Staunton, December 15 – Many Belarusians and their supporters have been celebrating the apparent collapse of talks between Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka on integrating Belarus with the Russian Federation, Andrey Sannikov says; but they shouldn’t be: “the threat of absorbing Belarus via a ‘Crimean scenario’ remains completely real.”
Before the December 7 Sochi meeting of the two presidents, the Belarusian opposition leader tells US-based Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova, many experts had suggested that “Moscow has a plan to incorporate Belarus using the Crimea scenario by means of a special operation and referendum” (ru.krymr.com/a/pogloshenie-belarusi-po-krymskomu-stsenariu-realno/30322192.html).
Such a strategy, Sanniikov says, would be intended to avoid “’the hot war’ which we see in the Donbass” and that has angered the West. A quick move like in Crimea using a referendum to give the Anschluss the patina of legitimacy would avoid such problems, Sannikov continues. And such a strategy may set in stage by modifications in the Belarusian constitution.
Lukashenka himself has talked about changing the constitution, of course “to preserve his power and his regime,” the opposition figure says, “but it is not excluded that [changes] may be directed at ‘deeper integration.’” After all, what Lukashenka wants is a guarantee that he will remain in power in Minsk and Moscow will continue its subsidies. Everything else is negotiable.
The economic situation in Belarus is deteriorating and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is becoming ever less willing to help, Sannikov points out. That gives Putin real leverage just as the economic crisis of 2010-2011 did. And what happened then may provide clues for what will happen now.
At that time, Lukahenka was forced to cede to Russia control over “the strategically important Belarusian enterprise, Beltransgaz.” Something similar may now happen again and give the Kremlin ever greater control over the Belarusian economy. Putin is, after all, conducting “a long-term strategy.” He doesn’t have to get everything immediately.
Moreover, Sannikov continues, Putin may not seek to remove Lukashenka immediately even if Russia achieves its current integration plans. That would be difficult to do given Lukashenka’s influence over Belarusian officials. Moving too quickly in that direction, the Belarusian opposition leader says, could spark backlash and resistance.
“Unfortunately,” the opposition leader continues, “the West underestimates the possible danger of the integration of the two countries, plays with Lukashenka, and ignores the violation of human rights in Belarus.” But Putin has already succeeded in keeping the human rights issue off the Normandy Format talks despite repression in Crimea and the Donbass.
If Putin can achieve that with “legitimate presidents,” there can be little doubt that “sooner or later he will be able to achieve what he wants from Lukashenka.” And because that is the case, Sannikov concludes, the dangers from the East that many now think have passed have instead if anything grown more serious.