This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has a history of playing the Kremlin and the West off against each other, and it is a game he always wins.
Last Thursday, Belarus’s President Alyaksandr Lukashenka treated the Belarusian media corps to a seven-hour press conference in which he distanced his government from the Kremlin, Brussels, Washington, and Kyiv. For some weeks now, commentators have been flagging a shift in the dynamics of the relationship between Belarus and Russia, and the marathon press conference provided the most open manifestation yet of the change. It went further than the posturing that Lukashenka routinely uses to get the most out of his position as one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. As Minsk hosts another round of negotiations on the Ukraine crisis, it would not be surprising if Lukashenka appears to be rethinking his relationship with Putin – but only if he thinks it will strengthen his own position.
It would not be surprising if Lukashenka appears to be rethinking his relationship with Putin – but only if he thinks it will strengthen his own position.
Lukashenka’s recent overtures to the West – the proposed negotiations on loosening visa restrictions with European Union states, the talk of “modernising” economic relationships, and the observations by EU officials of “positive steps” in Belarus – were depressingly familiar. A similar thaw in relations was widely observed in 2010. But the elections of December 2010 were accompanied by mass protests and a brutal crackdown on civil society, and Western condemnation of the events was muted by an embarrassed appreciation that this thaw had been too easily accessed by a regime based on tyranny. The path back to being Putin’s vassal was still open to Lukashenka – and demonstrating that he could build ties with the West had strengthened his position with Moscow.
There is another election later this year, but something seems different about Lukashenka’s most recent manoeuvres. He has shown a very deliberate, and increasing, willingness to criticise Putin. Lukashenka has been generally in line with the West over Ukraine, and was particularly candid in reference to his security forces looking out for “little green men” – that is, Russian irregular units. Russia and Belarus have also found themselves in a minor trade spat in which Russia banned imports of Belarusian meat and Minsk demanded all trade between the two countries be done in dollars or euros. This does not seem in keeping with the relationship between two countries whose economies have become so intertwined.
The obvious explanation for this newfound firmness is that Putin’s actions in Ukraine have Lukashenka genuinely rattled. Belarus might have been open to the “Russian World” concept as grounds for closer ties and participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), but Putin’s use of military means in eastern Ukraine and his continued disregard for his pariah status may have taken even Lukashenka by surprise.
Lukashenka has shown a very deliberate, and increasing, willingness to criticise Putin.
Minsk’s apparent change in direction may also be the result of the increased polarisation between Russia and the West. This new split makes it harder for Lukashenka to flit between one and the other as he has done throughout his 20 years in power. Allying himself with one might sever ties with the other, weakening his position overall. Distancing Belarus from both Russia and the West could mean more equitable relationships with both. Isolationist rhetoric will not stop both sides from attempting to make Belarus their ally and Lukashenka can continue to benefit from this outreach. Indeed, on the same day as the press conference, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said that the Kremlin would continue to consider Belarusian requests for financial aid, presumably on similar favourable terms to those under which Russia lent Belarus over $2 billion in 2014.
Crucially, this stance is possible because Lukashenka himself is in a very strong position. Despite the crash of the rouble, the Ukraine crisis has strengthened Lukashenka both internationally and domestically. Putin is keen to retain his allies, in hopes that the EEU will succeed, while Western leaders want Belarus to switch its allegiance. Stability in the region is the priority now, with human rights issues a more minor concern. In this regard, the symbolism of the Minsk negotiations, despite their failure, has been extremely significant. In August, a beaming Lukashenka stood between Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, bringing two warring enemies together. The images said loud and clear that Lukashenka was the one bringing peace to the region. The emphasis on Belarus’s independence in last Thursday’s press conference, therefore, should also be seen as prefiguring the latest round of negotiations, with Lukashenka making clear the value of his own role at the talks.
By emphasising the threat posed by Putin, Lukashenka grows stronger: this is his trump card and the real reason for his shift in stance.
Stability has also become a domestic priority. Where December 2010 saw thousands of ordinary people take to the streets of Minsk to call for free and fair elections, surveys indicate that the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan would effectively dissuade the vast majority of Belarusians from doing so again. Lukashenka has capitalised on this conservatism by repeatedly emphasising that a Euromaidan could not happen in Belarus. And his references to “little green men” play on fears of Russian expansionism, twinned with assurances that Belarus will not be dictated to. The current rehabilitation of the Belarusian language, long stigmatised by the government, is no coincidence.
By emphasising the threat posed by Putin, Lukashenka grows stronger: this is his trump card and the real reason for his shift in stance. Distancing himself from the Kremlin appeals to the conservatives who fear Russian aggression and to the liberals who want closer ties with Europe. By refusing to make guarantees to Brussels, Lukashenka leaves the door open to a return to Putin. This maintains his position internationally not only as a potential ally for both Russia and the West, but also as a mediator between the two.
The noises coming out of Minsk in recent months demonstrate a change in direction dictated by regional instability. The dynamics of Lukashenka’s relationships with Russia and the West have shifted but his modus operandi remains the same. With domestic opposition low and the need for stability high, Lukashenka is in a strong position to secure another term in office later this year. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Lukashenka survives.
Jack Barton has a background in journalism and digital media and has worked on issues relating to human rights in Eastern Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.