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Russia - Belarus: the trajectory of absorption

LukaPutin
©EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILYIN/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN / POOL  |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) smile during their informal meeting in Sochi, Russia, 29 May 2021. This is the third meeting in a year between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, but the first after the aggravation of relations between Belarus and the EU due to the situation with the Ryanair flight.

The incident with the forced landing of a Ryanair plane and the detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapieha only forced the European Union and the United States to take more active action against Belarus. However, Russia is also on the trajectory of absorbing Belarus in the autumn of 2021.

The Protasevich affair: As Lukashenko burned the bridges to Europe, Putin remains his only option

The capture of the well-known oppositionist (Roman Protasevich in the fall of 2020 was the editor of the NEXTA telegram channel, which coordinated the protests in Belarus, and most recently worked for the Belarus Brain telegram channel team) in Lukashenko's mind is likely to be a retaliatory blow.  This is his response to the large-scale protests of August and autumn last year, a revenge on a public opponent. This sort of harsh actions against the opposition are nothing new: one should recall, for instance, the so-called “conspiracy” to assassinate Lukașenko and members of his family, when the US was blamed and a number of opposition figures were arrested, including Grigor Kostusev, Alexander Feduta and Yuri Zenkovich (a US citizen). Feduta and Zenkovich were detained in Moscow. It will be recalled that on May 9, 2021, Lukashenko pushed the narrative further and issued Decree No. 2 "On Protection of the Sovereignty and Constitutional Order of the Republic of Belarus", which defines the actions of the authorities in the event of a violent death of the head of state.

During his years in power, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, had a sinusoidal relation with the West; just before the Ryanair incident that relation was at its lowest, with the EU and the US refusing to recognise his victory in last year’s presidential elections, and thus, his legitimacy as a president. However, that refusal is of little concern to the regime. On the other hand, it is much more difficult for Lukashenko to ignore Russia's position - and the issue is not only in the model of the Union State, which Lukashenko intensively promoted at the end of the twentieth century. After Putin came to power in Russia, the integration enthusiasm of his Belarusian counterpart has diminished markedly. There have been difficult moments in Lukashenko's relations with the Kremlin, but after the 2020 presidential election, Lukashenko has become increasingly willing to talk about Belarus as Russia's western outpost, which is in line with the Kremlin's geopolitical interests.

It is likely that the operation to capture Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega (his girlfriends and colleague and a Russian citizens) was a joint action of Russian and Belarusian special services, which today are politically advantageous to strengthen the "fighting brotherhood." It is possible that the operation was aimed at Svitlana Tikhanovska, who was returning to Lithuania on a Ryanair flight a week before Protasevich.

The result was that the European Union, which time and again has forgiven Lukashenko’s transgressions, is now outraged. For now, the West is only holding the regime in Minsk responsible: Angela Merkel and the White House stressed that, until now, they have no evidence of Russia's involvement. The situation with the Ryanair liner was discussed during a meeting of the European Council and an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Lisbon. There is reason to believe that Western sanctions will not only restrict BelAvia's flights, but will also strike at export-oriented sectors of Belarusian industry.

“Europe’s last dictator” reloaded

Speaking to representatives of the Belarusian political elite on May the 26th, Alexander Lukashenko partially went beyond the usual repertoire. He stressed Belarus was right to act the way it did in the Ryanair incident, made new accusations against the West, focusing especially on Lithuania and Poland, and made another unfriendly attack on Ukraine. The accusations against Roman Protasevich of killing people on the territory of Ukraine deserve special attention (apparently, it is a related of the journalist’s involvement with the Azov batallion). There is a high probability that they will try to present Protasevich as a war criminal - in the manner the Kremlin usually does it with does it doesn’t like. Lukashenko's promises to show the confessions of Protasevich, Sapega and other detainees cannot improve Belarus's relations with most of its neighbors. On the contrary, they strengthen the perception that he is an authoritarian leader. Lukashenko has once again taken on the status of "Europe's last dictator", which works to Putin’s advantage.

Lukashenko's loud promise to hold a referendum on changes to the Constitution cannot replace the fact that high positions in the state are not being subjected to the popular vote. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which such a referendum would be more legitimate than the presidential election of August 2020. The moral and psychological climate in Belarus today does not give grounds to talk about the prospects of democratization of the country, but Putin should not count on the lack of resistance to the Anschluss. In fact, that is why Lukashenko is now clearing the socio-political space with harsh sentences against protesters and restricting the opportunities for the media.

Independent Belarus’ last president?

The incident with the Ryanair liner was a catalyst for the spread in the Russian information space of statements about "our people in Belarus" and "six future regions of Russia." Now they are voiced by second-tier politicians, journalists, and experts close to the Kremlin. It is worth recalling here that during the peak of protests against the results of the presidential election in Belarus, Russia sometimes had diametrically opposed assessments of Lukashenko's actions.

Lukashenko's regular meetings with Putin are reminiscent of rear-guard battles for the preservation of Belarusian statehood. During his years of communication with the Kremlin's master, Lukashenko has honed his skills in begging for various Russian aid. Recent statements by EU leaders and new Western sanctions have pushed Lukashenko into Putin's arms. The logic of Russia's actions towards Belarus is reminiscent of developments in Russian-Ukrainian relations during Leonid Kuchma's second term, when the "cassette" 1 and "chain mail" 2 scandals significantly complicated Kyiv's relations with the West. However, Kuchma was a president whose legitimacy was not questioned in the world, which is not valid for nowadays for Lukashenko. The talks in Sochi lasted two days and were virtually without statements to the press, although the media wrote that, following the talks, Russia will release $ 500 million from the 1.5 billion interstate loan promised last year. The amount looks quite significant, but it is unlikely to be able to solve the economic problems of Belarus.

It is possible that the Kremlin is preparing to intensify the process of absorption of Belarus early next fall. Let me remind you that on September 10-16, Russia and Belarus will hold traditionally large-scale exercises "West 2021", the scale and sceanario of which regularly cause concern to Belarus' neighbors. Elections to the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation will take place on September 19, and the Kremlin's interest in a small geopolitical victory for Russia is becoming more and more noticeable, especially if it would be achieved against the background of the Russian military presence in Belarus due to the exercises. Let me also remind you of the nature of the Belarusian economy, where state ownership of fixed assets plays a decisive role. It is unlikely that the Kremlin will play the role of philanthropist; rather, it would attempt to get controlling stakes in Belarusian enterprises in the fields of defence industry and oil refining.

The geographical position of Belarus and its status as a full participant in international relations (the Byelorussian SSR was among the founders of the United Nations in 1945) strengthens the prospects of its involvement in the geopolitical orbit of the Kremlin. In this context, Belarus is very different from the self-proclaimed DPR, LPR, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so Russia's actions are aimed at subordinating its foreign policy and internal life to its own interests. I would like to note that 2021 was marked by statements by the Russian political leadership about the deterioration of relations with the European Union, accusations against NATO, and in this context, the absorption of Belarus takes on additional significance. Russia seeks to gain operational space in Europe and to prove that it is capable of creating new threats to NATO and the EU without directly encroaching on their territory.

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  • The incident with the forced landing of a Ryanair plane and the detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapieha only forced the European Union and the United States to take more active action against Belarus. However, Russia is also on the trajectory of absorbing Belarus in the autumn of 2021.
  • The incident with the Ryanair liner was a catalyst for the spread in the Russian information space of statements about "our people in Belarus" and "six future regions of Russia." Now they are voiced by second-tier politicians, journalists, and experts close to the Kremlin.
  • The geographical position of Belarus and its status as a full participant in international relations (the Byelorussian SSR was among the founders of the United Nations in 1945) strengthens the prospects of its involvement in the geopolitical orbit of the Kremlin. In this context, Belarus is very different from the self-proclaimed DPR, LPR, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so Russia's actions are aimed at subordinating its foreign policy and internal life to its own interests.
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