Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Author: Roger Hilton
Dictators rarely accept dissent. So, it should come as no surprise that when you are the last bastion of authoritarianism in Europe, as the case President Lukashenka’s Belarus, dissent is not tolerated. Unfortunately, extinguishing the latest rounds of protests in Minsk is proving to be a stubborn exercise. As protestors flooded streets across the country to denounce the ‘social parasite’ law (imposing a tax on the unemployed) in February, many experts and observers assumed that it would be ruthlessly crushed. Unlike previous uprisings that lacked stamina, the spirit surrounding this movement is distinctly different. Consequently, the continued endurance of protests represents a major quagmire for President Lukashenka that possess domestic and external implications. Given the current trajectory of the protests, their potential to evolve into a full-blown anti-government movement is not out of the realm of possibility.
Outside of Belarusian borders, Russia with its fragile ego has no appetite for a pro-democracy movement straddling its hinterland and a vested interest in seeing it liquated. With his regime survival potential at stake, is it possible for President Lukashenka to ‘diplomatically’ assuage protests at home while still deriving confidence from President Putin? Against this backdrop, Minsk will have to exhibit a deft touch in navigating these challenges as failure to do so could set in motion a reorganisation of the Belarusian political hierarchy as well as relations with Russia.
Pushing back at the President
Protesting the governance of President Lukashenka is not a new phenomenon. While the recurrence of demonstrations has figured prevalently throughout the course of his regime, to date they have failed to yield any significant concessions. Subsequently, charting the motivations of earlier protests and comparing them against those currently ascending is critical. This comparison will expose what makes the current protests fermenting such an existential threat to Minsk.
Since assuming office of the nascent former Soviet Republic in June of 1994, a litany of protest has manifested. Much of the outcry has derived from President Lukashenka’s proposed program to steel the Belarus political-economic system to Russia. As early as 1997, a pro-democracy manifesto “Charter ‘97”, echoing their Czechoslovakian counterparts from the Cold War, denounced this integration which from their perspective amounted to continued subjugation from Moscow. The Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia, or the Union State was formalised in April of 1997 and promised: a bicameral Union Parliament, a Court of the Union, and a single currency. To date none of the initiatives have ever materialised. The most outlandish deviation from this came in 2008, when the National Bank of Belarus stated it would be tying the rouble to American dollar instead of the Russian rouble. An unceremonious slap in the face to the Kremlin.
In October of 2000, parliamentary elections were held, with the results overwhelmingly being decried as fraudulent. A conclusion reiterated by election observers of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) who lamented that Belarus is not meeting their institutional responsibility for democratic elections. A subsequent re-run in March of 2001, was accepted by government authorities due to low voter turnout in thirteen constituencies and led to demonstrations.
That same year in September, President Lukashenka was re-elected to serve a second term with Western observers again declaring the election undemocratic and unfair. In November 2002, citing Belarus’s failing human rights records and the expulsion of officials from OSCE, the EU and America imposed a travel ban on President Lukashenka. Further damming evidence against Minsk would arrive two years later. In April 2004, the Council of Europe issued a scathing report regarding the obstruction of an investigation related to the mysterious disappearance of opposition activists in Minsk in 1999 and 2000.
In October 2004, with President Lukashenka’s term limit close to expiration, a referendum allowing the president to serve more than two terms was passed. With parliamentary elections held in parallel, opposition parties failed to win a single seat. The frustration of pro-democratic citizens would result in massive streets protest and a violent engagement with security forces underscored by multiple arrests. A similar pattern would be reanimated in 2006, with President Lukashenka winning the presidential elections uncontested. In a message to those considering to challenge his reign, many important opposition activists were arrested throughout 2006 that included but was not limited to: Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Alyaksandr Kazulin, and Zmitser Dashkevich.
Amidst continued abuses of human rights and increased censorship of the media, Belarusian relations with West continued to deteriorate. In September 2010, the then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton asked for an investigation into the death of then Charter '97 opposition leader Aleg Byabenin. In December of that year, President Lukashenka secured his fourth term as president despite widespread accusations of improper elections practices, specifically through vote rigging. Discontent with his unopposed victory would trigger wide scale demonstrations and the arrest of 600 protesters by security forces. As punishment to President Lukashenka’s tainted inauguration, the EU would reinstate a travel ban and freeze his assets. In an act of retaliation, Minsk approved the trial of 30 political activists involved with the December protest.
In what became a national altering event, on 11 April 2011 an explosion at Kastryčnickaja subway station in Minsk killed 15 people and injured more than two hundred. President Lukashenka wasted no time capitalising on the tragedy. Unlike the numerous attacks on the Moscow metro system that were perpetrated by Islamic separatists from the restless north Caucasus, President Lukashenka immediately claimed an internal ‘fifth column’ perpetrated the attack to destabilise the country. Only two days later, two Belarusian nationals confessed to the crime and were later executed. Although not authenticated, it is widely believed that the confessions extracted by the Belarus secret police or the KGB, were done through torture. Additionally, the rumours of involvement by the KGB in the bombing were persistent (Sweeney, 2012). This conspiratorial theory shares an eerily similarity to claims that the Russian state security apparatus or FSB was involved in a series of apartment bombings in 1999 that later were used as justification for the Second Chechen War.
By September of 2012 a chorus of disenchanted opposition voices denounced the parliamentary elections with the OSCE questioning again the validity of the outcome. In October 2015, with no serious opposition candidate eligible to stand, President Lukashenka won his fifth presidential term. A year later, in September 2016, in a bid to restart relations with the EU to resuscitate a faltering economy, opposition candidates managed to win seats in the parliament. Despite the positive outcome, a choreographed act to appease officials in Brussels. The strategy from Minsk to allow for “controlled opposition” has since proved its merit. In a highly controversial policy, in February 2016, EU foreign ministers agreed to remove the majority of sanctions against Belarus which had been in place since 2004 (Rankin, 2016). In addition to 170 individuals obtaining access to frozen accounts and travel mobility, the windfall of these policies extended to three defence companies closely associated with the government; Beltech Holding, Beltechexport, and Spetspriborservice. However, the arms embargo remains in place.
With access to much needed capital and a cemented leadership position, President Lukashenka looked poised to govern comfortably for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, he could not insulate the Belarusian economy from a two-year economic recession, which suffered heavily from slumping oil prices and an impotent financial partner in Russia. This downturn since 2014 led President Lukashenka to sign the current “law against social parasites” which came into effect in 2015. In practice the law requires citizens who work less than 183 days a year to pay government $250 annually (Erickson, 2017). Based on this criterion it is estimated that 470,000 people would be subjected to this tax, considering that the average monthly salary was only $380. Unsurprisingly, when the government began to collect the tax, the tolerance of struggling Belarusians reached its threshold.
What originated in the city of Gomel quickly metastasised across the country that extended to; Minsk, Brest, Grodno, Vitebsk, as well as Mogilev. After the first wave of protests, 18 people were questioned by the police (Amnesty International, 2017). Furthermore, a judge issued administrative fines for unauthorized rallies. Following the protests, President Lukashenka announced the suspension of the decree for a year, but promised to reinstitute it the following year. Underlining this action must have been a moment of shock from the Kremlin annals, who overwhelming would have interpreted this act as a sign of weakness and a justification for more concessions. Citizens who routinely continued to protest the measures aptly rejected the Belarusian President’s gesture. Notably, those Belarusians flocking to the streets to denounce the tax are not the normal strand of Western intelligentsia opposition who are lobbying for democratic change. Instead they are pensioners and part-time state workers unable to manage the tax amidst a bleak economic landscape. They represent the ideological base of President Lukashenka and the less pronged to upend the current political order. Consequently, his short-sided capital-raising programme might have alienated his most loyal supporters.
Since the beginning of the protest, its ethos has evolved beyond taxes and been buoyed by a healthy growth in participation. Its progression in mandate from a tax protest to a sweeping pro-democracy movement, by consequence, altered the decision-making process of President Lukashenka. Between 10 and 12 March, at least 48 people, including protesters and journalists, were detained. Only a few weeks later, on 25 March which is the Belarus Freedom Day, an occasion to mark the birth of the Belarus People’s Republic during World War I, the number of people detained during protest swelled to 400. The contagion of discontent spread a day later to Russia. Emboldened by the courage of their Belarussian compatriots to stand up to perceived injustices, thousands of Russians rallied across the country to denounce state kleptocracy in one of the largest opposition demonstrations in years.
President Lukashenka’s decision to revert to tested methods of violence instead of an outright elimination of the parasite tax sheds some insight into his political calculus. Domestically, he might accept the notion that after using the security forces, there is no feasible way back to civil engagement. Reversing course could potentially lionise the movement to demand more changes and democratic concession. Externally, if any deal was reached with the protestors it would set a dangerous precedent for pro-democratic elements in Russia who are empowered by the current charge of the anti-corruption movement. Consequently, such a policy in Minsk would categorically be unacceptable in the eyes of Russian President Putin who might feel tempted to intervene if the current balance of order strayed beyond his tolerance. While Russian foreign policy is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible, their grand strategy would be significantly weakened without a stable Belarus. As Russia monitors the current upheaval they would do well to remain patient, as uprooting the status quo would not be consequence free.
Supposed Belarusian-Russian Brotherhood
Based on the overwhelming cultural similarities in national makeup, it would be reasonable to assume that quarrels in bilateral Belarus – Russia relations have been rare. Belarus occupies membership in several Russian led organizations that include: Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States. Despite the catalogue of memberships that are laden with publicity to emphasise their intimacy, it is not uncommon for the two Slavic nations to experience periods of estrangement. As recently as February 2017, Russia re-introduced border controls with Belarus, a violation of both the Union State as well as the Eurasian Customs Union Financial Times, (2017).
When reduced to its most basic level, it is a relationship transactional in nature and overwhelmingly dominated by Moscow. The Kremlin offers reduced energy prices and financial incentives in return for strategic and military cooperation. With a depressed state of economic affairs and sliding incomes, a decrease of 46% from 2014 to 2017 confirms Belarus’ dependency on Russian energy subsidies. Despite the transactional personality of bilateral relations, energy issues have often been tumultuous and filled with tension and mistrust. In January 2010, Belarus threatened to withhold the delivery of electricity to the Kaliningrad enclave in retaliation over an unresolved dispute over oil supplies. That same year, President Lukashenka took the unusual step of escalating a “gas war” in response to the reduction in energy supplies over outstanding debt. Further mismanagement of the state economy has allowed Russia to exploit Belarus’s energy infrastructure. In November 2011, Belarus was forced to sell full ownership of the Beltranshaz pipeline to Gazprom in return for a fixed selling price of gas at 60% below market price of other European countries.
In return for piping gas and discount energy to Belarus, Russia has steadily built up a military presence inside its Southern neighbour Belarus Focus, (2016). To date, facilities include the Gantsevichi Radar Station and the Russian submarine communications centre near Vileika. Additionally, on an ad-hoc basis Baranavichy airbase hosts Russian SU-27 fighters, which are in theory subjected to Belarusian command. Joint military comradery between the two as well as Serbia, was most recently on display in November 2016 with the first edition of “Slavic Brother” military exercises that took place outside Belgrade. Despite the appearance of a fluid exchange of military and political relations between Minsk and Moscow, a veneer of contestation looms over both capitals. To buttress their defence, the Kremlin has been aggressively lobbying President Lukashenka to allow for the permanent installation of a Russian air base inside Belarus. Against all odds, the Belarusian president has pushed back on the proposal which today remains unresolved.
From a military planning optic, the territory of Belarus provides much needed strategic depth for Russia in the face of NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic States. In the event of an all-out military conflict between Russia and NATO, simulations suggest that one of Moscow’s first tactical moves would be to cut off the Baltic States from logistical support by assuming control of the Suwalki gap which connects Poland to Lithuania (Grigas, 2016). To be clear, such a move by Russia would only be possible by involving Minsk in the conflict or occupying their territory. Although President Lukashenka has bemoaned the NATO military build-up along his boarders, most recently with the deployment of the Alliance’s rapid reaction force, it is a preferable option which retains sovereignty to a theatre of war scenario.
In the diplomatic realm, Minsk is often Moscow’s most reliable ally when it comes to international affairs. Despite this lock in step conditioning from Minsk, it has demonstrated some hesitance when it comes to affairs related to the former Soviet-sphere. In 2008, when Russia de facto annexed 20% of Georgian territory through recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Belarus was cautious to follow suit. Despite pledges to debate the topic in the parliament in April 2009, the matter has continued to be delayed. Juxtaposing power politic issues underline Belarus’ thorny situation. From the EU perspective, any recognition of the breakaway regions would eliminate any chance of participation in the Eastern Partnership Program. In contrast, Russia has made recognition of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia a conditional clause for the delivery of a $500 million loan from Russia in 2009. With two competing views, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs still advocates for Georgian sovereignty and has urged its citizens travelling to the region to respect the entrance points on Georgian territory. This position by Minsk is telling of where they stand in between Brussels and Moscow.
A similar pattern has fallen suit when it comes to its Ukrainian neighbour. On the issue of Crimea their contradictory position was apparent that despite voting in favour of the UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262, President Lukashenka publicly recoiled: “As for Crimea, I do not like it when the integrity and independence of a country are broken” (President of the Republic of Belarus, 2014). The lack of unanimous support and public endorsement by Minsk could be driven by fears of similar fate. This has only been reinforced by Moscow’s policy of brazen covert action in the Donbass. This programme has not only injected instability to the region but has simultaneously acted as a catalyst for Ukrainians to seek asylum in Belarus. According to figures, as of August 2015, 100,000 Ukrainians have migrated to Belarus, increasing the total population by 1%. With such volatility on its doorstep it is no surprise that Belarus has sponsored the “Minsk Protocol” to raise the chances of a negotiated peace.
With no end in sight to the protests at home or the termination of regional war, President Lukashenka is in a less than enviable situation. Based on the interconnectedness of both events and the implications at home and aboard, three potential scenarios could ensue. In the most likely scenario, the Belarus strong man will double down on the use of violence to push back against pro-democratic elements and dissenters of the tax law. This will reinstall the status-quo of order and satisfy President Putin who may let protesters in Russia infer their own fate if they continue their miscreant action. The only variable that would persuade President Lukashenka’s strategy is the re-introduction of sanctions by the EU.
A second option to speculate on is a compromise on the crackdown and a return to the negotiations table. While unlikely, President Lukashenka instinctively knows how to leverage his position for gains and could demand the EU to incentivize his civil behaviour. Similar to allowing opposition parties seats in the parliament, an orchestrated reprisal could be engineered with the tax remaining suspended but not eliminated. It is hard to imagine this would satisfy Belarusian protestors, but it more significantly would create a precedent for Russian protestors to advocate for consequently undermining the President Putin’s authority.
The last and most extreme outcome revolves around President Lukashenka accepting most of the protestor’s demands and following through on democratic reforms. This tilt towards a pro-western orientation would undoubtedly cross all red lines for the Kremlin. Like the potential strategic loss of Sevastopol in Crimea, this democratic threat to the regime of President Putin would require immediate action. Consequently, the Kremlin playbook would dictate the installation of a pro-Kremlin official and the removal of President Lukashenka. While the materialisation of “green little men” might develop gradually, it is safe to assume that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would go into overdrive inciting unfounded fears like the proliferation of ‘liberal values’ like gay marriage and gender equality. It must be recognised that if necessary the selection of this option by Kremlin is far from an assured success. While pumping populist content into countries is a speciality of Moscow, they run the risk of facilitating the ascension of an ultra-nationalist candidate who could reject Russia’s overtures in favour of a more independent and self-serving foreign policy. The Kremlin should be weary of buyer’s remorse if deciding to intervene.
Lingering Pest Problems
If history provides any indication, dictators globally will continue to reject dissent. Based on his recent escalatory policy of violence to confront protestors, President Lukashenka is unlikely to break with this tradition. The selection of brutality to quell this democratic uprising is only too well received in the Kremlin. It not only serves the purpose of maintaining Moscow’s vassal state relationship with Minsk, but also echoes a message to revolting Russians that there will be little hesitation to use force. Regardless of how and when the protests subside, President Lukashenka will have to continue to compartmentalise relations at home and aboard. Above all as he manages this complicated exercise, he should never forget that as long as he continues to act himself like parasite in governance, he should expect his citizens to return the favour.
Roger is from Canada and is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University. He holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and was a 2013 participant of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) summer school. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
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