With Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place

Лукашэ́нка

An aggressive, autocratic Russia to your east, and a democratic, liberal Europe to your west. What’s your poor everyday post-Soviet European Stalinist dictatorship to do?belarus flag

As Russian forces took control of Crimea from Ukraine last month, and as Russian troops menacingly massed along the eastern Ukrainian border, no country has a greater interest than Belarus, which lies immediately to the north of Ukraine and immediately west of Russia.

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And no world leader has a greater worry than Belarus’s president since 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko (pictured above). It’s hard to know just which must be more harrowing for Lukashenko — watching pro-European protestors depose Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February, or watching Russia blithely annex Crimea in March.

At first glance, Belarus appears like the strongest of Russian allies. It’s already long been a member of the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan that Putin hopes to expand into the Eurasian Union. The country sends 35% of its exports and receives 59% of its imports from Russia (oddly, perhaps, the second-most important market for Belarusian exports is The Netherlands, which receives 16.5% of all exports).

Growing divisions between Moscow and Minsk

But as Andrew Wilson wrote last month for Foreign Affairs, Lukashenko may be edging away from the Kremlin:

It should not be surprising that Lukashenko has been demonstrably edging away from Putin in recent weeksBelarus has started hinting that it wants better relations with the EU, agreeing in February to participate in visa negotiations with Brussels. But any shifts toward the EU are going to be a gradual process; Lukashenko is still a dictator, after all, who has little interest in meeting Europe’s democratic standards. For now, Lukashenko is inside the Russian tent looking out. And he is not about to head for the door just yet. But ever since Putin’s aggressive takeover of Crimea, Lukashenko has been more anxiously looking toward the exits.

That’s one reason, perhaps, why Lukashenko didn’t send observers to Crimea for the March 16 referendum on annexation, and why Belarus hasn’t formally acknowledged Russia’s annexation.

It’s also why, despite hosting Russian air force and other military assets, Lukashenko has gone out of his way to rule out sending any Belarusian military forces into Ukraine. Lukashenko met with Ukraine’s interim president Alexander Turchninov over the weekend for talks, and he went out of his way to emphasize strong relations:

“You shouldn’t view us not only as foes or competitors, you shouldn’t even think in those categories,” Lukashenko went on. “You should be sure to know that we’ve been treating you as our closest relatives even in the years when there existed misunderstandings.” He hailed the fact that “we are not looking at each other askance”. “We really spent a lot of years building up a belt of good-neighborliness and we’re not ready to destroy it today and there’s no need in eliminating it.”

Lukashenko stressed the importance for each Ukrainian to know in this connection that “our border is a border of friendship and not a border of division.”

“You shouldn’t apprehend any unfriendly cravings on the part of Belarusians here because neither we nor you need it,” he said.

Though we shouldn’t rule out the notion that Lukashenko represents a quiet, back-door channel for negotiations between Kiev and Moscow, there’s also no reason to doubt that Lukashenko’s remarks are legitimate.

If Russian president Vladimir Putin really thinks that Ukraine isn’t truly a sovereign country,** he almost certainly holds the same view of Belarus. Just as Ukraine is called ‘little Russia,’ Belarus literally means ‘White Russia.’ Long before it became an independent country in 1991 (and before the Soviet Union, briefly, as the Belarusian People’s Republic), the area that comprises what is today Belarus have been known for centuries as ‘White Russia.’

Though the country doesn’t have the largest proportion of ethnic Russians (8.3%) among former Soviet countries in eastern Europe, Russian is spoken at home by around 70% of the Belarusian population. Just 11.9% of the population uses the Belarusian language, and only about 29.4% of the population can read, write and speak it. That would appear to place Belarus well within Putin’s grasp as the ‘protector’ of all Russian-speaking people.

Despite outward appearances, the tension between Moscow and Minsk isn’t new. While Putin considers Lukashenko an ally, he’s a troublesome one who comes with a large price tag. As far back as 2010, Russian state-owned television aired an unflattering documentary about the Lukashenko regime, and Kremlinologists speculated that Putin may have been working to engineering Lukashenko’s exit.

Belarus’s economy a critical factor

Another reason for Lukashenko’s conciliatory turn to Kiev’s new government is economic.

Lukashenko has pursued a post-Soviet political and economic course that’s more ‘Soviet’ in practice than even Russia. In Belarus, Lukashenko never allowed the privatization of state industry and that took place in Russia in the 1990s, a process that he has criticized as ‘wild capitalism.’

Although it’s not as wealthy as Russia, the Belarusian economy has held up surprisingly well under Lukashenko, especially considering that the state controls around 80% of the economy. That’s in part due to heavy gas and oil subsidies that Russia provides to Belarus in exchange for Lukashenko’s support. But on a PPP basis, the International Monetary Fund estimated Russia’s GDP per capita in 2012 at $17,518, slightly more than Belarus ($15,479), and much more than struggling Ukraine ($7,295). In comparative terms, the difference in wealth between Belarus and Ukraine is about the same as between Panamá and El Salvador. That’s a material gap.

As Wilson further notes, Belarus’s economy depends in large part on revenues generated from its role as a transit hub for Russian natural gas en route to the rest of Europe. European sanctions that would only mildly hurt Russia could devastate Belarus, and European attempts to find alternative sources for natural gas would cripple Belarus in the long run. Unlike Russia, Belarus also can’t afford to alienate the Baltic states and Ukraine, given that it depends much more on trade with them than Russia does. As the Russian economy stagnates, and as Putin spends more money bolstering Crimea (and, possibly, eastern Ukraine or pursuing other new adventures), it could mean less money to keep Belarus afloat.

In the meanwhile, the World Bank warns that Belarus’s long-running streak of good luck might be running out:

Until 2008, Belarus was a strong growth performer in a fast growing region. During 2001–08, Belarus’s GDP grew on average by 8.3 percent annually, more rapidly than both the Europe and Central Asia region (5.7 percent) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (7.1 percent). Rapid economic growth was propelled by a combination of favorable external factors, including strong export demand by key trading partners (the CIS region, especially Russia), underpriced energy imports from Russia, and large terms of trade gains stemming from exporting goods….

Nevertheless, the macroeconomic crises of the past years have revealed deep structural constraints in Belarus’ state-centered economic policy model. Given the dominance of state-owned enterprises, the private sector and especially small and medium-sized enterprises remain marginalized. The economy continues to depend on energy- and resource-intensive exports. At the same time, productivity growth in non-energy sectors has been stagnating, especially in the state-owned sector.

Iron-fist rule as 2015’s presidential election approaches

It’s foolish to think that Lukashenko will turn to Europe anytime soon. For the same reasons that Putin considers Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership unacceptable, there’s no chance that Belarus could hope to join the European Union, even if Lukashenko were willing to introduce the kind of political and civic freedoms and democratic and legal institutions that EU leaders would require.

Politically speaking, Lukashenko makes Putin seem like a democrat — in the rigged 2010 presidential election, he won a third term with 79.67% of the vote; his nearest competitor, Andrei Sannikov, won just 2.56%. That didn’t stop Lukashenko from arresting Sannikov, along with many other protesters and minor presidential candidates. Sannikov, a longtime democratic activist and the leader of ‘For a European Belarus’ (Руху “За Еўрапейскую Беларусь”), wasn’t released from prison until 2012. Although the government quickly put down post-election protests, more protests in summer 2011 in Minsk posed the most serious grassroots threat of Lukashenko’s two-decade rule. The government once again deployed authoritarian measures, including, comically, the criminalization of applause, to end the protests.

With the 2015 presidential election approaching, Lukashenko has no intention of relaxing his control over the county. But neither does he want to cede Belarus’s de facto sovereignty to Moscow in the meanwhile.

** As Peter Coy wrote in February in BusinessWeek:

In 2008, the Russian business daily Kommersant cited a source in a NATO country’s delegation who quoted Putin as telling President George W. Bush: “You understand, George, that Ukraine isn’t even a state.” For most of the 900 years preceding independence in 1991, it wasn’t. Parts of what’s now Ukraine were controlled by Poland, Lithuania, the Khanate of Crimea, Austria Hungary, Germany, and of course Russia. In 2009 Putin approvingly quoted a description of Ukraine as “little Russia.” If Putin doesn’t perceive Ukraine as a real state, he’s less likely to respect its independence.

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