belarusian opposition which supports democracy and human rights in both countries. See “Lukashenka’s Belarus on the Brink of an Explosion, Warsaw Paper Says,” windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/07/lukashenkas-belarus-on-brink-of.html.
· Moscow believes that it has Lukashenka’s regime in its pocket because it provides it with massive subsidies. But recently, Moscow’s ability to provide those is increasingly in question; and Lukashenka who needs assistance to remain in power is not only forced to look elsewhere but is increasingly willing to do so (slon.ru/posts/55313).
· Moscow is convinced that Belarus has no place to go because of the attitude of the West toward Lukashenka as “the last dictator in Europe.” No less critical of Lukashenka than it was, the West now recognizes it faces a much more dangerous dictator in Putin. And Putin’s own dislike for Lukashenka is making such changes easier in both Mensk and Western capitals. See “Putin Hates Lukashenka But Uses Belarus like a Russian Province, Shushkevich Says” at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/putin-hates-lukashenka-but-uses-belarus.html.
· Finally, Moscow has long convinced itself – and many in the West have shared this view – that Lukashenka’s critical remarks about Moscow are only to try to extract more resources from Russia or intended for domestic consumption to undercut the appeal of opposition nationalists. But in recent months and especially in recent weeks, the Belarusian leader has gone further than ever before, infuriating Moscow and raising questions about what Lukashenka really means. For his comments and Russia’s reaction, see regnum.ru/news/polit/1955677.html.
In addition to this, there are three reasons for thinking that Lukashenka, long viewed as frozen in the status of a satellite to Moscow, is now in motion. First, the Belarusian leader has staked out positions on Ukraine, the defense of his own country, and his opposition to the whole notion of a Russian world including Belarus that suggest he is shopping for a new arrangement not only with Moscow but with the West as well. He is providing assistance to Ukraine and even conducting military maneuvers that from the perspective of some are not what Moscow would like to see (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/06/why-is-belarus-conducting-military.html).
Second, Lukashenka has more room for maneuver because Putin has almost no allies because of his aggression in Ukraine and thus doesn’t want to alienate completely the one country that is usually but not always accurately put in his column. As Slon.ru editor Petr Bologov puts it today, Putin right now has no other ally “west of Smolensk” and doesn’t want to alienate someone who might under certain conditions be one again. As long as the Ukrainian crisis goes on, Lukashenka will have that running room, and Moscow will be at risk of losing Mensk (slon.ru/posts/55313).
And third, Lukashenka now has an alternative grouping to turn to than the EU and the US, both of whom remain extremely critical of his regime’s repressive approach. That new grouping is the Intermarium alliance of the countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea now being pushed by Warsaw. Because Belarus would be a key component in such a grouping, Mensk may find it easier to enter that arrangement pending a fundamental change of heart in the West. And if Belarus is able to participate in that, such cooperation could lead to changes in Mensk and also changes in the West’s perception of Lukashenka’s regime. On this, see “New Polish President Makes Baltic–Black Sea Alliance a Centerpiece of His Foreign Policy” at jamestown.org/2015/08/new polish president makes balticblack.html.
Despite all this, Lukashenka may not make a Western turn. Moscow has enormous leverage in Belarus, including but not limited to the penetration of his regime, the aid it continues to provide, and the ability to portray Lukashenka in the worst possible light in Western capitals by playing up not just current human rights concerns but also largely inaccurate images of Belarus and Belarusians from the past.
Moreover, if Lukashenka goes very far in turning away from Moscow and does not get the backing of the West that he may hope for, Putin almost certainly would consider a hybrid war against Belarus, one that if it began, the West might be even more reluctant to oppose than it has been in the case of Ukraine. The Kremlin leader knows that, and the Belarusian government does as well.
But despite that, the shifts in Mensk are sufficiently serious that Russian commentators are now considering it actively. In an interview with Rubaltic.ru this week, Sergey Mikheyev of the Moscow Center for Political Conjunctions, said that “the change of a geopolitical partner for Belarus would be a catastrophe” (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/20082015-smena/).
The fact that people like Sergeyev feel compelled to make that argument, however, shows just that some in Moscow are afraid that it could happen and represents an implicit acknowledgement that such a change would be “a catastrophe” not for Belarus but for the Russian Federation.