Will Increasingly Strained Relations with the West Draw Belarus Closer to Putin?

Will 2020 see the fall of Europe’s last dictator?

The history of Belarus is inextricably linked with the storied past of it‘s domineering eastern neighbour, Russia. 

This is due in large part to its lack of political sovereignty prior to 1991, with the exception of the short-lived ‘Belarusian People’s Republic’ of 1918. As a Slavic state within the Soviet Union, relations with Western nations over the course of the 20th century were impeded. Following Belarus’s declaration of independence, the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship to solidify relations, whilst simultaneously hampering the formation of warmer relations with the West. Belarus’s current political climate appears, from a glance, to be aligned with Russia’s. The two countries are technically joined by a loose bi-national confederation and the authoritarian approaches of their two long-standing leaders, Putin and Lukashenko, has led many to view the countries as kindred outliers in Europe. 

However, this is an oversimplification of the often tenuous relationship between the two countries. President Lukashenko has been committed to the revival of a distinct Belarusian identity since 2014. Although this move can in part be attributed to the growth in nationalist sentiment globally, this was largely seen as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and their military intervention in Ukraine. His landmark speech, delivered in Belarusian rather than Russian, proclaimed that “We are not Russian – we are Belarusians”. Lukashenko has sought a closer relationship with the Western world and this stance appeared to be yielding results. In April, it was announced that the US would be sending its first ambassador to Minsk since the mass expulsion of American diplomats in 2008 (though this decision has been temporarily suspended in light of recent events). 

Lukashenko’s desire for closer ties with the Western worldwill be undoubtedly marred by the increased attention being payed to his undemocratic and dictatorial tactics. Official preliminary results for the presidential election released this Monday have been widely disputed. Accusations of vote-rigging and the coercion of his opposition have led many western observers to strongly condemn the ongoing violence against those protesting and the detention of opposition supporters.

Putin was quick to congratulate Lukashenko for his electoral win and called for stronger ties between the two countries amidst the current protests. His statement, released this Sunday, asserted that the vote “undoubtedly meets the fundamental interests of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Belarus”. His words perhaps intended to caution those in Belarus of the potential consequences of diverting power away from leadership beneficial to Russian interest. Political instability will more than likely encourage increased pressure from Moscow. 

However, in his most recent pre-election speech, Lukashenko dismissed the idea of closer ties with Russia, claiming that Moscow had demoted brotherly relations to a mere partnership, by virtue of disputes over the subsidisation of Belarus’s energy sector. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s plans to weaken Minsk’s ties with Moscow appear to have fallen short. Even when it comes to the crux of modern Russian-Belarusian relations, the US’s approach of shipping oil to Belarus to maintain the country’s ability to act independent of Russia has failed. 

Lukashenko’s previous five elections were deemed unfree and unfair. However, in 2020’s political climate, geared seemingly towards enfranchisement and emancipation, will Belarus’s government be held to account? Only time will tell if Europe’s last dictator’s position will remain tenable. Accordingly, we will have to wait and see whether Belarusian diplomatic rapprochement will be sought with either Russia or the Western world. The president, who has earned himself a reputation for playing the West and Russia off of one another, may finally face an ultimatum. For now, it seems Lukashenko’s unyielding grasp on the presidency will push Belarus toward Moscow. 

Featured Image Credit: Flickr.com

Will 2020 see the fall of Europe’s last dictator?