On Belarus and its sovereignty

Alexander Lukashenko
Alexander Lukashenko Reuters/Scanpix

Is Belarus truly weak in its relations with Moscow? The unfortunate, who needs saving? This s how we often imagine it and thus understand very little. Only a very adept and strong member of the nomenklatura can play with the Kremlin dragon.

From 1953, the Soviet Union was ruled by not only its secretary generals, but also the apparatus, the nomenklatura class. After 1991, for a time it was the oligarchs, who sought to control Russia, afterward it was the intelligence branch (the FSB) and today, quite clearly, it is in the hands of the nomenklatura apparatus once more and for it, the Kremlin’s is not the most favourable regime. And A. Lukashenko knows the principles of the nomenklatura apparatus well: he respects the dictatorship of the nomenklatura class and never aims for its life, only its outliers.

In the apparatus games, Belarus feels quite well and the main symptom remains oil and gas prices as usual. To Belarus they are especially low, albeit not like in Smolensk region, thus to Lukashenko it is an indicator, what could yet be reached. The country has for years exploited and weakened Russia (perhaps it is the GDL’s revenge upon Muscovy). To this end, A. Lukashenko is performing strong lobbying in Russia in the areas of security, news media and administration, employing corruption and just like this, by counter-attacking within Russia, he manages to paralyse the aggressive acts of Russia.

Lukashenko’s network in Russia

Russian news media constantly complains about the inequality of rights: Belarussian journalists backed by A. Lukashenko manage to obtain protection in Russia and maintain a positive perception in Russia of the Belarussian regime. Meanwhile, Russian journalists, propagandists in Belarus are strictly censored and do not have any freedom to present or agitate for Kremlin policy. For example, several days ago, at the demand of A. Lukashenko, Russia recalled its ambassador Mikhail Babich. Prior to this, M. Babich had given a pro-Kremlin interview to Belarus’ official news media, however it was prohibited and not released despite being announced.

To Russia, Belarus is not only a cunning, but also hard opponent – every hostile decision from Moscow is responded to with hostility. For example, recently Belarus responded to a ban on its apple exports to Russia (Secret Polish exports? Russia is right) with a halt in tainted oil exports (Poland supported Belarus and Belarus was right). Both sides had to negotiate. And this continues: milk/gas, apples/oil, customs agency against customs agency, transit against transit. You have to be s strong country with much lobbying in Russia itself to be able to play this game.

A. Lukashenko’s administration knows the language of the nomenklatura agreements with the Kremlin perfectly and is dividing the unity of the apparatus and V. Putin. A. Lukashenko is to certain Russian governors more appealing than V. Putin. Furthermore, A. Lukashenko goes to visit the governors independently of the Kremlin and this is the pinnacle of arrogance. V. Putin does not visit the regions of Belarus without an invitation from A. Lukashenko. Not one!

Finally, the neighbouring dictator did not recognise a single Russian occupation: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, even Crimea, albeit keeping silent. Similarly to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the ideal example to A. Lukashenko. But for A. Lukashenko to act like this, there must be space to manoeuvre. And Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Latvia can and must grant this space.

Russia seeks a new union with Belarus

Russia does not hide that it would like to create a union state with Belarus by 2024 (election year for V. Putin), making Belarus de jure partially free, but de facto, annexed. To justify this annexation, a suitable federation formula must be found and upon agreeing on it, a referendum won’t even be needed. This union would recreate the illusion of the Soviet Union, an oligarchic market simulacrum.

For Russia, such a union would open up massive opportunities by integrating Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, in the future, other territories. But it is necessary for this merger of two states to happen with fanfare, hugs and flowers, without protesting, riots or public resistance. A. Lukashenko is trying to avoid this merger, correctly suspecting that beneath it hides annexation. In this respect, he has several resources: his apparatus, which is faithful to him and does not want to lose its authority, as well as the especially weak, but existing Belarussian patriotism.

A. Lukashenko’s government apparatus is not only interested in its welfare, but now also comprehends the principle of sovereignty and honour. This is dangerous to the Kremlin because this is the birth of the harder to bribe patriotism and under the mutual pursuit of power – being almost impossible to buy. The conjunction of A. Lukashenko’s KGB and apparatus is certainly no weaker than the unity of V. Putin’s KGB apparatus. Example.

On May 1, information was released that the deputy secretary of the Belarussian intelligence service, the head of A. Lukashenko’s security (a friend of A. Lukashenko’s family) Andrei Vtiurin. Unofficially, A. Lukashenko’s apparatus leaks information to the news media that A. Vtiurin directly and actively cooperated with Russia’s FSB and transferred to it various pieces of unsanctioned data. The operation of his dismissal and arrest was also kept secret from Russia. This shows that the Belarussian KGB has autonomy and its informants in the Russian FSB, also being able to control the situation even in Russia (it being no place for Belarusian opposition figures and unfavourable journalists and scientists to hide).

Others from the Lukachenko’s apparatus

Just look at two leaders of the Belarussian apparatus: head of cabinet (prime minister) Syarhey Rumas and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei. S. Rumas allows himself limited criticism of A. Lukashenko’s economic policy, is a supporter of a moderate market and understands banking, oil and gas intrigue well.

From 2018, he has been fairly successfully managing the economy and ministers. V. Makei’s activities since 2012 are even more successful, gradually overcoming Belarus’ international isolation. The multidirectional concept of his foreign policy opposes Russia’s foreign policy accents, but is understood and accepted by neighbouring countries’ diplomatic services. At this level, his activities deserve praise more than the aggressive Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, who is unable to influence diplomatic services, that is to say, act on the nomenklatura government level, instead immediately shooting for the top, where there is nothing.

In a confrontation of V. Makei and S. Lavrov, I would bet on the former. S. Rumas and V. Makei’s weakness is their strength, which could cause fear for the dictator himself. However, they are sufficiently wise (I hope) to not organise any palace revolt. The Kremlin threatens Minsk with massive debt, which Belarus has to Moscow. But the dialectic of the nomenklatura says that the lender and borrower are mutually dependent. Equally, Minsk can threaten with the freezing of the debt. And that it does.

Lukashenko’s nationalism

In terms of controlled patriotism, today A. Lukashenko must tolerate a weak opposition as his own instrument and as a necessary tool for independence manoeuvres. He already supports certain nationalist moods and forces, which will have to, if Russia applies great pressure, mimic the threat of the Maidan and this is absolutely unacceptable to the Kremlin. A part of this weak opposition feeds on the same GDL myths. And here, Lithuania can help A. Lukashenko cooperate with the weak, close to A. Lukashenko opposition.

They greatly need it. The head of Belarus needs nationalists as a means of threatening with maidanization, but without permitting such a Maidan. Symptom: today in Belarus, the nationalist flag (white, red, white) is less obstructed than the imperialist Kremlin St. George’s ribbons. What is more, local police are invited to not touch people just for the national flag, to be softer, while regarding the carriers of the ribbon of St. George – prohibit. Are these the real values of A. Lukashenko? Certainly not – the situation could reverse overnight.

What is there of Lithuania if Belarus will be annexed

The annexation of Belarus would mean a security catastrophe for Lithuania because in a military perspective, Vilnius would become indefensible. Russia could very aggressively threaten Ukraine’s North, Poland and Lithuania, could manipulate or hamper the North-East economic and civilizational flows. It would be a massive geopolitical win to V. Putin. I read articles by Kremlin and V. Putin critic A. Piontkovsky. For five years now, he has constantly been repeating the Narva formulation: are NATO troops prepared to die over the indefensible Narva and be involved in nuclear war?

This is the economic formulation of V. Putin’s nuclear blackmail: it is not worth for the USA and NATO to defend these territories. I believe that A. Piontkovsky is overexaggerating on war economy. Economically and politically, Narva would be insignificant to Russia even if it would narrow the NATO guarantee agreement. The Belarussian operation is incomparably more significant, more realistic and far more useful strategically to the Kremlin.

Thus, I see broad opportunities for Lithuania, Poland and Latvia to lean on the EU as their strength and mutually coordinate actions to grant Belarus room to manoeuvre in various spaces: historic memory, cultural and lingual cooperation, oil and gas market, investment and various security guarantees. Non-EU countries can contribute as well, primarily Ukraine, but also Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and China, to all of whom the de facto annexation of Belarus would pose major problems or threats. I believe they would thus grant the Belarussian regime room for various manoeuvres and negotiations.

Thus, Belarus is sufficiently strong to resist Russian aggression, but it needs help and cooperation. Thus, we should invite and talk to if not A. Lukashenko himself, then at least V. Makei and S. Rumas.

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