14 September 2020
By Jens Siegert
Dilemma is a word often used to emphasise the gravity of political decisions. It is used even if there is no dilemma at all, simply as a way of weighing up options and deciding which is better, or which has a lower political cost. As far as Belarus is concerned, however, it may well be that this time Russian President Putin is facing an actual dilemma. In his view, he is faced with a problem where all the options are equally undesirable. And he is right.
For years, Putin’s policies regarding Belarus have been to promote its so-called integration with Russia. This is based on several treaties signed by the two countries between 1995 and 1999. Integration was particularly strengthened by the signing of the Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia in 1997 by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Little has happened since then to make this union a reality apart from the customs union and defence union, which remain reasonably intact. The Union State itself has several institutions, including a Secretary-General and a Parliamentary Assembly, but these are of hardly any practical use.
In recent decades, Lukashenka has voiced his support for Moscow’s advances, but in practice he has attempted to thwart them. Putin reluctantly allowed this to happen, in order to avoid the Belarusian threat to turn to the EU (however unreal this threat may have been). For Lukashenka, Belarusian independence (i.e. the unrestricted exercise of his own power) was always more important than integration with Russia. For Putin, Belarus is of greatest value for the part it plays in Russia’s preservation and re-emergence as a great power, i.e. a question of geopolitics. Their two aims are ultimately incompatible. Hence the to-and-fro between rapprochement and repulsion; Russia’s constant wooing and Lukashenka playing hard to get; Russia’s subsidies to Belarus and Belarus’ constant demand for more.
Until the presidential elections in early August this year, it looked like it would continue on like this forever. At least as eternally as the presidency of Lukashenka, which seemed almost more eternal than Putin’s. But then, probably for everyone (and I mean everyone), the Lukashenka system cracked completely unexpectedly. Suddenly, Lukashenka’s presidency no longer seemed eternal, but was standing shakily on its very last legs. At least without Putin’s support. In fact, Putin is currently Lukashenka’s only hope, as his body language at the first meeting since the elections shows. But even ‘only hopes’ rarely get what they themselves want in politics. The problem almost always lies in the cost of political decisions. Even saving a falling, almost fallen Lukashenka will have a cost for Putin. Lukashenka’s red line is quite easy to understand: Russian support must not make him seem easily replaceable by the Kremlin. However, where exactly this line lies and if and when it will be crossed, nobody knows, not even Lukashenka or the Kremlin.
For Putin, weighing up the costs is much more difficult. One reason for this is that he has far more options. Another is that he has to consider the costs on several levels: international and geopolitical, national and economic. In simpler and more practical terms, it looks something like this: Lukashenka wants Putin’s support without losing territory or jobs. For Putin, as recent years have shown, Lukashenka is simultaneously a guarantor for and an obstacle to closer integration between the two countries. As it stands, he would like to avoid the fall of Lukashenka and would probably also like to replace him with someone more agreeable and easier to control.
It is clear that the Kremlin (among others) is working towards such a scenario. But there are great risks involved. The risks are primarily associated with the people of Belarus, who have been underestimated by nearly everyone. Putin and the Kremlin do this over and over again, sometimes until it is (almost) too late. An example is the Moscow protest in the winter of 2011/2012. Another is the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine in 2013/2014. The same is now happening in Belarus. I am not sure whether the Kremlin would agree. It may well be that the people on the streets of Minsk and other Belarusian cities will continue to be seen through a geopolitical lens, or state-tinted glasses, by the Kremlin. Putin and his advisors genuinely believe that all this is a matter of a few dissatisfied citizens and foreign, Western interference. They are convinced, as they were six or seven years ago in Ukraine, that it is not ultimately about Belarus at all, but about Russia. About them. About Putin. Which brings us to the people of Russia.
Although the issue of further integration with Belarus is rarely disputed among the Russian population, the form and cost of this integration is. In a recent survey conducted by VTsIOM, a public opinion research institute with ties to the Kremlin, 39% of those questioned voted for a common state (the declared aim of the Union Treaty), but 43% said it would be enough to maintain good neighbourly relations, with the two states remaining separate.
Before any further step towards integration can be taken, Lukashenka’s rule must be secured. At least temporarily. But just by taking a look at the streets of Minsk each day, we come to question how this can be achieved without increasing repression. Lukashenka’s political legitimacy is tending towards zero. To counteract this even a little, economic improvements are the only viable option. At the same time, the loyalty of the state apparatus and the so-called organs of state security must be ensured. At the moment, that loyalty remains seemingly high. The same goes for the Kremlin, especially after everything that is currently being said in Moscow (another reason to continue to back Lukashenka). But this fact, too, is not devoid of doubt. Loyalty remains high today, even in Belarus, not only through the use of fear and persuasion, but also because of necessary economic incentives. This comes at a price and, given the state of the Belarusian economy and its public finances, has to be paid for by Russia. The $1.5bn loan that Putin promised Lukashenka at their meeting in Sochi is probably just the beginning.
Russia has long been calling for the currency union agreed in the Union Treaty to be implemented. This could be one of Lukashenka’s concessions in exchange for further support. The implementation of a currency union would likely be accompanied by a salary adjustment for Belarusian public sector employees (a substantial proportion of the Belarusian workforce). This could be something of a gamechanger for Lukashenka, or at least make it much easier for him to stay in power.
Conversely, Putin will agree to this, or any other extensive efforts to save Lukashenka, only if Lukashenka’s future cooperation in working towards increasing integration is guaranteed. Putin is a control freak. Part of the price will therefore likely be the transfer of more Belarusian economic assets to people (or companies, though in Russia these too are often people) who are loyal to the Kremlin. Either way, the Belarusian economy will inevitably become an addition to, or even part of, the Russian economy. But the Russian economy itself has been facing considerable difficulties for years (difficulties which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic).
At the same time, the people who are currently taking to the streets in Belarus, and more so those who have been and are being arrested, tortured and sentenced to long terms in prison, know all too well who they have to thank if Lukashenka’s presidency remains intact: Putin and (more or less) the whole of Russia. As of now, the Belarusian attitude towards Russia is (still) very positive. Unlike with the situation in Ukraine, there is no longstanding and deep-rooted tradition in Belarus of viewing their independence primarily as independence from Russia. However, the Kremlin’s decision to help Lukashenka remain in power against the clear wishes of the majority of Belarusians will undoubtedly lead to the development of such views in Belarus. Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, recently wrote an article on the Kremlin’s astonishing ability to alienate its (geographically and historically) closest neighbours.
By openly supporting Lukashenka, Putin may succeed in the short-term strengthening of legal ties with Belarus (a formal form of integration) and thus in the expansion of Russian control over Belarus. In return he gets a ticking time bomb. Whether this bomb will go off, and how quickly its fuse burns, depends on how much or how little (though this word now seems inadequate) more violence Lukashenka intends to use to secure power and how prominent Russian support for this use of violence will be. The latter in particular may be a reason for the lack of direct intervention by Russian police or soldiers (secret service agents and advisors are likely to be in Belarus anyway, and so-called journalists from the propaganda channel Russia Today are pretty open about this fact). Russian intervention of this kind is seen as a last resort. Nevertheless, every further step made in support of Lukashenka is a new nail in the coffin for the positive opinion of Russia that many people in Belarus have.
Translated by Beth Cosgrove