Belarus is sometimes regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship, though that sentiment seems a little optimistic now. Since taking power in a 1994 election on a promise to drain the Belarusian swamp, Alexander Lukashenko has turned his country into a time capsule on the edge of the continent.
Western journalists periodically visit the country to remark on what a thoroughly dreadful place it is, dotted with grey apartment blocks and kitschy Soviet iconography. The Daily Telegraph’s Colin Freeman even complained that Belarus was “disappointing[ly] low on dictator memorabilia”, with the Lukashenko cult of personality falling well short of the glitzier offerings in states like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The “Batka”, or “father of the nation”, is not a humble man, though. His activities are the lead story on the evening news night after night, and one unfortunate cameraman was reportedly sacked for filming his bald spot. More seriously, critics of the regime face surveillance and imprisonment, while Belarus’ economy survives on Russian bailouts and subsidised energy.
The general western view of Alexander Lukashenko is that he is a puppet of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. His tenancy at the presidential palace in Minsk is dependent on him keeping his country undemocratic and free from the influence of NATO and the European Union. Certainly, Belarus has been Russia’s closest ally in Europe for most of the period since the end of the Cold War.
In 1996, Lukashenko and Russian president Boris Yeltsin negotiated the creation of the “Union State”, a supranational federation between their two countries which was modelled on the USSR. In 2015, Belarus also became a founding member of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which tied its economy even more closely to Moscow at a time when world oil prices were collapsing. Lukashenko has put his country through great hardship for the sake of maintaining the Russian alliance – and that certainly makes him look like a puppet.
But the reality is this: Lukashenko is not and was never a puppet of the Kremlin. Nor was Viktor Yanukovych; nor, indeed, are any of the western politicians presently cosying up to Putin. Developing close ties to Russia was a natural step for a politician who was viscerally opposed to integration with the west, and the pressure to enforce liberal democratic values that would go with it. Indeed, Russia has long marketed itself as an ally of those who wish to stand up to American hegemony.
In the 1990s, when Russia’s economy was struggling and most of the former Warsaw Pact states were making a beeline for Brussels, the Kremlin needed all the friends it could get. Russian leaders were content to back a nakedly authoritarian figure like Lukashenko without major preconditions. For his part, the Belarusian leader may even have believed that he could become the dominant figure in a union between the two countries, such was the perceived weakness of Boris Yeltsin.
Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin at the dawn of the twenty-first century and brought with him a new approach, influenced by his time in the security services. Military co-operation between Russia and Belarus was accelerated, though the idea of a formal union appeared to have been shelved. It was at this time that relations between Russia and Belarus developed into what was known as the “Oil-for-Kisses Programme”.
In a political landscape dominated by Putin, Lukashenko’s personal popularity in Russia became less of an asset, and he instead positioned himself as the most loyal and subordinate of Moscow’s allies. Maintaining such a close relationship, the Belarusian leader believed, would entrench his control over the country and insulate it from western interference. The Kremlin was happy to repay Lukashenko’s loyalty, enthusiastically supporting his re-election in 2001, and manoeuvring to ensure that his main potential opponents were shut out from what was a deeply flawed contest.
Putin and Lukashenko have never been friends, however, in spite of their superficial similarities. The Belarusian leader lacks his Russian counterpart’s knack for media management. At a press conference after the 2006 presidential election, Lukashenko announced that he had rigged the vote – against himself, because he believed that 93.5 per cent was too big a margin of victory. It is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin being so blasé.
The ex-KGB man and the former pig farmer have struggled to establish a personal relationship. The Kremlin has long regarded Lukashenko as something of a buffoon, while Minsk viewed Putin as a PR-driven prima donna who preferred talk to action. The two men have squared off over who can catch the bigger fish. Former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych represented something of a role model for the Belarusian leader: like Lukashenko, he was never quite as close to Moscow as he appeared and sought to play Russia off against the West. But Minsk lacked the political capital that Kyiv enjoyed, and Lukashenko misjudged Russia’s attitude towards his state.
Initially, the crisis over Ukraine played very much to Lukashenko’s advantage. At home, the crisis illustrated vividly the benefits of Lukashenko’s hard-line authoritarian style of rule, even as living standards declined. Belarus benefitted from the suspension of flight links between Ukraine and Russia, as well as Moscow’s ban on flights to Egypt and Turkey imposed after the Sinai aircraft bombing in 2015.
Minsk surprised many outside observers by refusing to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Able to position himself as a mediator between Russia and the west, the Belarusian president could also secure a reduction in the sanctions imposed on his country by the EU. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Lukashenko was trying to reorient Belarus towards the west – the aim of these overtures was to secure greater subvention from Putin. As one Belarusian businessman put it, Minsk was cosying up to the west “so that the golden rain will fall from Russia”.
In fact, the Crimea annexation was a frightening wake-up call for Belarus, which underlined how vulnerable the country was to a more assertive Russia. Lukashenko was an early critic of the annexation, declaring in March 2014 that “Ukraine should stay a united, undivided, nonaligned state.” While the Belarusian leadership was alarmed by the protests which led to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, they were even more worried by Russia’s apparent belief that it could intervene in the affairs of its neighbours. There is a large Russian minority in Belarus – and if the Kremlin decides to enforce the “Putin Doctrine” to protect them, there is little that Minsk could do to fight back.
Part of the reason why Lukashenko has sought a rapprochement with the EU is that Belarus has become totally dependent on Russia to keep its economy afloat, and Moscow is increasingly attaching strings to that relationship. Pressure has been put on Minsk to privatise the country’s major industrial assets so that they can be bought up by Russian firms. It may well be that Belarus will lose its independence by stealth, even if it does not do so by conquest.
It is in this context that we should view Belarus’ attempts to foster better relations with the European Union. Lukashenko has no intention of liberalising his country, and Brussels deserves to be condemned for turning a blind eye to his human rights violations. One of Minsk’s responses to the relieving of sanctions was to restart its capital punishment programme – a move which places it totally at odds with the values of the EU.
European tourists have benefitted from this new alignment: since January 2017 citizens of the EU have been allowed to visit Belarus for five days without a visa. This has created another arena of conflict, because the border between Belarus and Russia has long been unguarded. Moscow responded to Minsk’s loosening of travel restrictions by re-establishing border controls between the two countries, and threatening to cut Belarus’ oil supply. There have also been initiatives to expand Russia’s military presence in Belarus, which have been rigidly opposed by Lukashenko.
What is happening in Belarus is about more than the desire of a country’s leader to cling to absolute power for as long as possible. It is also about a population that is increasingly too young to remember the days of the Soviet Union – a people who see themselves as exclusively Belarusian. And it is a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders who have exploited Russian patronage find that their loans are being called in. What scares Lukashenko is not just the looming interventionist threat to his east, but the knowledge that if he falls there will be no golden helicopter to ferry him away, and no liberal western campaign to restore him. His is a raft being buffeted by violent, competing winds.