Why So Silent? Russia’s restraint in reaction to mass protests in Belarus8 min read
It has been seven weeks since presidential elections took place in Belarus. Already on the election night, the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed a landslide victory with 80% of the votes, against only 10% for the opposition’s favourite, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Since then, tens of thousands of Belarusians have continued to protest against what they consider a heavily rigged election and Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. Thousands have been arrested, with many reportedly beaten and tortured. A wave of strikes has swept through the country. As Belarus is teetering on the edge of complete chaos, many have been looking towards the elephant in the room – what will the Russian reaction be? Turns out, there has not been much reaction at all, at least compared to what some hoped for, and some feared. What are the reasons for Russia’s surprising restraint regarding its troubled ally?
I would argue that there are two major factors at play. Firstly, Russia is a reactionary country and the strength of its reaction is dependent on the extent to which it considers its geopolitical position to be threatened. One cannot help but notice that the situation in Belarus strongly resembles the events in Ukraine in 2013–2014. Mass discontent among citizens, resulting from authoritarian tendencies of their leader, leads to large-scale protests across the country. People demand immediate change of power. The authorities resist, not shying away from violence, and look towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin for assistance. And yet, one element is missing in the Belarusian scenario — the European Union (EU).
The European revolution
It was the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU that triggered the initial protests in Kiev. It was a brutal response of the police forces on the night of 30 November 2013 that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, launching what is now known as both the Revolution of Dignity and Euromaidan. Closer association with the EU became one of the key demands of the protesters. Numerous European flags were flying alongside Ukrainian ones during mass gatherings at Kiev’s Independence Square.
Multiple EU officials went to Kiev to support the protesters, including the then already former President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, Vice-President of the European People’s Party Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament Elmar Brok and MEPs Nathalie Griesbeck and Marielle de Sarnez. Some of them delivered speeches in front of the demonstrating crowd. Catherine Ashton, the then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy visited Kiev in December 2013. All of these elements amounted to a truly pro-EU revolution, with Ukraine’s democratic, European future juxtaposed with Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule and constant dependence on Russia.
This could not have made Moscow more anxious about its influence over one of its key partners in the region. From the moment the protests gathered momentum, Putin was doing his best to discredit the protesters and the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement. On 2 December 2013 he declared that the events in Ukraine reminded him “less of a revolution than of a pogrom” — a word commonly used as a reference to large-scale killings of Jews in the late 19th- and early 20th-century Russian Empire. He also suggested that the protests were a well-organised operation by “trained militant groups”. During his annual press conference a couple of weeks later he listed the various disadvantages of Ukraine’s potential deal with the EU — a cut-off from the Russian market due to European regulations, the resulting need for a major shift in Ukrainian production, lack of preferential treatment from the EU. The conditions of the Agreement were, in his opinion, “very clearly tilting Ukraine toward becoming Europe’s agricultural appendage”.
Apart from the discursive sticks, Putin also offered Ukraine some financial carrots. A $15 billion bailout in loans, to be exact, to save the country from economic collapse. Lower gas prices were also thrown into the mix and no specific commitments or conditions were attached to this very generous support. Yet all of that failed, the revolution resulted in the ousting of Yanukovych. Then came Crimea and the Donbass, and the rest is history.
The national revolution
Contrary to Euromaidan, the protests in Belarus have hardly any direct connection to the EU. They are purely national in their nature, triggered by what the protesters consider as yet another rigged election allowing Lukashenko to extend his 26 years long authoritarian rule. The demands are straightforward — Lukashenko gone. New, fair elections organised. Then they will take it from there. There is no grand vision for the future Belarusian state, no rejection of continued close cooperation and fraternal relations with Russia and no vocal EU aspirations. The symbol of the protests is a white-red-white flag, first introduced in 1918, during the times of the short-lived Belarusian National Republic. There are no EU flags to be seen at the demonstrations in Minsk and other cities.
There are no high-level EU officials exciting the crowd with visions of Belarus’ future in the EU (European diplomats’ involvement has so far been limited to protecting Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, member of the newly created Coordination Council, from getting arrested for being part of said Council). Although Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled the country and is now a guest of honour at numerous European and international events, she pleads solely for supporting Belarusian people in their fight against Lukashenko. It is all about Belarus and Belarus alone.
Accordingly, Russia does not feel an immediate urge to protect its zone of influence. The result of the protests is still unknown and even if the opposition succeeds in toppling Lukashenko, there is a fair chance Russia will be able to strike a deal with whoever replaces him. The cultural, political and economic ties between Russia and Belarus are extremely strong. Moreover, Ukraine’s example serves as a tough lesson and any potential new authorities will think twice before turning away from their powerful long-time partner and sailing into the vast and uncharted waters of European integration.
Consequently, Moscow has kept a pretty low profile over the past weeks. Putin himself had not spoken out publicly on the matter for quite a while, and when he did, his statements were far from what Lukashenko would most hope for. On the one hand, Putin did say that Belarus was “perhaps […] the closest” nation to Russia and he declared Russia’s support for Belarus under the Union State Treaty and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He also stated that following Lukashenko’s request he had created a “reserve group of law enforcement personnel” ready to support their Belarusian counterparts.
However, Putin stressed that these forces would not be used “unless the situation becomes uncontrollable” and “extremist elements […] overstep the mark and start plundering the country”. He also openly recognised that the protesters should be listened to and noted Lukashenko’s readiness to organise constitutional reforms. In a recent interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov further reiterated Putin’s support for the reforms and mentioned that Lukashenko himself had said that he might have served for “too long”. The difference between this rather appeasing discourse and the reactions to Euromaidan is striking.
In terms of material support Lukashenko has not received much either. Despite his fervent plea for help during a meeting with Putin in Sochi on 14 September, he came back with a promise of (only) $1.5 billion dollars and no significant political declarations. As noted by the Guardian in the above-mentioned article (and can be seen in a recording published by Russian state-owned Sputnik news agency), Putin seemed quite bored with his embattled ally’s tirade during the meeting. The Russian president certainly does not seem to be ready to hold on to Lukashenko whatever the cost.
A disunited union
This brings me to the second factor playing a role in Russia’s reaction. One would think that even though potential new leaders in Belarus might maintain a sympathetic attitude towards Moscow, Putin would prefer the certainty of having a long-time partner to work with. Why then would he seem so unwilling to throw his weight behind Lukashenko? Is he not willing to do it at all or is he waiting for the most opportune moment? If the latter were true, what exactly is he waiting for?
A possible answer is linked to the ambitious-sounding yet not particularly successful Union State of Russia and Belarus. The Union State Treaty was signed back in 1999. It stipulated eventual creation of a single economic market, unified legal system, parliament and cabinet of ministers, common foreign and defense policy, and the adoption of a common Constitution. This incredibly ambitious plan has fallen well short of expectations, with none of the above mentioned goals actually achieved. A key reason for this failure has been Lukashenko’s reluctance to pursue such deep integration, which would inevitably weaken his own position. Since the Treaty stipulates parity between the two signatories, no progress could be made without Lukashenko’s approval. One of the bones of contention have been the oil and gas prices for Russian and Belarusian entities. Minsk expects those to be equal but Russia makes any concessions conditional upon progress in terms of the Union State. And so the vicious cycle continues. The disagreements on oil prices have already led to several disruptions in supplies from Russia, the most recent one at the start of this year.
Consequently, it is likely that Putin sensed an opportunity arising from the current internal situation in Belarus. Lukashenko’s previous reservations vis-à-vis the Union State might fade away in the face of his potential ousting by his own people. The worse the situation gets, the more desperate he will become to get help from Putin and the more willing he will be to accept deeper integration between Belarus and Russia. The lack of a major breakthrough at the recent meeting in Sochi shows that Lukashenko is not yet at that point but all things come to those who wait, as the saying goes.