The fall of the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine leaves just one overtly pro-Russian state in eastern Europe – Belarus. Former British diplomat Brian Bennett gives his view.
Belarus is a landlocked country bordered by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine, with a population of under 10 million. Although they have strong historical, cultural and linguistic ties with their neighbours, the Belarusians were isolated from the West in Tsarist and Soviet times, and have a weak sense of national identity. They suffered terribly during the war and Stalin’s purges and then again from Chernobyl, and so their priorities are the avoidance of war and to be left alone to earn a living.
Belarusians typically have a deep-rooted dislike of unrest and largely leave politics to the politicians. When they demonstrate, it is usually in small numbers and peacefully. They have never known democracy. Their president, Alexander Lukashenko, was elected in 1994 as a reformer but he has no understanding of politics or economics and fears reform, preferring autocratic rule and the command economy with which he is familiar. Since he came to power 20 years ago, he has tightened his grip and isolated his country, even from Russia and Ukraine, and retained control over the flow of information in and out of the country. The version of the crisis in Ukraine reaching his citizens is the version he wants them to hear. His priority is power. Running the country is the only reason he wakes up in the morning, apart from a passion for ice hockey.
The crisis in Ukraine has been two crises for him. The first was governmental change. The Orange Revolution laid down a possible blueprint for revolutionary change in Belarus; the tent city that sprang up after the presidential elections in 200, was presented in the media as a sanitary and moral hazard, and was successfully cleared away after a few days. His weapon for side-lining opposition is the threat of overwhelming force combined with keeping external reformers out and putting domestic reformers into prison, usually for short spells. He prevented Ukrainian and Georgian students from coming in and ‘contaminating’ Belarusian youth during the Orange Revolution. By the time Yanukovich was toppled, Lukashenko had long before sorted it all out and brought the virus under control; he no longer has to worry about the impact on Belarus of governmental change in Ukraine.
The second crisis was regional unrest and secession. While there are differences between the Eastern and Western parts of Belarus, they are not as marked or as divisive as in Ukraine. And language is a minor issue. Lukashenko made Russian an official language alongside Belarusian very soon after coming to power and prefers to speak Russian himself. Russian speakers outnumber Belarusian speakers four to one. The Ukraine crisis gave Lukashenko an opportunity to play the international statesman. He criticised Kiev for making Ukrainian the sole official language, unfair to Russian speakers. On 23rd March this year, he appealed for Slav unity: Belarusians were friends and brothers to all the Slavs of Ukraine and Russia, he said. He played the neutral card by saying that he would establish relations with whatever government the Ukrainians elected but he blamed the authorities there for provoking the Crimean crisis by persecuting Russians, “or rather all Slavs”, in Crimea. He regretted Russian action in the Crimea, but said that Russia had to intervene as there were 1.5 million Russians and about two million who could not accept the developments there. He earned Brownie points as mediator between Moscow and Kiev by quickly dismissing the possibility of actually doing so before it became obvious no-one wanted him to play the role.
Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin is not good. Putin positively dislikes him. Lukashenko is an irritant that has to be soothed as much as an ally. But the Belarusian economy is in a mess and depends on Russian subsidies, largely cheap oil, to keep it going. Lukashenko has therefore to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin and has used the crisis in Ukraine to do so. Having both some time ago described the collapse of the USSR as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, both men see the events in Ukraine as local, not a matter for the Western involvement. He agrees with Putin that Belarus and Ukraine are part of Russia’s back yard.
After the referendum in Crimea, Lukashenko said Ukraine should remain undivided and non-aligned, adding that Crimea was de facto part of Russia, and rejected federation as a solution for Ukraine – something Putin had advocated – because it would be destabilising. He later met Ukraine’s Acting President and is reported to have told him the border between Belarus and Ukraine was a “border of friendship”, apparently giving Mr Turchynov the assurance he sought that Belarus would not be used as a launching pad for foreign (that is to say Russian) troops to invade Ukraine. He added for good measure that he had been struck by Mr Turchynov’s warmth and sincerity (“he does not lie”) and was happy to blame the Yanukovich regime for the corruption and economic collapse in the country. Belarus voted with Russia against the UN resolution describing the referendum in Crimea as illegal.
Putin’s relationship with Lukashenko will not be much changed by events in Ukraine. Putin seems to be prepared to advance him a large loan and allow him to continue to make large profits from exporting expensive oil products processed from cheap Russian oil, though he will make him sweat for it. Lukashenko does not fear Russian intervention in Belarus because Putin prefers the devil he knows, troublesome though he is. Lukashenko was careful, however, to point out to a visiting Russian Governor on 4th April that he did not take a single step without consulting Russia.
Lukashenko’s relationship with the West has always been poor. He is particularly suspicious of NATO which, he says, regards Belarus as an enemy. It was clear after military intervention in Kosovo and Iraq that Lukashenko for a time worried about what other tyrants America had on its list for military action. He realised later that NATO had lost faith in open military intervention as a means of solving political problems, above all in Russia’s backyard. It has recently become clear that Putin has no desire either to take open military action in eastern Ukraine, whether pre-emptive or reactive. Exercising influence requires a more subtle approach. Lukashenko will continue to deal with his neighbours as before, seeing no danger of the Ukraine crisis spilling over into Belarus, presenting it as a local issue, appearing to be conciliatory while toeing the Russian line and finding points of difference with Putin for tactical reasons.
Image: ‘lukashenko_welcome’ courtesy of mb7art via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.
Brian Bennett is a former British ambassador to Belarus. A version of this article was given as a speech to a PDU London event at the Baltic Exchange on 3rd June 2014. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Project for Democratic Union or any of its associates.