In Depth

Is Russia set to snatch Belarus’s independence right under the EU’s nose?

Officials from Moscow descend on Minsk as President Alexander Lukashenko clings to power

Russia’s role in the ongoing crisis in Belarus is causing increasing concern in Europe after the Kremlin urged President Alexander Lukashenko to press ahead with constitutional reforms that could pull his country further into Moscow’s orbit.

Lukashenko met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday in Minsk for talks over a pledge made to Vladimir Putin in September that Belarus’s Constitution would be reformed.

The Russian minister reportedly told Lukashenko that Putin had “confirmed everything that you previously agreed with him” - although it is “unclear exactly to what agreements Mr Lavrov was referring”, says The Times.

Russian diplomacy

Prior to the decline of democracy in Hungary and Poland, Belarus was long described as Europe’s only authoritarian dictatorship. Lukashenko has led the country since 1994, claiming victories in elections widely believed to have been rigged.

But his grasp on power is now being challenged following elections in August, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets of cities across the nation to demand his resignation. Lukashenko claims to have won a sixth term in office with more than 80% of the vote, despite rival candidates having performed well in pre-election polls.

Amid the ongoing unrest, Russia has moved in to offer help to Lukashenko

Moscow and Minsk have maintained close formal ties since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, forming the two-party “Union State” supranational organisation eight years later. 

The Kremlin is now pressing Belarus to enact legislative changes paving the way for “closer integration under which it could be forced to surrender its independence”, The Times reports. 

With Lukashenko desperate to avoid being ousted, the paper says, Belarusian opposition figures and the EU fear that he may abandon his nation’s standing “in return for Russian support during the protests”.

Watching from the sidelines

The EU has been heavily criticised in the past for its response to Russian interference in nations on the fringes of its borders, including Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia

The power struggle in this third country, in particular, is a source of major concern among European leaders, with Putin achieving a significant victory as the broker of a peace treaty over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

By organising a Kremlin-friendly peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Russian president has “succeeded in considerably expanding Russia’s military presence in the strategically important Southern Caucasus region”, says the Atlantic Council. And “crucially, he has done so without encountering any Western pushback”.

The unchecked advance should “set alarm bells ringing in other ex-Soviet republics”, including Belarus, the think tank adds.

What can the EU do?

Several Western leaders have refused to recognise the results of the latest elections in Belarus, and have voiced support for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took her husband’s place in the presidential race after he was arrested and jailed. Tikhanovskaya claims that she won the election, but was forced to flee to EU member state Lithuania after her family was reportedly threatened.

The EU has also slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and a number of his allies, citing “election rigging and a violent police crackdown on demonstrators”, The Moscow Times reports. In response, Lukashenko has accused Western countries of facilitating the protests and plots for his overthrow.

During his meeting with Lukashenko this week, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov claimed the West is “using dirty methods of so-called colour revolutions, including manipulating public opinion, supporting forces that are openly anti-government and promoting their radicalisation”.

One to watch

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Russia has three key goals to achieve during the ongoing crisis in Belarus.

Firstly, Moscow wants to “ensure a process of constitutional reform takes place”, controlled by Moscow, says the think tank. But Putin’s vision of reform “will not suit” Lukashenko, who is used to ruling with impunity.

As such, the second goal for Russia is said to be to “diversify the number of figures and organisations inside Belarus it can work with”, including political parties and public associations. Strengthening these relationships will deprive “Lukashenka of his monopoly position and his veto over decision-making”, says the ECFR.

And thirdly, “Russian will be trying to deepen its economic representation in Belarus. The country’s shrinking economy and reduction of credit resources mean that the Russian oligarchy will remain one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the Belarusian government.”

As negotiations between the two nations continue, exiled opposition leader Tikhanovskaya has insisted that Lukashenko has no right to sign any deal with Russia on Belarus’s future. 

“He has lost the support of the Belarusian people,” she said yesterday. “We have always advocated and continue to advocate friendly relations with Russia. But independence and sovereignty cannot be bargained.” 

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