This election comes when the love-fest between Russia and Belarus, which has blown hot and cold since 1995 when they agreed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, is particularly fractured.
“Belarus, where’s that?” I hear you ask. If you can’t find the country on a map of the world, you would be in good company. Belarus seldom emerges above the radar, except during the 5-yearly Presidential elections, the latest being held today. For 26 years the current President, Alexander Lukashenko, has held on to power, revelling in the epithet “Europe’s last dictator”. “It’s better to be a dictator than gay” he once said, with no hint of sarcasm. Today’s vote is unlikely to be any different from the previous five rigged elections and referenda, although in the run-up there has been a surprising amount of anti-Lukashenko expression on the streets. But when your supporters occupy every seat in the House of Representatives, you appoint nearly all the judges, and the head of the Electoral Commission is a loyal friend whom you appointed, you are unlikely to lose any election.
So why is this election so important? After all, Belarus is a small east-European landlocked country, mostly forested with a population of only about 10 million. The answer lies in the country’s strategic position and its relationship with the biggest of its five neighbours; Russia.
Belarus has been an international backwater for much of the past 25 years, but it may soon find itself thrust in the very centre of the geopolitical spotlight.
Squeezed between Poland and Russia, Belarus used to be known as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the 16 that made up the Soviet Union. In those days, Moscow controlled Poland and East Germany, so its western flank was well protected. But when these countries became independent and joined NATO following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, suddenly Belarus became an important protective barrier between Russia and NATO countries to the west.
When he became President, Lukashenko retained a number of Soviet-era policies, such as state ownership of more than two thirds of the economy. Not only has he rigged all elections since becoming President, but he has violently suppressed all political opposition with the vast security service at his disposal. The country still enforces the death penalty, the only one in Europe. Belarus is ranked 150 on the Democracy Index (North Korea’s is 167), just above Iran and below Russia at 134. There’s no press freedom in Belarus, positioned at a lowly 157 out of 180 nations by Reporters Without Borders. So you can see why it’s so difficult and dangerous to protest against the government or even stand against Lukashenko in elections.
Yet there is one serious opposition candidate in today’s election. Even the autocratic Lukashenko realises that it’s necessary to have two people on the ballot in order for it to have any kind of credibility. Originally there might have been three, but opposition leader, Sergey Tikhanovsky has been jailed, as has been Victar Babryka, a Belarusian banker and philanthropist, both on trumped-up charges. A third would-be candidate, veteran politician Valery Tsepkalo, fled to Russia with his children after receiving threats to his life. In response, the opposition has united around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who decided to run in the Presidential elections in place of her husband. The opposition is pushing for independent election observers, but “none will be permitted”, said Tikhanovskaya, adding that “this is a very serious violation and evidence that the elections are dishonest and fake”.
This election comes when the love-fest between Russia and Belarus, which has blown hot and cold since 1995 when they agreed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, is particularly fractured. On coming to power, Putin attempted to persuade Lukashenko to either join the Russian Federation or build a union similar to the European Union. But this idea was rejected. Russia purchases half of Belarus’ exports and transports its gas to Western Europe through pipelines built in Belarus, so you can see that there is mutual reliance between the two countries. They also have a close military relationship. Russia operates several military bases in Belarus as well as early warning radar stations. Earlier this year Putin even considered the possibility of integrating the two countries in a “unified state”, which would have allowed him to “re-set” his own presidency, allowing him a further eight years in power. Lukashenko rejected this idea, forcing Putin instead to change the Russian Constitution to get what he wanted.
President Putin’s strategic task is to keep Belarus within the Russian geopolitical orbit. But leaked intelligence assessments reveal that Russia might lose its influence over Belarus in the next 5-10 years if Belarus normalises relations with western countries, something which would be accelerated if Lukashenko loses today’s election. Russian suspicions were heightened when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for talks with Lukashenko with the sole purpose of improving ties between the two countries. Putin will have been greatly concerned by Washington’s recognition of Belarus’ strategic importance and desire to work with the country as an independent and sovereign state.
Although it’s extremely unlikely that Lukashenko will lose today’s election, given the tools for winning at his disposal, Putin will be fearful of the outcome even if he wins. The Belarusian autocrat has been clumsy in handling the coronavirus crisis, which has caused local outrage. He refused to introduce lockdown regulations, preferring instead to ridicule the preventative measures elsewhere as a form of “psychosis”, while advising the public to ward off the pandemic by drinking vodka, visiting saunas and engaging in tractor rides. Unsurprisingly, this buffoonery has not stopped the spread of the virus, with nearly 70,000 reported cases and 600 deaths so far, although many suspect far more.
The escalating healthcare crisis and the accompanying economic downturn has struck a blow at the heart of Lukashenko’s unwritten social contract with the Belarusian public, which promised economic and social stability in exchange for a continued acceptance of the status quo. Now there is little the state can offer people—and they are beginning to realise this. Opposition rallies have injected fresh energy into the election, attracting large crowds far outside the capital, in smaller towns and cities that form Lukashenko’s base of support. In return, he has relied on brute force to try to dampen any enthusiasm for protesting. More than 1,000 people have been arrested since May.
Noting the level of civic awakening and unrest in Belarus, observers are drawing comparisons with Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in global geopolitical confrontation. Even a worried Lukashenko said on TV recently “there will be no coup in this country, nor will there be a Maidan”, the tipping point of protests in Ukraine. This has led to concern that President Putin might be laying the ground for a post-election intervention similar to his action in Ukraine, when he seized Crimea and sent troops to Ukraine’s eastern region, where they are still destabilising the country.
Concerns were heightened last week when images of burly men being handcuffed in their underpants were screened on Belarusian state television. Officials claimed that 33 mercenaries with the private Russian military group, Wagner, had been arrested at a sanatorium outside the capital, Minsk. The head of the country’s Security Council claimed that they are searching for another 200 Russian mercenaries believed to have entered the country to stir civil unrest ahead of the elections. It was the Wagner group, frequently used as a Kremlin proxy army, that supplied the “little green men” in Crimea at the start of the seizure in 2014. This week the Ukrainian government called for the extradition of 28 of the detainees, nine of whom are Ukrainian citizens, because of their role in war crimes committed during Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine’s eastern border. Coincidence, or evidence of Putin’s intentions?
Sending in troops to “assist” a neighbouring country to control mass unrest is classic Putin, and in this case would give him a double benefit. Firstly it would secure Russia’s western flank; secondly, if the past is anything to go by, it is likely to give an upward lift to his popularity, which is currently plummeting at home because of the coronavirus and downturn in the economy.
Some observers discount any invasion, arguing that it would lead to an additional burden to an already stretched Russian budget. Russia would not wish to have the responsibility of feeding 10 million Belarusians and the problems of the largely unreformed ex-Soviet economy. They argue that any invasion would also come with international repercussions, including sanctions and other punitive measures. The most likely outcome is that Russia would continue to narrow Belarus’ freedom of manoeuvre by political and economic means in exchange for not forcing any further integration. That may be so, but President Putin likes to surprise and has a history of turning to adventures in Russia’s near abroad in order to solidify his domestic control. Today’s result may be the trigger for another adventure.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.