Staunton, February 27 – Some in Belarus speculate that Alyaksandr Lukashenka may have sold out his country to Vladimir Putin during his ten days in Sochi, but that overstates Moscow’s possibilities and underestimates the way in which such a Russian action might play into the Belarusian dictator’s hands, according to Vladimir Matskevich.
In an interview with the EuroBelarus portal, the Belarusian philosopher says that Moscow has enormous leverage over Minsk because of Belarus’ dependency on and debt to Russia. But Russia can’t press the debt issue too hard or Lukashenka will turn to the West (eurobelarus.info/news/policy/2017/02/27/vladimir-matskevich-lukashenko-kak-nikomu-drugomu-vygodna-ugroza.html).
Moscow could, Matskevich says, try to insist on the tighter integration of Belarus into the so-called union state, but “Lukashenka understands very well what [that] would mean: the end of sovereignty and the swallowing up of Belarus.” He can’t do that willingly because it would lead his own loss of office or the explosion of popular anger against him in Belarus.
“In such a contradictory situation,” the Belarusian scholar says, “the only real way out would be a short victorious war for Russia,” one intended to force Belarus to enter the Russian Federation.” But such a war would unlikely to be short or victorious for Moscow: Lukashenka would rally his people to himself and both would become even more anti-Russian.
Moreover, he continues, “the problem is not even in the reaction of the international community” but rather in that “Russian society would not understand such aggressive actions by the Kremlin against Belarus. If the Georgian war, Crimea and the Donbass generated an upsurge of enthusiasm in Russia, a war with Belarus would not.”
In short, he argues, both Moscow and Minsk have interests in playing up the threat of violence but not in violence itself. Moscow hopes to intimidate Lukashenka without the costs of an invasion, and Lukashenka hopes to shift the blame for the problems he has created onto Moscow and thus save his position.
Those parallel calculations, Matskevich argues, explain some of what one is seeing in the Russian and Belarusian state media now. But it is far from clear how long such a game is sustainable. “Resistance, spontaneous and not very spontaneous protests are growing in Belarus,” and that frightens both Lukashenka and the members of his regime.
Minsk officials are now talking about how they might reduce the pressure they are feeling from the population, but they increasingly recognize that “the usual methods (increasing pay and cutting taxes” are now “impossible” and that they will have to make “some political concessions,” something Lukashenka wants to avoid.
In this situation, he says, “the powers that be may initiate certain reforms, cosmetic at least to begin with.” The regime now realizes it needs an opposition, if only to channel protests in ways that will not threaten it. And there are some in the opposition who might be willing to go along and become a “systemic” opposition in Belarus.
What all this means, Matskevich concludes, is that in the immediate future, Lukashenka will likely increase tensions “on the Russian front” and “loosen the screws within Belarus.” But in such a complicated situation, Lukashenka might agree to almost anything with Moscow if he can be assured that he will keep his job.
To the extent that other Belarusians reach that conclusion, Lukashenka will have even more difficulty in generating support for himself, something that could open the way either for a Russian move or a further deepening of the Belarusian revolution – or, as often happens in such murky situation, both at once.