Russia’s Interests in Belarus: Aims and Means (Part 2)

Russia’s Interests in Belarus: Aims and Means (Part 2)
Russia’s Interests in Belarus: Aims and Means (Part 2)

* To read Part 1, please click here.

Regime change through constitutional reform is Moscow’s chosen way to achieve its goal in Belarus: turning the country into a satellite of Russia and stopping full incorporation (see Part 1 in EDM, October 15).

At this point, however, Moscow is in the unforeseen position of pursuing this goal without local Belarusian allies. Regardless of the country’s friendly attitude towards Russia at all levels of society and the weak feeling of national differentiation from Russia (again unique in Belarus), Russia currently lacks any recognizable bridgeheads or bases within the Belarusian government nomenclature, economic interest groups, the intelligentsia or civil society associations. The authoritarian President Aljaksandr Lukashenka effectively ruled out such openings for Russia in Belarus during its long reign. The authorities have also hampered the “Russian world”Russkiy Mir”) – grassroots activities like activists Elvira Mirsalimova and Siarhei Tsikhanouski (before his sudden rise from the dark last year) or the newly retired Russophile politician Siarhei Gaidukevich, who was nailed to the reserve bank forever.

In addition, the lack of a multi-party system and parliamentary government in Belarus meant that Moscow could not use pro-Russian parties to dominate this otherwise Russia-friendly country. Because of this, Russia (an autocracy itself) is now advocating a Belarusian constitutional reform that would create a parliamentary republic with a multi-party system open to Russian manipulation.

The presidential candidates of Valery Tsepkalo, Viktar Babarika and Siarhei Tsikhanouski should not win the election, but most likely turn into leaders of political organizations or movements after the presidential elections to destabilize Lukashenka in his sixth term. Indeed, after the election, Babarika’s team announced the creation of a political party under his leadership. His own videotaping was dated in June and properly broadcast by his team after the August elections. At the time, Babarika and Tsikhanouski were in prison and Tsepkalo abroad. Tsikhanouski’s short-lived election campaign (his wife Sviatlana took his place after his arrest) also indicated a post-election movement. Moscow’s post-election plans for Belarus, in all likelihood, envisaged controlled, calibrated instability – Moscow’s best practice.

Unexpectedly for everyone involved, however, Lukashenka’s mistakes (exaggerating his lead over runner-up Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and then using disproportionate force against protesters) sparked massive instability that was beyond the control of any actor, including the Coordinating Council team hastily formed by the former candidates. The Coordinating Council was catapulted to the fore of a popular movement with the look of a “color revolution” framed as such by both friendly international media and hostile Belarusian authorities. This turn of events undermined any usefulness of the three former candidates and the Coordinating Council as potential allies of Moscow. Moscow could not align itself with a movement of the “color” type against established authority in a neighboring country. In addition, the Coordination Council could not control the spontaneous protests and was therefore useless to Moscow from this point of view as well. As a result, Moscow quickly distanced itself from this opposition body (see EDM, September 10, 16, 30, October 1, 7, 8).

Since Russia currently has no identifiable Belarusian allies, it is undoubtedly in the process of recruiting groups and individuals as allies or fellow travelers (see EDM, October 15). An early possibility is Andrei Savinykh, the chairman of the Commission on International Affairs of the Belarusian House of Representatives (Lower House of Parliament), who is now demonstratively positioning himself for closer relations with Russia. His aim is to replace the incumbent Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei, an architect – alongside Lukashenka himself – for normalizing Belarusian relations with the West before these events. Such a replacement would be seen as an example of Moscow outweighing Lukashenka. As always, Lukashenka stands in the way of Russia’s recruitment of allies and fellow travelers for the time being as long as he remains in control. However, if the perception prevails that Russia is gaining the upper hand at Lukashenka, there would be no shortage of Belarusian groups and personalities to work with Moscow to facilitate the satelliteization of Belarus.

Moscow’s current priority is to use Lukashenka to stabilize the situation and formally lead constitutional reform before he is exonerated by the same constitutional reform. This requires Lukashenka’s government to face its economic and political challenges during a transitional period. Moscow would – and probably cannot – steer openly towards the satelliteization of Belarus as long as Lukashenka remains in control. Lukashenka, for his part, is gaining time and will try to shape the transition process according to Belarusian rather than Russian views on Belarus’ interests. Minsk’s overriding goal remains to maintain real sovereignty over satelliteization.

Russia’s interests in Belarus at this stage can be categorized as Der Status quo–Oriented interests and those that go beyond that Der Status quowith the latter category clearly predominating.

In the economic field, Russia is Der Status quo–Oriented interests include: Russia repaying the arrears of debts to Belarus (also at the expense of Russian refinancing of the debts of Belarusian past, as agreed by Presidents Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin in Sochi on September 14); Uninterrupted transit of Russian oil and natural gas via Belarus to European consumer countries (Gazprom’s latest communication to its Eurobond creditors warned them of a hypothesis Force majeure on the Yamal gas pipeline via Belarus to Poland and on to Germany – TASS, October 6); and continued supplies of Belarusian industrial products to Russia through government and oblast level contracts, a number of which were signed at the recent Forum of Regions in Minsk (BelTA, September 29).

On the Der Status quo In the economic field, the Russian government and associated industrial groups are undoubtedly planning to take over Belarusian flagship industrial plants, the foundation for the Belarusian economy and the generation of export revenues. This could be attempted either by Russian companies directly or in partnership with local Belarusian colleagues who have yet to be identified. This could lay the foundation for an economic and political Russian clientele that Lukashenka’s government and local leadership class in Belarus has never accepted.

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