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15 March, 2017  ▪  Siarhei Pulsha

Belarus: Leaving Russia

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has recognized the danger emanating from Russia. So far, it’s been covert, but the signs are serious

After a series of mass demonstrations against the “decree on parasites” took place in Belarus, part of the country’s opposition has, as usual, begun to think: Could this take on a “pro-Kremlin tone”? Could Moscow take advantage of this to “destabilize the situation”? The questions might seem absurd, but they show the extent to which Belarusians are afraid of a repeat of events in Ukraine and the sudden appearance of “little green men.”

It is this fear that President Lukashenka has been trying to take advantage of to calm down the wave of protests in Belarus. On a February 28 visit to the Republican Research & Development Center for the Transplantation of Organs and Tissues, he spoke somewhat off-topic, saying: “Today, some are trying to shake this boat under the excuse of parasitism and any other issue and to persuade us that these are not our lands, but someone else’s... These parasites should know that someone is trying to use them today for their own purposes, to ruin what we have, to destroy completely what we have revived, and to prevent us from gaining a foothold.”

This time, Lukashenka lobbed a stone not at NATO and the West, with whom Minsk has been trying to normalize relations lately. Nor does Blue Eyes feel any threat from the south, from Ukraine, or from the north, from the Baltics. Only the East is dangerous—Russia.

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In fact, at the “anti-parasite” rallies in Gomel and Vitebsk, in the east of Belarus, some of the speakers did bellow: “Putin, help us!” Still, given their pointlessness, these slogans failed to gain any traction among the protesters. To the contrary. “Long live Belarus!” was the nearly unanimous response.

Most experts and political analysts say that in allowing himself anti-Russian rhetoric, President Lukashenka is trying to resolve domestic problems. Deciding that there was “danger from Russia,” he tried to kill several birds with the same stone. Firstly, using fear of possible aggression to cool down the protest mood in the country. In this he succeeded. Whereas around 500 people showed up at the anti-parasite protest in Vitebsk on February 26, where some tried to shout “Slava Rossiyi!” a week later, on March 5, only a couple of dozen showed up.

Secondly, and not for the first time, he wanted to establish an outside enemy who could be blamed for all of Belarus’s problems and the failure of economic policies. Thirdly, to hang the label of traitors on the opposition, which has been organizing these rallies. Earlier, it was accused of “selling out to the West, but now it has apparently found a new “buyer.”

The notion that the current protests could end up with Russia interfering is seen as fairly artificial, according to political analyst Valeriy Karbalevich, and is being spread by journalists, political commentators and “possibly trolls from government agencies.” Author of “Alyaksandr Lukashenka: A political portrait,” Karbalevich says Belarus does not have any “large, organized pro-Russian forces.” What’s more, Belarusians themselves have already understood what’s going on. Even those who might believe in Russia’s hand in Belarus’s economic woes, people still see Lukashenka as at fault in this.

Of course, if Russia really decides to annex Belarus, it can do so fairly short order. It only needs to use propaganda to organize the large, well-organized pro-Kremlin entities Karbalevich refers to, because Russian channels freely broadcast on the country’s airwaves. Russia can easily find “threats to the Russian world” and individuals who claim that their rights are being “suppressed, as well. Russia could also bring in its army, but...

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From a strictly practical point of view, this is simply inconvenient. If Russia were to annex Belarus, it would lose more than it gained. First of all, if Russia were to annex Belarus, it would lose its only European ally in the international community. To understand this, one needn’t go far: just look at the list of countries in the UN General Assembly that voted against the resolution on violations of human rights by the Russian Federation in occupied Crimea: Angola, Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, China, the Comoros Islands, Cuba, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, India, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Only Belarus, and to a lesser extent Armenia, can be considered somewhat European.

Another factor is very important right now: Moscow cannot afford to annex Belarus for purely economic reasons. “Every military operation costs enormous money,” says Belarusian military expert Alyaksandr Alesin. “Russia already has two millstones around its neck: Ukraine and Syria. Problems with Turkey, which has a common border with one of Russia’s most dedicated allies, Armenia, are not entirely resolved. It’s in the process of bringing in army divisions, weapons and strengthening the border... Meanwhile, Russia’s own military budget is shrinking. Of course, Russia is a strong state but it simply hasn’t got what it takes to carry yet another armed adventure.”

Any aggression against Belarus will inevitably get a reaction from the world community and yet more sanctions will be instituted against Moscow very soon—if not immediately. The question will be, what kinds of sanctions. After it lost Ukraine, Belarus remained as basically Moscow’s only border with the West.

“I always compare Russia with a gin in a bottle whose neck is Belarus,” says Alesin. “Ukraine has shown how easy it is to block Russian trucks and shut things down. If Russia annexes Belarus, the West will easily close off this throat and the Kremlin will simply not have any corridor to any of hits main trading partners.”

For now, Russia has enough soft power for its purposes in Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. After all, 50% of Belarus’s goods end up on the Russian market, and its economy depends on Russia’s gas, oil, credits and subsidies. This makes it easy enough to keep Belarus on a short leash without any annexation.

Judging by things, Vladimir Putin certainly understands this. During the latest gas war between Belarus and Russia, which has been going on for a year at this point, he noted that squabbles among neighboring countries are natural: “Each side wants to defend its interests.” But with Belarus, Russia’s approach is somewhat different: it issued a line of credit worth US $6 billion, without stating when, and Minsk gets Russian gas without any export duty... “We don’t regret this because Russia’s economy gets a long-term benefit, so to speak, and will continue to get it from collaboration,” Putin added.

Given all these factors, talk about Russia’s annexation of Belarus seems to be little more than speculation. There is one “but:” these factors are rational. In terms of rationality, annexing Crimea also seems like an unbelievable folly. In short, what might strike the irrational minds of Russia’s leadership is anybody’s guess.

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Once it took this trait of the Kremlin’s leaders into account, it seems that Belarus’s leaders began a long-term game in relation to its “closest ally and strategic partner.” While ceaselessly poring assurances of fraternal friendship and infinite respect in the ears of the Russian establishment, Lukashenka has been slowly turning Belarus’s back on its ally.

In defense terms, this means adopting a new military doctrine for Belarus, which includes the threat of “little green men” and “polite people”—as Putin prefers to refer to them. Its provisions include such points as the Belarus Armed Forces are allowed to open fire in response to targets that are outside the country’s borders. This is an obvious change based on the situation in 2014, when Russia fired Grad MRLSs from its territory at Ukrainian army positions, that is, from abroad.

Lately, Belarus has been carrying out military exercises of its so-called territorial defense troops, that is, they are working on the “protection and defense of territorial defense assets, supporting martial law, blocking and destroying criminal gangs.” But no one is hiding the fact that these forces are really guerilla forces.

Most importantly, Lukashenka has begun an ideological campaign intended to shore up the self-awareness of his fellow Belarusians. In essence, this contradicts all his previous policies, when he declared Belarusians “Russians with a quality mark” and insisted that Belarusians and Russians were one people.

At the end of 2016, three authors from the odious Russian news agency Regnum were arrested for articles that claimed, for instance, that the Belarus language is “useless, other than for a crazy pseudo-state that wants to get its neck wrung on the Maidan like its neighbors.” The investigation in this case continues and these agents of Russki Mir could find themselves in jail for up to five years, under Art. 130 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, “Inciting racial, national, religious or other social enmity or conflict.”

Over the last half-year, complaints by the opposition have led to three Belarusian citizens being charged with misdemeanors and fined for insulting the Belarusian language. This was unheard-of in a country where, just five years ago, you could have been taken in by the police just because you spoke Belarussian in public!

During a major press conference on February 3, President Lukashenka announced that “independence and freedom are very profitable and are not something you value in terms of money or numbers.” He added, “If one side of the scale is independence and the other one is Russian, Iranian, Azeri or American oil, they are not comparable. We’ll find a way out, no matter what.”

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And at that same visit to the Republican Transplant Center on February 28, Lukashenka gave high marks to a paper submitted for the State Prize for Academic Research, called “Sources of Belarus Statehood: Polotsk and Vitebsk lands in the 9th through 17th centuries.” This study claims that the Belarus state began to take shape in the mid-9th century, when the Polotsk territory emerged. Polotsk was established as the center of that state by local tribes, whereas Novgorod and Kyiv both invited the Variags or Vikings to rule them. It claims that even later, after they were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Commonwealth, the Polotsk lands continued to develop autonomously. Lukashenka ordered the date in this study to be included in new history books. “We need to chronicle and celebrate the truth in the minds of our people,” he said. “Even if there is a bit of nationalism in this, it’s a healthy form of nationalism.”

So far, Lukashenka’s position seems to be to tiptoe away from Russia without going out of their way to annoy their eastern neighbor. For how long this will be the case, it’s hard to say. The other big question is whether Belarus’s leader will succeed in this: the soul would gladly enter paradise, but its sins won’t let it.

Obviously, this strategy has not been completely formulated. How this divorce might take place and how tidily—that is, without a military intervention by Russia—no one knows. But official Minsk has made it perfectly clear lately that the marriage is over.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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