“Freezing the War Would Be Ideal for Lukashenka”

Foto: Imago Images

Lukashenka presents himself to his people as a guarantor of peace, and his regime seems solid – as long as Russia does not lose the war in Ukraine.

A citizen of Belarus has received a Nobel Prize these days – after the Nobel Prize for Liter­a­ture in 2013 – for the second time since the country’s inde­pen­dence: Ales Biali­atski is one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He is a legend of the Belaru­sian human rights movement, and in prison – as is to be expected for a human rights activist in today’s Belarus.

Nobel Peace Prize for Ales Bialiatski

The Nobel Peace Prize this year was also awarded to Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists. Not everyone in Ukraine was happy about the Nobel Committee’s decision. At a time when Russian bombs and missiles fired from Belarus are also killing Ukrainians, the reser­va­tions about being on a list with citizens of aggressor states are under­stand­able from an emotional point of view. Even when the laureates are people who have spent their entire lives fighting against those regimes respon­sible for this war.

Russia’s war against Ukraine will also determine the fate of Belarus

For Belarus, this Nobel Prize holds much fewer contra­dic­tions: There is no doubt that the fates of the three East Slavic peoples are inter­twined. And it is not just the irony here that the first Belaru­sian Nobel Prize winner, the writer Svetlana Alex­ievich, was born in Ukraine, and the second, Ales Biali­atski, in Russia. What is more important is the fact that Russia’s war against Ukraine will not only determine the future of Ukraine and Russia, but also decide the fate of Belarus.

“A foreign policy in the direction of the West prac­ti­cally no longer exists”

After Belaru­sian autocrat Alexander Lukashenka crushed civil society following the 2020 protests, he has become even more dependent on the Kremlin. A foreign policy in the direction of the West prac­ti­cally no longer exists The sanctions imposed for human rights viola­tions, the forced landing of the Ryanair aircraft (in order to be able to arrest the activist Roman Prota­se­vich on board), the arti­fi­cial creation of a migration crisis at the external borders of the EU and, finally, partic­i­pa­tion in the war have caused the volume of trade between Belarus and the West to shrink to a fraction. Russia has become not only the most important sales market, but also the only transit corridor for a large part of Belaru­sian exports to other countries.

Solid­i­fied vassal rela­tion­ship between Russia and Belarus

The presence of Russian forces in Belarus has further strength­ened the existing vassal rela­tion­ship between Belarus and Russia. Some oppo­si­tion voices are even calling for Belarus to be clas­si­fied as occupied territory. This may not yet be the case from an inter­na­tional law perspec­tive, but the ability of the govern­ment in Minsk to act as an inde­pen­dent subject is much less than it was before the war or before 2020.

Lukashenka cannot call for the with­drawal of Russian forces from his territory, and appar­ently, he cannot control what they do there. Even if he wanted to comply with Western condi­tions again in future in order to free himself from isolation, he would have to keep an eye on the Russian troop contin­gent in his own country. In total, however, his signals toward the West are not to be taken very seriously, since it is not clear which signals he is sending himself and which ones are sent on behalf of the Kremlin.

It is difficult to imagine a revival of Belaru­sian domestic politics under Lukashenka, who relies on a military machine and economic subsidies from the Kremlin. As long as Russia remains willing and able to support Lukashenka, the regime in Belarus seems rela­tively immune to shocks. While there is always a risk of a spon­ta­neous regime collapse if the leader dies or becomes seriously ill, such scenarios are difficult to predict.

“Freezing the war would be ideal for Lukashenka”

Russia’s ability and will­ing­ness to keep Lukashenka under its guardian­ship directly depends on the course of the war in Ukraine. A complete victory by Moscow does not seem likely today. Any freezing of the conflict over a long term, however, without political upheaval in Russia, would be an ideal outcome for Lukashenka. For it would mean that Moscow would continue to need Belarus as a military deploy­ment area to maintain the threat level against Ukraine and the entire region. And it would then be necessary to invest in the stability of this deploy­ment area. The related cost would be rela­tively small, and even the stagnant Russian economy would be able to absorb it.

Growing support and osten­sible pacifism of the Lukashenka regime

If he succeeds in keeping his army out of the war in Ukraine, Lukashenka could continue to present himself to the popu­la­tion as the guarantor of peace in Belarus. This osten­sible pacifism of Lukashenka in commu­ni­cating with his people (which contrasts with the rhetoric the world knows from him) is having some effect. Opinion polls since February 2022 show that 85–95% of Belaru­sians oppose the partic­i­pa­tion of their own army in the war. Without easy access to inde­pen­dent media, which has been expelled or blocked by the regime – many people in Belarus are unaware that their country is already involved in the war against Ukraine. As a result, part of the popu­la­tion is willing to put aside their earlier resent­ment of the regime if their country – seemingly – stays out of the war in return. Some polls even indicate that support for the Lukashenka regime among the previ­ously neutral part of society increased after the war began.

However, the views of the other part of society – the staunch supporters of the protests (who have remained in the country or emigrated) – developed in the opposite direction: They are not willing to come to terms with the regime, espe­cially in light of the war, and their rejection is becoming increas­ingly radical. Studies reveal that, unlike in 2020, when peaceful protests were the main focus, the desire for a violent solution to the crisis in Belarus has increased sharply among opponents of the regime. Belaru­sian volun­teers fighting in Ukraine talk about the need to get rid of the Lukashenka regime by force.

War in Ukraine as a “window of opportunity”?

However, even in the oppo­si­tion it is conceded that romantic plans for a liber­a­tion campaign against Minsk are nothing but fantasy as long as Lukashenka’s regime is strong and enjoys Russia’s support. The oppo­si­tion will only become capable of acting within the country when the regime is already weakened for other reasons, the elites are without guidance and the machinery of the security forces no longer works. The war in Ukraine could create such a “window of oppor­tu­nity”, either through direct involve­ment of the Belaru­sian army, which would be extremely unpopular in all parts of society, or through a defeat of Moscow, on which Lukashenka is finan­cially dependent.

Funda­mental change in the situation if Russia loses the war

If Russia loses or is signif­i­cantly weakened by the war, the situation for Lukashenka could change funda­men­tally. He would then no longer be able to rely on generous external support and appease his people with his perceived non-partic­i­pa­tion in the war. The regime would then either have to look for new ways to unfreeze relations with the West or hope that its repres­sive apparatus would be able to suppress any protests, even econom­i­cally motivated ones. Either way, a desta­bil­i­sa­tion of the regime is likely to follow the same model that led to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s after the USSR failed as a geopo­lit­ical protector.

It could be years before such scenarios become reality, and currently Belaru­sian civil society does not have much room to manoeuvre in the country.  Political prisoners such as Ales Biali­atski are hostages of the Belaru­sian regime – the rest of the country is hostage to the question of how the war between the two neigh­bouring countries will end.


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