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What are Russia’s options in Belarus?
19.08.2020

Dr. Nazim Jafarsoy

 

The last presidential election in Belarus has brought about a serious political crisis. The result of this crisis will be considerably affected by Russia’s stand in this process. Five possible options regarding Russia’s position on Belarus can be assumed:

1. Resorting to the use of military force against the Belarusian opposition within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and/or upon invitation of Alexander Lukashenko. According to media reports, in the entourage of both Putin and Lukashenko, there are officials interested in the implementation of this option. However, for Russia, who is at de facto war with its fraternal Ukrainian nation due the Crimean and Donbas crises, initiating a similar situation with a second fraternal nation – Belarus – would be another strategic loss. Moreover, Russian Army’s beating the Belarusian people in the streets of Minsk for Lukashenko may lead to completely counter effects. If we take into account the degree of spread of protests in Belarus, this option is quite weak.

2. Russia can manipulate weakened Lukashenko. The Kremlin can offer mediation services of its emissaries that have serious influence in Belarus to solve the crisis. These mediators can open the way for a political dialogue in Belarus. Thus, Russia can strengthen its position in the eyes of the Belarusian people and opposition on the one hand, and get important concessions from Lukashenko on the other hand. Can the Kremlin do this? Although it has not applied this method in resolving such a crisis up to now, this does not mean that Russia may not resort to it. Russia can do this even together with a European country, which would not damage its interests. This is a very weak option, but sometimes crises necessitate creative ways of solution.

3. Behaving towards Lukashenko in the same way it behaved to Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia. This means allowing the change of government, but not letting the new Belarusian government go against Russia’s strategic interests. Russia’s political, economic and cultural leverage in Belarus makes this possible. However, given the geographical proximity of highly-civilized Belarus to Europe, there is a high risk that it will rather follow the way of its Baltic neighbors.

4. Behaving towards Belarus in the same way it behaved to Georgia. This means not hindering conduct of a new election in Belarus, but ensuring the victory of a pro-Russia candidate (that is creating a “Belarusian Ivanishvili”). As Russia has more sympathizers in Belarus than in Georgia, the chances of Russia’s success in this option is quite high.

5. Behaving towards Belarus in the same way it behaved to Ukraine. This means occupying a part of Belarus or creating/supporting separatist groups that will attempt to unite with Russia. It can be possible through avoiding the victory of most unfavorable candidate for Russia in the election. Therefore, this option would be very costly.

 

It is difficult to tell which option Russia will choose. There are three important factors that will affect Russia’s decision:

  1. Course of developments in Belarus. Putin already congratulated Lukashenko and expressed his support. Nevertheless, these were just words. If the process continues to grow and Lukashenko’s staying in power becomes impossible, the Kremlin may come up with a statement like “We respect the will of the Belarusian people”. Aggravation of internal political situation and organization of mass actions in Russia in support of the Belarusian opposition make the situation even more sensitive for the Kremlin.
  2. The tussle concerning post-Putin period is accelerating in Russia and an important foreign policy issue in this process is the former Soviet countries. With regard to the creation of a new “Pax Russia” in the former Soviet space, there is an increasing competition between those who attempt to “revive” the former USSR and those who suggest new models of integration in accordance with the modern world trends. The Kremlin was using a synthesis of both of these approaches up to now. At present there seems to be a split on this issue. This split can be observed in the attitude of the Kremlin not only towards Belarus, but also towards Azerbaijan.
  3. Another important point is how Russia will benefit from the US-China rivalry. One of the most important priorities of the Kremlin in this process is to possess even broader opportunities in the former Soviet space. United States and China may give concessions to Russia on some issues in order to draw the Kremlin to its own side. In this context, Belarus can be subject to one of those concessions …