The ongoing events in Ukraine have placed many world leaders in an uncomfortable positon, but none more so than President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, leader of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. While attempting to establish himself as a mediator in the conflict in hopes of improving his international image and domestic ratings, it is clear that the Ukrainian crisis is a major concern for Mr Lukashenko’s government.
Belarus has long been considered Russia’s closest ally. Economically, Belarus is highly dependent on Russia, particularly due to the isolation that the country experiences from the rest of Europe. While it would be rational to assume that, in the course of the Ukrainian crisis, Belarus would clearly side with Russia, this has not been the case. Instead, the government has expressed distress regarding Russia’s move over Crimea and over reports that thousands of Russian troops are fighting in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Besides his regime’s natural dislike for popular revolutions of the kind that overthrew Viktor Yankovych in Kiev, the idea of neighbouring Ukraine falling into the hands of Russia is equally worrying. The fact that ethnic Russians constitute eight per cent of Belarus’s population means that Russia may realise the ‘Putin doctrine’ – the right of Russia to intervene in neighbouring countries to protect Russians –if Putin sees fit. This conflicts with Lukashenko’s steadfast commitment to Belorussian national identity and sovereignty. Three elements seem to be pillars in the Belarussian position: Belarus will cooperate with any Ukrainian government, it will support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and it believes federalisation will create chaos in Ukraine.
However, Lukashenko has reportedly long been playing a sly game with Russia, extracting economic benefits to allow Belarusians to maintain a reasonable standard of living. For example, 10 to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP derives from Russian subsidies, mainly in the form of cheap oil and gas. In return, Belarus has consistently made promises to Russia that it continues to evade. Contrary to what is widely reported in European media, Belarus’ relations with Russia have been turbulent in the past few years. In response to Belarus’ defrosting relations with the EU, particularly following Minsk’s refusal to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia and culminating in the EU invitation to join the Eastern Partnership, Moscow launched attacks against Minsk that have harmed Lukashenko’s credibility. These included Russia’s broadcast of a TV documentary that directly accused the Belarusian president of numerous crimes, most notably the murder of his political opponents. Russian pressure eventually forced Lukashenka in December 2010 – just days before the presidential elections – to sign the documents to establish the Common Economic Space of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Belarus made subtle hints towards a closer relationship with the EU. Not only has the situation in Ukraine caused Belarus to want to strengthen its economic ties to the West, but the country has realised that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine could just as well happen in Belarus. Even though Belarus is dependent on Russia economically, Lukashenko is still committed to maintaining Belarus’ independence as a sovereign state. Belarus’s Economy Minister Nikolai Snopkov stated that if the Ukrainian crisis continues, “it will drag Belarus to cooperate more with the Western countries”. Opinion polls and political analysts say that support for the EU has grown in recent years, with some of them reckoning that about a third of the population want Belarus to be democratic and closer to the EU. While Belarus has failed to deliver on the EU’s main condition that all political prisoners be released, the number of working diplomatic contacts with representatives of EU member states and institutions have increased considerably since 2012, which suggests that Belarus is working towards defrosting its previously frozen relations with the EU.
With the Ukraine crisis still in full swing, its consequences for Belarus remain difficult to predict, as further turns of events are likely. However, given the economic dependence on Russia, it seems unlikely that Belarus will pursue a new far-reaching rapprochement with the EU. Various views exists on how the crisis in Ukraine has impacted Belarus. Russian newspaper Nezavissimaïa Gazeta writes that ‘If one country has benefitted from the Ukraine crisis, it’s Belarus’, noting that the peers of President Lukashenko no longer treat him as the leader no one wants to be seen with.