Some weeks ago, Vladimir Putin met with Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia. At first glance, Putin-Lukashenko’s talks were informal and even accompanied by leisure activities in the fresh air, which signaled a good mood in relations between the two countries and leaders. But appearances can be deceiving, and sometimes they are deliberate.
This meeting has been uncommon in recent months because Putin generally preferred distance forms of dealing with other politicians during the pandemic. Since the beginning of the year, he has made an exception to talks with the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia. He met in person with Lukashenko on Monday and with the new president of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday.
Lukashenko came to Sochi as someone who managed to suppress protests in his country. Although he needed Russia’s economic support, he did it himself. The means he chose were repressive in the first place, which is certainly an effective tool in the short term, but in the long run it is more of a problem for the stability of the regime. Particularly if the Belarusian government fails to massively start the economy and re-strengthen the welfare state — in recent years, the opposite has happened, stagnation and the abolition of the welfare state. However, the scenario according to which Lukashenko would have to rely on security forces from Russia did not materialize. Svetlana Tichanovskaya herself inadvertently contributed to Lukashenko’s “triumph” in Sochi, admitting to the Western media a few days before talks with Putin that the opposition had lost the street.
Shortly before the meeting in Sochi, a meeting of the All-Belarusian National Assembly was held. Lukashenko addressed his plenary, outlining the country’s constitutional reform. The same reform that Russia proposed to Minsk in September 2020 as a way to calm and stabilize the situation in the country and set rules for the transit of power, which was an integral part of the reform. However, as usual, the “baťka” (“father” or “papa” which is Lukashenko’s popular nickname) often modified Russian expectations according to his own needs. Although he promised constitutional reform, he postponed its implementation by a year. A year is, of course, quite a long time, and Lukashenko will certainly use it for himself.
Dealing with the urban protest wave provoked by the presidential elections in August 2020 gave Lukashenko a little more room for maneuver in the relations with Moscow. He maintained the situation all the more at a time when protest sentiments appeared in Russia itself. The calming of the situation at the last meeting between Lukashenko and Putin was also reflected in the return of “normal” topics of Belarusian-Russian relations, such as Russian credits and investment (lastly Lukashenko brought $ 1.5 billion from Russia in September 2020 to stabilize the Belarusian currency) and the evergreen integration of the two states within a somewhat ephemeral federal state. It is integration that has long lost its momentum, as Lukashenko himself said, who has long been a supporter of Belarusian independence rather than a Soviet nostalgic. The third topic was unsurprisingly the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which will be produced in Belarus based on Russian technology.
But something has changed. The elections in Belarus and the protests that responded to them led to major changes in the foreign policy of Lukashenko’s Belarus. Minsk had to lean fully on Moscow and abandon its current policy of maneuvering between the EU (West) and Russia. For years, Lukashenko has chosen a neutral line in relation to the growing confrontation between the EU and Russia in order to benefit from both sides, while maintaining strategic autonomy towards both partners. Today, however, Lukashenko is isolated in the West, EU countries do not recognize the election results and condemn the repression, which in fact means that Lukashenko’s Belarus (quite wisely) underwent geopolitical Moscow in the moment.
According to Lukashenko himself, this is not the optimal situation for him and it is possible that he will try to find a new countervailing force against Russia in China. The question is, will it work? Several factors play against such a possibility. The first is that China is primarily an economic power with limited political interests in Eastern Europe. The second is the fact that the conflict with the West is leading both China and Russia to work together. Lukashenko will thus have no room to use their confrontation or conflict to his advantage. Beijing is having a hard time embarking on an area that is important for Russia, when in Belarus it is basically mainly interested in the transport networks for the One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
The new dependence on Russia without the possibility of a balancing factor has already brought the first “victims”. One week before Lukashenko’s visit to Russia, the Belarusian and Russian sides agreed that Belarusian oil products (Belarus is a major processor of Russian oil) would be exported through Russian ports. Lukashenko has been uprising Vladimir Putin’s idea for seven years, so it’s a relatively big shift. Until then, Belarus used logistically closer Lithuanian and Latvian ports. However, the governments of these Baltic countries sided with the Belarusian opposition and did not recognize Lukashenko’s election as president. Vladimir Putin succeeded.
Returning to the standard themes of relations between Minsk and Moscow in the context of the asymmetric dependence of the two countries does not solve the dilemma of relations after August 2020. Developments have changed both Lukashenko and his policy in recent months, but (it seems) has not changed Moscow’s options so much. Russian analysts also note that Russia’s bet on Lukashenko could have negative consequences for Belarusians’ otherwise positive relations with Russia. Russia needs Belarus, not Lukashenko.
Originally published on the webzine !Argument (Czech, 25.2.2021). Republished from Transform!Europe’s site.
Veronika Sušová-Salminen is a Czech historian and political analyst currently living in Finland. She holds a Ph.D. in historical anthropology from the Faculty of Humanities of Charles University. Her research areas are nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central European and Russian history and politics. She is a regular political commentator in several Czech newspapers. Her book on the politics of Putin’s Russia was published in 2015.