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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Minsk on July 17, 2020

Moscow’s cozy vista Belarusian and Russian political experts explain the Kremlin’s options in Minsk ahead of an uncertain presidential election

Source: Meduza
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Minsk on July 17, 2020
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Minsk on July 17, 2020
Dmitry Astakhov / Poll / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Less than two weeks before Belarus holds presidential elections, the country’s intelligence services arrested nearly three dozen Russian nationals supposedly acting as mercenaries. Belarusian police also recently arrested popular opposition presidential candidate Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka), whom incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko has directly accused of working for the Russian energy giant “Gazprom.” So far, the Kremlin’s response has been circumspect, despite the alarming allegations and a sometimes rocky relationship with Minsk over the past 18 months, during which time integration with Russia has stalled and Lukashenko has made efforts to repair ties with the West. Meduza spoke to a handful of political experts in Belarus and Russia about Moscow’s expectations going forward. (The remarks below are paraphrased except where quotation marks appear.)

Fyodor Lukyanov

chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and editor-in-chief of the Russian in Global Affairs journal

Russia’s actually in a pretty comfortable spot because the Kremlin can sit back and watch things unfold in Belarus, where the political situation is suddenly unclear. The Lukashenko regime seems to sense that social changes and dwindling public support have become a real threat to its future. 

It would be difficult for Moscow to influence the presidential election in Belarus, where the local authorities are adept at ensuring “internal security and order,” but the Kremlin, more importantly, doesn’t need to influence Minsk because Lukashenko is already a perfectly adequate partner, despite the past two years of “complexity.”

Anyone who wins the Belarusian presidency (and Lukashenko’s re-election is almost certain) will have to engage in the same negotiations and diplomacy as before, due to the country’s close integration with Russia. “So the Kremlin just needs to wait out the results and take it from there. Moscow isn’t placing any particular bets.”

Evgeny Preigerman (Yauheni Preiherman)

founder and director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations

It’s in Russia’s interests that Lukashenko wins the election but emerges significantly weakened. “They need him, but on his knees.” The race has led to infighting in Belarus that’s damaged relations with the West, which has made Minsk only more reliant on Moscow and therefore vulnerable to the Kremlin’s influence. “So far, the whole scenario has been ideal for Russia.”

Lukashenko has warned before about sleeper cells and Russian meddling through Gazprom agents, and it’s possible that the arrest of “Wagner” mercenaries is meant to rekindle some favor with the West, but it’s unclear why Minsk would harm its relationship with its closest partner for the sake of minimal gains with America or the EU. The Kremin’s reaction is what matters now. Until this moment, Russian diplomacy has stuck to traditional talking points like sovereignty and noninterference. 

The danger inherent in the arrest of these Russian mercenaries is that Lukashenko has raised the presidential election’s stakes by attempting, it seems to many, to distract the public with a foreign enemy and trick voters into rallying to their leader. In this situation, the race becomes a dichotomous, explosive question of “Are you for Lukashenko or against him?”

Andrey Kortunov

director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council

Russia has strategic interests in Belarus that haven’t changed for the past 30 years, as well as situational and tactical interests. Tactically, Moscow is interested in preserving the status quo in Minsk. Russia’s existing partnership with Belarus has its political risks, but major changes would risk even more. The relationship between these two countries has always been “nervous” and “mini-crises” are nothing new. They’ve happened before and they’ve never developed into a serious conflict.

However, if Belarus now goes the way of Armenia (where mass protests forced Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan from office when he tried to remain in power after the end of his presidential term), it would mean a “reconsideration of many established traditions in Russian-Belarusian relations.” Nevertheless, as the Armenian case shows, geopolitics limits a country’s potential allies, even with dramatically new leadership. Belarus might have more options geographically than Armenia, but the prospects of serious integration with the West are slim. 

With Russia’s economic struggles, Moscow has tried to reduce its support for the Lukashenko regime, gradually cutting the costs of its relationship with Minsk. The result has been a tug of war over the prices on oil and gas, customs restrictions, and Russian companies’ access to Belarusian markets. It’s been a drawn-out process, however, and Belarus is stuck in Russia’s orbit for years to come.

A “Ukrainian Maidan scenario” in Minsk (where the entire political elite is kicked out and the country’s foreign policy veers hard toward the West) is “far less likely” because Belarus has a different “political culture” without Ukraine’s strong nationalism and established opposition. If, “by some miracle,” a revolution did occur, the relatively small number of anti-Russian forces in Minsk would probably pursue more European integration and reconsider the very foundations of Belarusian-Russian relations.

In fact, Belarus has exhibited a stronger interest in accelerated entry into the European Union than even Ukraine, and Belarus’s smaller size, decent infrastructure, and low level of corruption would make it relatively easy to accept. Such expansion could prove “too costly” for the EU, however, given the organization’s current problems with growth in the Western Balkans. 

“But the most important thing is that Belarus currently lacks a strong opposition and the necessary level of unrest. In 30 years, its political landscape has been flattened, to put it mildly.”

Andrey Kazakevich (Andrej Kazakievič)

director of the “Political Sphere” Institute of Political Studies

It’s in Russia’s unchanging strategic interests that Moscow maintains control over Belarus in military matters, to prevent Minsk’s cooperation with NATO and the reconsideration of Belarus’s strategic relationship with Russia. Moscow also wants to preserve Belarus’s unusually high economic dependence on Russia.

Russia’s current foreign policy in Belarus is premised on the existing regime surviving the coming presidential election but emerging weakened. Overthrowing Lukashenko would risk unpredictable consequences for Moscow, and it’s preferable to deal with a weaker Lukashenko who would be more accommodating in negotiations with Russia. 

In Belarus, there’s a broad debate about whether the arrested mercenaries represent the Kremlin’s direct intervention or perhaps meddling by another power center, like Gazprom or some oligarch. These theories lack any concrete evidence, however, just as there’s no proof that Gazprom has played an active role in the election, despite the fact that Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka) — Belarus’s main opposition candidate who won’t be on the ballot — worked at “Belgazprombank” for 20 years.

A rally in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), now the leading opposition candidate challenging Alexander Lukashenko for the Belarusian presidency
Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Russia has an interest in preventing the rise of anyone who might threaten Moscow’s integration initiatives with Minsk. Continuity of power, however, also poses some risks for future bilateral negotiations. In any event, radical policy shifts by Belarus are unlikely, given the country’s inescapable dependence on Russia. It would be irrational to fight this.

Dmitry Bolkunets

Belarusian political expert

For the first time ever, Alexander Lukashenko is campaigning with anti-Russian rhetoric on an entirely anti-Russian platform. The arrest of the Russian mercenaries is an obvious false-flag operation by the Belarusian intelligence community to drive a wedge into Russian-Belarusian relations. Lukashenko is trying to drag Russia into his political game, but Russia isn’t taking the bait. 

Lukashenko realizes that he would lose a fair election in a landslide, which is why the odds that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will be allowed onto the ballot are now less than 50 percent. In the next week, Belarus’s president will cook up some excuse to purge every candidate from the field except for three spoilers who pose no challenge. 

It’s impossible to predict revolutions — they’re a spontaneous phenomenon — but there’s a strong demand now in Belarus for change, and Russia needs to reckon with it. Moscow will try to repair its relationship with Lukashenko, though he often makes negotiations impossible. The Kremlin realizes all this, but it knows its options are limited while Lukashenko remains in power.

Russia is genuinely afraid of a Maidan-like revolution in Belarus, and Lukashenko has done everything he can to incite these fears. Belarusians’ demands are more modest than revolution — they merely want free elections — but Lukashenko’s crackdown is radicalizing the public. “It’s not these oppositionists or revolutionaries or fake militants but Lukashenko himself who’s doing everything possible to get people protesting in the streets.”

Moscow has reaffirmed officially and unofficially its neutral position in the race. The Kremlin understands that Belarusian civil society has matured to the degree that can decide the country’s next leader. “If citizens decide that Lukashenko should remain president for another five years, then Russia will work with him like it would with anyone who controls the situation in the country. Although that seems shortsighted to me, given today’s events.” 

During Ukraine’s revolution, the Kremlin reacted to every little thing that took place in Kyiv. Now it’s pretending that nothing is happening in Minsk. 

If Lukashenko wins the election, his anti-rating will be projected onto Russia for the next five years. “Russia should change its policy toward Lukashenko personally. All contact with him needs to stop.”

Interviews recorded by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summaries by Kevin Rothrock

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