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Belarus: Why Russian aid to Lukashenko does not end the crisis

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Belarus has long been united in a largely theoretical union with Russia. The economic part of this connection has enabled Alexander Lukashenko to maintain his control as president of a quasi-Soviet paternalistic regime.

Now, beyond the storm of protests over the alleged fraud in Mr Lukashenko’s re-election, an economic crisis is looming and Russia is getting tired of subsidizing Belarus.

Despite a meeting on Monday between Mr. Lukashenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a solution to a month of troubled protests does not seem closer. There is no longer any doubt that Russia intends to support Mr. Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy, as Mr. Putin promised him plenty of money and political support. But without the admission of the opposition in Belarus, many analysts say a solution to the crisis will remain obscure.

We want to see the relations between the Belarusian and Russian people continue to reflect the level of trust and friendship that exists, says Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States who would probably be Mr Lukashenko’s main candidate in the election. if he had not been forced to leave the country in July. But Lukashenko has already deceived everyone many times.

Moscow; and Minsk, Belarus

Despite a four-hour-long, largely secret meeting Monday between Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a solution to Belarus’ month of tumultuous protests over allegations of electoral fraud seems no closer.

But there is no longer any doubt that Russia intends to support Mr Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy, as Mr Putin has promised him plenty of money, political support and other forms of aid that remain unspecified.

While this may increase Mr Putin’s influence over Mr Lukashenko, who has promised much to the Kremlin over the years by giving little, Belarusian and Russian experts say it does not solve the clearest, immediate problem for Russia and the Belarusian opposition. : Mr Lukashenko continued to hold power. Without a recognition of the opposition, they say, a solution to the Belarus crisis will remain obscure.

What we have learned is that Putin will undoubtedly support Lukashenko with money and political support. There may have been several other informal agreements to strengthen the union state, says Alexei Dzermont, a political analyst who heads North Eurasia, an independent think tank in Minsk. There is nothing inherently bad about the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko. Any way out of our predicament would require Russian help. …

But Russia may also have made some attempts to establish relations with the Belarusian opposition as well. They could do it. But in Moscow they seem to see the opposition as anti-Russian and do not believe the claims of opposition leaders that they are not.

Russia’s involvement, the absence of the EU

Mr Putin publicly offered Mr Lukashenko an immediate $ 1.5 billion bailout to save its war-torn economy from imminent collapse, reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to the ill-defined state’s economic integration project, and pledged full allegiance to the NATO-like military alliance linking Russia and Belarus. Mr Putin loudly approved Mr Lukashenko’s roadmap from the crisis, which includes rewriting Belarus’ constitution, holding a public referendum to approve the new document and then, after some time, new elections for a new president and parliament.

The Kremlin leader denied that Belarus’s opposition protesters wanted him to leave the country immediately, but offered vague assurances that Russia would like to see Belarusians resolve their differences without delay. external interference. Perhaps as an olive branch for Belarusian protesters, he ordered the withdrawal from the Belarusian border of a Russian police reserve unit that had pledged to help restore order in the event of civil unrest in the protest-stricken country.

The Kremlin’s prominent role in resolving Belarus’ future underscores how dependent Belarus, with 9.5 million predominantly Russian-speaking people, is on Russia’s economic size, political approval, and security weight. The cautious reaction of the West can also be an indication of how much the world has changed in the last two decades.

Andrei Stasevich / BelTA / AP

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko disembarked from his plane after arriving at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Monday, September 14, 2020. He was visiting Sochi for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin a day after about 150,000 protesters flooded the streets of Belarus. Belarusian capital.

Just six years ago, the European Union offered full support to Ukraine’s efforts to change its geopolitical allegiance, including EU association and massive financial assistance. Today, seemingly more tired of being directly involved, the EU declared Belarus elections invalid on August 9, sanctioned several dozen senior Belarusian officials, and is likely to limit itself to verbal expressions of disapproval that will go ahead. Only Lithuania has so far declared Mr Lukashenko the main opponent in the elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to be the legitimate leader of the countries.

For her part, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave Lithuania last month, warned Putin that any deal he makes with Mr. Lukashenko will be considered illegal and added, I am sorry that you decided for dialogue with a dictator and not with the people of Belarus.

Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States and a business leader, would certainly have been Mr Lukashenko’s main candidate in the election if he had not been barred from voting and forced to leave the country in July. He says that, given the record of Mr. Lukashenko of perfidy, including the arrest of 33 Russians and their accusation of overthrow before the election, Putin should know better than make any deal with him.

“We want to see that the relations between the Belarusian and Russian people continue to reflect the level of trust and friendship that exists,” he told the Monitor by telephone. Lukashenko has already deceived everyone many times, and he can be expected to continue to do so … it is important to acknowledge that he is not legitimate in the eyes of the Belarusian people.

Russian financial assistance to Mr. Lukashenko will only support his regime, he says. The salaries of most state employees have already been delayed. Large sums of money are being paid to riot police and security forces. They are receiving great rewards, and we can see that the redistribution of resources is aimed at rewarding those on whom the Lukashenko regime relies. …

It seems to me that if Russia wants to be constructive, it must demand the release of political prisoners and the completion of criminal cases that were opened on absurd grounds, he says. As for constitutional reforms, we need to discuss not only the general terms, but the essentials of the roadmap that Lukashenko is proposing. Otherwise its simply empty talk that Lukashenko is giving to Belarusian society and Russian leadership.

Lukashenko vaguely, and after

Belarus has been a predominantly theoretical union with Russia since before the Putin era. The economic part of that arrangement has enabled Mr Lukashenko to maintain his quasi-Soviet paternalistic regime in which everyone is fed, sheltered and educated, but the most frozen development is. Belarusians have seen over the past 20 years when neighboring Poland and Lithuania joined the EU and radically improved their lives. Meanwhile in neighboring Russia underwent another transformation under Mr. Putin who brought order and relative prosperity. In the south, Ukraine is still undergoing a joint effort to break away from the sphere of Russia that some Belarusians find inspiring, and others see as warning.

Lukashenko built his system on cheap Russian oil supplies, which were processed at Belarusian refineries and sold to Europe. He, his family and the government gained from the borders, says Oleg Sosna, a business leader in the information technology sector in Belarus. Using the rhetoric of the union state, he received large loans from Russia. Playing his pendulum diplomacy [playing Russia against the West], he also negotiated large loans from the World Bank and the EU. … Over 40% of our exports go to Russia, including things that would not be competitive in the EU, like our agricultural production and vehicles produced by Vehicle Factory in Minsk.

But Mr Lukashenko’s economic model has been collapsing for some time. With global oil prices falling and Russia tired of subsidizing its archaic system, an economic crisis has been dragging on. By many accounts, Belarus’ banking system is paralyzed, the ruble is sinking rapidly and reforms will be needed no matter who is in charge.

The union state’s political revelations, which include a joint parliament and government agencies, have remained toothless talk shops for nearly two decades, and their only thing seems to be to provide fraud to retired politicians. Joke or gossip, depending on who you ask around is that a special chair is being prepared for Mr. Lukashenko in that camera.

Polls in both countries show that most value good relations, but that enthusiasm for the union state has waned, with almost half of Russians saying there is no need for a recent survey by the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center.

I understand that Russia wants the level of our relations to remain. And this is a legitimate concern, says Mr. Tsepkalo. We must maintain our relations with Russia, but we must also seek normal trade and investment relations with the West. We must also build new values ​​within our society: the principle of separation of powers, the right to elect our leaders, civil liberties. I’m sure the Russians can understand that. We can not develop in one direction only, we need several vectors.

As Belarusian protesters continue to flood the streets, Russia has many advantages in its efforts to maintain Belarus’ geopolitical allegiance, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy magazine. But it lacks the ability to inspire young people and professionals who want greater freedom and civil rights, and risks alienating them if it continues to support Mr Lukashenko.

Belarus will always be the object of geopolitical competition between East and West, he says. Only now does it seem that there is little appetite in the EU to engage with this crisis as they did in Ukraine a few years ago. This undermines the hopes of Belarus’ pro-Western liberals. But that does not really help Russia. …

Russia has raw money and power, but not good ideas. For those Belarusians who are moving away from nation aspirations, liberal values ​​or joining the global flow, Russia has nothing to offer.

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