Russian dimension in Belarusian turmoil scene
Dr Luma Al Emara – International politics researcher.
IFPMC – LONDON
There are so many factors behind the scenes in Belarus which have led to how it appears today. spark of unrest in Belarus preceded the result of 9th of August, 2020 elections, which came, as expected by opposition – that accused the government of fraud, in favor of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has continued ruling the country for six consecutive terms, since his direct election as country’s first president in July 1994. He enhanced his power steadily through authoritarian means, central economic system, and maintaining governmental restrictions on political and civil liberties, freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly, and religion.
- The grouch of average citizen about the corruption prevalence among the elite close to government’s decision-makers.
- President Lukashenko did not give the opposition an opportunity – to go for a free or direct dialogue. Describing them “Western puppets”.
- Government’s lax response in containing Corona pandemic, which has made the situation difficult in the country. No form of precaution was imposed. Military parades kept on, and football league was allowed to continue as well.
One of the jokes to be mentioned, President Lukashenko suggested that people drink vodka, and drive tractors to keep fit and healthy in light of the pandemic.
- Economic deterioration of the country. The gradual elimination of Russian support for exported energy to Belarus affected the decline in the standard of living of about 9,477,918 people.
President Boris Yeltsin era
Belarus had gained its independence in 1991, after seven decades of being a constituent republic of the USSR.
Russian Federation, at that time, sought to maintain influence in the post-Soviet space by creating a regional organization called the Commonwealth of Independent States – CIS on the 8th of December 1991. It also sought, at the same time, to maintain close political and economic relations with Belarus than any of former Soviet Union republics.
We can attribute the reason to the fact that the country where bordered by Russia easterly, is westerly bordered with NATO members – Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine from the south. Countries that tend to favor Westerns at the expense of Russian strategic interests.
However, a kind of lukewarmness appeared in the relationship between the two countries during that stage of their lives, as Russia was preoccupied with attempts to solve the problems of the legacy left behind the Soviet Union – mainly represented at that time by economic burden, and to correct the nature of relations that were tense, with the United States and European countries, and therefore, there was no real desire to disturb the relations which it was trying to build with the West.
The situation was changed after the clarity of Russian vision towards the United States and NATO following the attempts to expand east. Russia found itself in a difficult situation. On the one hand, it was facing the dissolution of the large geopolitical bloc it once controlled; On the other hand, Russia felt that the Western, instead of approaching it, was trying to isolate it from its geographical neighbourhood by attracting the countries of its former influence; The thing that prompted Russia to increase interest in relations with its geographical neighbourhood, Chief among Belarus which is considered, by Russia, as a major bulwark against Western expansion, and an important channel for Russian energy exports.
Belarus seemed an ideal candidate to integrate with Russia, Coinciding with Alexander Lukashenko taking over the government. The two parties signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, in February 1995, which paved the way for the integration process on April 2, 1996.
Strengthening the union’s foundation continued by signing the “Union Treaty”, on the 2nd of April,1997, which was renamed as “Federation of Russia and Belarus”.
Several other agreements were signed on 25th of December, 1998 with intention of providing greater political, economic, and social integration.
Bilateral relations hit the peak by signing Treaty of establishing the “Union State”, on the 8th of December, 1999, which is an international organization consisting of the two states membership, to form a supra-national Union State.
The objective was to achieve a Federation Union – like the Soviet Union, with common head of state, legislature, flag, coat of arms, national anthem, constitution, army, citizenship, and currency.
The treaty stipulated the two parties adopt unified foreign, security and defence policies, common budget, unified credit and tax fiscal policy, unified customs tariff, and one energy, communications and transportation system. Provided that each state – within the Union, retain its sovereignty, territorial integrity, state apparatus, constitution, flag, and emblem.
The Federation was ratified by Russian State Duma on 22nd of December, 1999, then it came into effect after the ratification by the National Assembly of Belarus on 26th of January, 2000.
By this agreement, Belarus, of all the CIS countries, enjoyed the most rights, in political and economic fields, with Russia.
The agreement also emphasized the principle of equality in citizens’ rights in fields of employment, access to health care, and education.
Vladimir Putin era
After Yeltsin’s resignation, and Putin election as a president of the country, on March the 26th, 2000, things did not go the same way as it was planned, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – who had expectations to become president of future Russian-Belarusian Federation, in case of the ailing president Yeltsin’s death.
That means, according to some observers, acquiring a large force which ensures his survival and facilitate linking his extremely weak economy with Russia’s stronger economy.
However, the change in Russia forced Lukashenko to cancel his plans and maintain a balance between his country’s independence and Putin’s increasing pressure for further integration of the two countries into the Union State.
In the early years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule term, the Russian ambition was strengthening the bilateral relations between the two parties to reach more integrated level, and that to be in the form of a federal model, through joining or adopting a Union – similar to the European Union. But that ambition was rejected by Belarus – which adhered to maintaining relations in the same pattern as the 1990s.
The thing that prompted Russia to change its foreign policy towards more realistic direction by reducing the economic burden imposed by Belarus on its economy, while, at the same time, retaining some form of leverage over the infrastructure to transport energy across Belarus territory.
The international developments – which was represented by USA military activity near Russian neighbourhood, shifting of Eastern European countries towards the West, Plans of deploying NATO missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, then the rise of colour revolutions, all aroused Russia’s grudge and pushed it to overcome the setbacks in political and economic integration with Belarus, which increased its strategic value in a way which made keenness to work on the continuation of military integration processes between the two countries a major necessity.
Military relations between the two countries
Russia and Belarus enjoy a solid military relation and share many of the same military activities.
In addition to being a member of the broader military alliance – known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Military Cooperation, Russia also manages several military bases and early warning radars – operated by Russian Air Defense Forces, in Belarus.
Moreover, Russia is carrying out joint training programs for military officers, which were designed to integrate military structures of the two countries – this military collective is under the so-called the Regional Forces Group of Belarus and Russia (RGF), which aims to ensure a coherent strategic training and the implementation of common military interests.
After the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia sought to replace Ukraine’s defense ties with Belarus. As usual, Lukashenko sought to reap the greatest possible benefit from such joint projects, as he stated on more than an occasion that – the close military cooperation between the two countries is a tantamount to turning Belarusians into human shields for Russia against the West. And it’s not a free service.
Economic relations between the two countries
Russia is a major market for Belarusian exports, it accounts for about 50% of the total Belarusian traded volume, it includes all vital sectors in fields of food products, agricultural, lubricants, banking, and energy; those fields that support Belarusian companies that promote their products on Russian market, back their brands, and also contribute to strengthening Belarusian economy through manpower employment.
On the other hand, Belarus is an important transit route for Russian oil and gas pipelines towards Europe, as the largest pipeline in the world – “Druzhba” or (Friendship), passes across Belarusian territory, then divided into two routes, Southern branch passes through Ukraine, to Slovakia and Hungary. Northern branch reaches Germany via Poland.
Moscow also supplies Europe with the gas through the “Yamal -Europe” pipeline, which also passes across Belarus.
Despite the scopes of cooperation mentioned above, the relationship between Russia and Belarus was not proceeding in a harmonious manner in most cases, due to the difference in vision and interest.
Lukashenko often put forward initiatives with the Westerns, accusing Moscow of drawing up plans to annex Belarus.
The result he reached, through all consultations and discussions, revolves around that the methods and concepts of Russian leadership for building the Union State differ from what Belarus aspires to.
He bluntly said: “I do not want to bury the sovereignty and independence of Belarus”.
In the wake of Georgian crisis, Lukashenko accused Russia of providing a bribe in form of loan – of 500 Million Dollars. versus for Belarus to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which caused serious diplomatic dispute between the two countries.
“Belarus’s position is not for sale. We must search for happiness in other parts of the planet instead of Russia,” Lukashenko declared, calling for citizens of Belarus to abide by Georgian laws when traveling to these two regions and use entry points on the Georgian side.
Same thing was repeated after Russia’s annexation of Crimea peninsula and the military intervention in eastern Ukraine, as Lukashenko faced this annexation by pressuring the revival of the Belarusian identity, dispensing with the use of Russian language in his speeches, replacing it with the Belarusian’s language, which, despite being officially considered an equal counterpart for Russian language, however, it is marginalized and often underestimated as the language of opposition.
Rather, he encouraged using it by stressing, “We are not Russian – we are Belarus”.
All this led to a strain of bilateral relations, generated a state of mistrust, and diminished hopes for full implementation of the 1999 Union Treaty.
Although the two sides have engaged in intensive talks all the time, in order to reach an agreement that satisfies the two parties. However, efforts constantly fail, Yet, does not hit the critical stage between the parties.
The confrontation between Russia and the Westerns has encouraged those in Moscow, who are calling for a hard-line stance toward Belarus, by saying that Minsk falls short of the role of ally.
Moreover, Western sanctions imposed on Russia have pushed Moscow to press for reducing the costs of its alliances.
The Kremlin believes that Belarus needs to provide more in return to the continued Russian economic support with linking the issue by a condition of agreeing to re-revive the faltering treaty provisions. The thing that led to great losses in the Belarus budget, which, for many years, had been receiving Russian oil at low prices, then produce it locally and sell it abroad at international prices.
Lukashenko considered this orientation as a pressure way on him in order to achieve definitive merge between the two countries and make his country a part of Russia.
As for the recent tension, it was just before the recent elections, when 33 Russian military contractors were arrested in Minsk, and Lukashenko accused Russia of trying to cover up sending 200 fighters from a private Russian military company, known as the Wagner Group, to Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country before the elections.
All these disagreements have weakened the long-standing warm relations between the two sides.
However, will Russia really give up Belarus?
Future situation in Belarus and its impact on relations with Russia
There are many possibilities for the unknown situation in Belarus. Lukashenko may not be able to remain in power, due to power of the masses reject his continuation in power, or the international pressure and sanctions by Europe and the United States of America.
Political situation in Belarus may turn unstable, which facilitates the process of interference by external forces in various forms and methods.
Or, the leadership of the opposition, upon assuming power, may not have sufficient experience and strength to manage the country in the way the people seek.
Or perhaps demonstrations will be contained in a way that leads to suppression, especially with the possibility that the situation will turn into a demonstration of anger rather than a revolution to topple the regime, due to lack of clarity in, the leadership and the objectives, of the opposition side.
Among all international players, Russia has the interest, desire, and willingness for keeping the situation stable in Belarus. Russia also possesses sufficient means of economic temptation to succeed in tilting the ruling party in Belarus, whatever it was, to turn the relations’ compass towards itself.
Some opinions tend that Russia would prefer Belarus to remain a supportive state, more rather than their tendency of the survival of Lukashenko’s rule in power in particular. Thus, government change won’t be a troublesome for the Kremlin, as long as it won’t be linked to change in orientation – towards Westerns or NATO.
Russia may gain by reaching harmony with the opposition, more than by intervening to support the existing regime and risking instability inside its traditional influence depth.
Of the positive indicators that Russia well intuit, that opposition has neither raised slogans against Russia nor called for integration with the Westerns.
Whatever the possible scenario is likely, Russia will not allow, in any way, the political situation in Belarus to turn into an unstable, that facilitates the intervention of external forces, so that won’t result another factor of instability and worsen the situation in the region and neighbouring countries.
This is what Russia expressed it with definite and frank rejection to any form of external interference, considering what is happening in Belarus is a purely inland affairs, while making a gesture, at the same time, to its willingness to protect Belarus from any attempts of interfere to its inland affairs, relying on what was stipulated in its military doctrine, which considers that any armed attack, or provocative acts involving use of military force, against countries of the Commonwealth is an act of aggression against Russia.
And it is a lesson, as I think, Belarusian opposition realizes it just as Westerns perceive, through experience.