Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been making quite a name for himself lately. He’s won international fame as the president of a country that has been under the thumb of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the past 15 years. He is seen as a staunch Russian ally, and has been very vocal in his support for Putin. This, of course, has put him in a very awkward position. He has to appear to be a loyal ally to Russia, but he also has to keep a close eye on the West, as Belarus sits right on the border of Europe.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was recently in St. Petersburg, Russia, to attend the World Gas Forum and to discuss energy issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was also to meet with Russian businesses and support a Russian pipeline project that would bring gas to Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is facing the most challenging period of his rule. The country has lost the support of the West over its authoritarian policies, and its financial situation is in dire straits. This has led people to turn to pan-Slavic rhetoric from Russia’s Vladimir Putin in order to find a new source of inspiration for the country’s future, the so-called “Putinism.”
MOSCOW – The growing political and economic isolation of Belarusian President
brings the beleaguered leader closer to Russia, giving the Russian president the opportunity
to promote long-standing projects to strengthen integration between Russia and the former Soviet republics.
European Union leaders have decided to impose a new set of sanctions on Belarus, denying Belarusian airlines access to EU airspace and airports as punishment for forcing an Irish plane to land with a dissident journalist on board and subsequently arresting him. The coming sanctions could affect the country’s financial transactions and key industries such as oil and potash, which are the backbone of the Belarusian economy and a major source of taxes and foreign exchange, EU officials said this week.
Mr. Lukashenko’s maneuver with
Flight 4978 may have delivered the reward it sought by arresting Roman Protasevich, the journalist who helped broadcast last year’s mass anti-government protests. But this decision, the latest in a series of transgressions by the Belarusian leader, gives the Kremlin a chance to exploit Lukashenko’s increasingly vulnerable position.
Every new step the West takes to isolate Lukashenko inevitably increases its dependence on Putin, says Artem Shreibman, founder of the Minsk-based political consulting firm Sense Analytics.
Putin and Lukashenko were to meet Friday in the Russian port city of Sochi, where they are expected to discuss, among other things, the development of bilateral relations and the promotion of integration, the Kremlin said.
With Lukashenko increasingly becoming an international pariah, Putin has pledged more financial and military support to Belarus in recent months, signaling Moscow’s desire to back its weakened junior partner – support that could eventually tie Minsk more closely to Russia.
Putin likely sees this as a way to pressure Lukashenko into making more concessions in integration talks, said Yevgeny Roemer, director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenko in Moscow last month.
Putin has been trying for years to convince Belarus to join Russia as part of a larger unitary state, as in the Soviet era. But Mr. Lukashenko rejected the idea in principle for fear of endangering his country’s sovereignty.
On Friday, Mr. Lukashenko firmly ruled out Russia taking over his country.
The world has changed. There are no fools among us who enslave a friendly state in a colonial way, he told a meeting of government representatives of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Minsk before meeting Putin. This is no longer possible. Any attempt to take control or unify the state by force will cause a terrible reaction in that state.
However, analysts say the fallout from the Belarusian leader’s decision to impose a flight ban on Ryanair could complicate opposition to the Kremlin’s longstanding efforts to bring Belarus closer together as the country finds itself in a financial stranglehold from the West.
Russia sees economic dependence as a political tool, [it also means] political dependence, Schreibman said.
Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has managed for years to fool Moscow and the West by using the EU as a defence against the Kremlin. After the violent suppression of protests in which he was accused of stealing last year’s presidential election and of the political opposition that ran it, his options have narrowed.
Journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested after helping to stage mass anti-government protests last year.
Many see this week’s sabotage of the Ryanair plane as the nail in the coffin of EU-Belarus relations and the end of its flirtation with the West. His decision to meet Putin so soon clearly indicates which side he is on.
There was a time when the West had a chance to engage with Lukashenko, said Matthew Rojanski, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Now its dependence on Moscow seems almost complete.
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Last year, the Kremlin saw an opportunity to make further concessions on economic integration and security when it rallied behind him amid massive street protests. The protests were sparked by anti-government and Western leaders who claimed fraud in an election that Lukashenko had won. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed, but raised questions among many Belarusians about the legitimacy of the president.
Russia and Putin now see Lukashenko as more isolated from his own people and more isolated from the West than before. So they are going to try to do what they have failed to do so far, which is to transform the economic and financial dependence of Belarus into a greater degree of effective political control, said Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus. Lukashenko usually resists.
Belarusian authorities have arrested opposition activist Roman Protasevich on board the Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania after it was diverted to Minsk. Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, called the incident a state-sponsored hijacking, which has raised concerns in the global airline industry. (Published May 24) Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Last year, Putin agreed to provide Belarus with a $1.5 billion state loan. He has assembled a team of law enforcement officers to help Lukashenko if protests against him get out of hand, and he has said the two countries will hold joint military exercises almost every month for a year.
Putin congratulated the Belarusian leader on his victory in the August presidential election. He then warned European leaders not to interfere in Belarusian affairs when the country was in the grip of demonstrations demanding the resignation of Mr Lukashenko.
Earlier this year, Russia and Belarus agreed to establish joint training centers for paratroopers and air defense forces in each country, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.
The two countries will hold joint military exercises with thousands of Russian troops in Belarus later this year. Some analysts see the exercise as a way for Moscow to increase its influence over Belarus and strengthen Russia’s military power on the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Lukashenko, despite all his idiosyncrasies, remains a man who is seen as an enemy of the collective West, an enemy of NATO, and who will not allow the alliance to move closer to Russia at the expense of Belarus, said Stanislav Byshok, a political analyst at the CIS-Europe Monitoring Organization, an international think tank in Moscow.
And that is one of the reasons why the Kremlin continues to support Lukashenko, even though the attitude towards him in Russia is anything but rosy, Byshok said.
In August Belarusians demonstrated in Minsk against what they considered to be fraudulent results of the presidential election.
-Valentina Ochirova contributed to this article.
E-mail Ann M. Simmons at [email protected] and Thomas Grove at [email protected]
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