On October 11, 2015, an expected win occurred for “Europe’s last dictatorship” with the re-election of Aleksandr Lukashenko to the presidency of Belarus. The former Soviet party member, who in 1991 stood against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, won the election with more than 80 percent of the vote and guaranteed himself five more years of rule. While the international community usually does not view Belarus as a major international actor, to continue in that belief is a mistake of massive proportions. Many attest that Lukashenko acts as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s henchman a mini-dictator within Russia’s sphere of influence. The recent events in Ukraine, however, have refocused the West’s vision on Eastern Europe. Many now worry that the Baltics may soon suffer the brunt of Russia’s imperial ambitions. As such, one should also take notice of Belarus, as the country stands as a valuable asset to the West in countering an increasingly ambitious Russia.
Pro-Kremlin, Pro-West, or Just Neutral?
After the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, in which the government cracked down on the opposition, the West punished the Lukashenko regime with extensive sanctions. With the introduction of these sanctions, Belarus floated closer to Russia and gave the West the impression that the country desired to re-join Russia’s orbit. Belarus during these years joined Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. A pivotal moment in Russo-Belarusian relations occurred with the destabilization of Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia’s “little green men” and the beginning of the War in the Donbas, Lukashenko became weary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revitalized imperial ambitions. Lukashenko began to position his country as a mediator between the West and Russia. The “last dictator of Europe” wanted to refresh Belarus’ original desire for neutrality.
Belarus had expressed a desire to remain neutral after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the country’s constitution, it is stated the “The Republic of Belarus aims at making its territory a nuclear free zone, and the state – neutral.”Lukashenko’s rhetoric and actions have exemplified this quest for neutrality. Even before the annexation of Crimea and the imposition of the sanctions regime by the West, Belarus ran counter to many of Russia’s ambitions. After the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Belarus did not recognize the Russian-backed independence of the separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Lukashenko retained good relations with Georgian President Saakashvili, a figure deeply loathed by Moscow. With the unfolding of events in Ukraine, Belarus reinforced its neutrality by holding face-to-face meetings in Minsk between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It became clear that Vladimir Putin’s henchman harbored intentions of peace and neutrality.
Why the West Should Be Worried
Lukashenko’s embrace of neutrality did not go unnoticed by the Kremlin. In mid-September of this year, Vladimir Putin announced the establishment of an airbase in Belarus. The purpose of the base, according to the Kremlin, would be to station Russian Su-27 fighter jets. Although Russia had previously established a radar control center in Belarus, this airbase would stand as the first large-scale military base in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many in Belarus have worried that this military base would have grave implications for the country’s preferred neutral status. A few days before the Belarusian presidential elections were to be held, a small protest occurred in Minsk against Russia’s military plans. President Aleksandr Lukashenko responded by stating “we don’t need a base today…I hear shrieks from the opposition about the deployment of a Russian air base. I don’t know anything it.” Lukashenko’s hesitancy along with Vladimir Putin’s insistence presents a stark divide between the two leaders.
In order to understand Russia’s insistence in Belarus, one should understand the recent events in Ukraine. The events on Maidan Square showed that the former breadbasket of the Russian Empire wanted to take a turn towards the West. With the destabilization that occurred and the deaths of more than one hundred protesters and policemen on Maidan Square, Russia took the chance to seize Crimea in the face of rising pro-Western Ukrainian nationalism. While President Lukashenko does not have the intention of joining NATO, or even the EU, he wants to lift the current sanction regime placed on his country by his Western counterparts. The release of political prisoners and the welcoming of international election observers led to the European Union reconsidering its sanctions on Belarus. Russia saw Lukashenko’s attempts to warm up to the West as a threat. The Kremlin, therefore, effectively tightened the leash on Lukashenko by announcing the placement of an airbase in Belarus.
The West should not expect an annexation of Belarusian territory by Russia’s “little green men” any time soon. Belarus’s economic interests stand firmly in line with those of Russia and while Lukashenko has openly expressed distaste for Russia’s military intentions in his own country, he does not have much power to prevent it. The disturbing reality takes hold when one realizes that the last neutral bastion in Eastern Europe has begun to lose its already minimal autonomy. NATO’s encroachment on Russian borders along with Vladimir Putin’s revitalization of the former Soviet sphere of influence sets the region up for conflict. The Minsk protocol established by the Western powers, Russia, and Ukraine to create peace in the latter country’s eastern separatist regions occurred largely thanks to Lukashenko’s willingness to use his country as a mediator. Without a neutral Belarus, the Western powers may find it even more difficult to negotiate and prevent future wars within Eastern Europe.
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