Belarus’s parliamentary election last week got barely any attention, even though the vote was a rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, in which Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, will run for a sixth term. This coming election may tell scores not only about Belarus and its relationship with Russia, but also about Russia itself.
Belarus held a parliamentary election on 17 November. As usual, the vote was marred by massive rigging, forced voting (and an actual turnout that was probably much lower than the official figure) and in a contrast to the last election, held in 2016, not one opposition deputy made it into the next parliament. Not that it matters much. The Belarusian legislature, made up mostly of pro-government “independents” has shown barely any activity beyond rubber-stamping the odd presidential bill in recent years. It should be noted that there was a valiant attempt by civil organizations to monitor the vote and there were protests before and after the election in several cities to raise attention to the undemocratic circumstances of the vote. Yet, attention was even more scarce than usual.
Belarus-Russia relations have been on a rollercoaster ride this year and there is reason to suspect that it is mostly Lukashenko pulling the levers on the engine. In April, Belarus alerted European countries that the Russian oil delivered via the Druzhba pipeline was contaminated, causing significant reputational damage to Moscow. A week later Russia’s ambassador in Minsk, Mikhail Babich, was recalled. While the Babich, a former KGB man certainly played the role of the bogeyman well – his short tenure was spent arguing with the government in Minsk, calling for a closer integration of the two countries and networking – his dismissal bought Lukashenko valuable breathing space. The Belarusian president also purged the security establishment of conservatives advocating a closer integration with Russia.
There were speculations about what Lukashenko promised Russia in return, and when in September the Kommersant daily published a detailed roadmap of integrating the two countries’ tax codes, civil codes, energy markets and trade policies before 2022, many thought that the question had been answered. Alas, the roadmap had only been initialed at that point, not ratified or even signed. Shortly after the publication of the document Lukashenko announced an agreement with the EU on visa facilitation as well as an agreement with the US on returning ambassadors to each other’s countries after a 11-year hiatus. Then in October Belarus briefly detained Anna Bogacheva, a Russian citizen accused of meddling in the American presidential election of 2016 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Belarusian authorities eventually let Bogacheva go, but the message had been sent.
Then in November Lukashenko switched gears again. Five days before the parliamentary election, he visited Austria; his first visit to an EU member state in three years. On election day, he spoke about “crazy tension” between Belarus and Russia, fundamentally questioning the rationale of the two countries’ alliance and promising not to sign the integration roadmap if it “violates the independence of Belarus” or if Russia does not resolve an ongoing oil and gas dispute and does not take step to balance a $9 billion annual trade deficit. Hardly the words of a man looking forward to signing the integration roadmap in two weeks’ time when, 20 years after the creation of the “Union State” of Russia and Belarus, Vladimir Putin expects his Belarusian counterpart to take actual steps towards this union.
Lukashenko also confirmed that he would run for a sixth presidential term in 2020. Not that this was the first time that he mentioned this. In March he had already told journalists that he “cannot afford not to run” in 2020. This essentially means that contrary to speculations Lukashenko is not going to be replaced by someone more amenable to Moscow – at least not on his own volition – and if he is going to run on the a platform of preserving his country’s “independence” (that most Belarusians prefer over integration with Russia or the EU), it is highly unlikely that Vladimir Putin will, as some suspect, continue his career as the head of a Russia-Belarus confederation from 2024 on. Not that this has ever been a highly plausible plan but having it on the table has certainly benefited the Russian president.
Establishing a closer form of integration between Russia and Belarus is in all likelihood a serious aim of the Russian government, if not to facilitate Putin’s succession then for security reasons. I myself have suspected that while an overt occupation or annexation is unlikely, Russia may very well absorb certain subsystems of the Belarusian state gradually. But Lukashenko is a master procrastinator. He has danced around the Russian demand of establishing an air base on Belarusian territory for years. Belarus never recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Russian-occupied statelets. Last year Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called for the introduction of a common currency. A year has passed with no meaningful steps taken in this direction. All this while Lukashenko has publicly assured his Russian counterpart that he was ready to go ahead with the plans – if only, he added after a meeting with Putin in February this year, the Belarusian nation would agree.
Lukashenko has several means to drag out the process. Probably the easiest way is to use the parliamentary election as an excuse to appoint a new government and request a delay. Vladimir Makei, the minister of foreign affairs has been rumored as a candidate to take over from Sergey Rumas, a technocrat appointed in 2018. Makei who worked directly under Lukashenko in 2000-12, is known as a darling of the West and an advocate of opening towards the EU. Andrei Ravkov, the minister of defense, on the other hand is known as a proponent of closer relations with Russia.
Deal or no deal
It is very likely that Lukashenko sees an opportunity. The EU and the US are both significantly less likely to care about human rights and political reforms in Belarus than just five or six years ago. Austria, a significant investor in Belarus, is not the only EU member state keen to make a deal with Lukashenko. Hungary’s government has been calling for a more cordial relationship with the country for years, Lithuania has traditionally been an advocate of Realpolitik with Belarus and Poland’s illiberal government would certainly be able to forget about democratic standards as long as the rights of the country’s Polish and Catholic minorities are guaranteed. With the Council of Europe having given in to Russian blackmail earlier this year and Azerbaijan still a member, Belarus would certainly stand a chance if it were to join the institution (the only stumbling block would be the death penalty, still legal in Belarus).
Lukashenko is almost certainly wary of France’s keenness to strike a deal with Russia, which could easily impact the ability of the EU’s Eastern neighbors to use their (prospective) ties with the EU as a leverage on Russia. Emmanuel Macron himself believes that a Russian reset could easily take a decade, and it would certainly also require Russia not to annex more territories in its neighborhood, but it is easy to imagine that Lukashenko plans to be around when this decade ends and wants to be in a better position.
For Russia foreign adventurism has become progressively costlier in recent years and Lukashenko did what he could to make the prospect of an annexation as problematic as it can be. This of course does not mean that Russia does not have levers on Belarus. Energy independence from Russia remains a pipe dream despite Lukashenko’s overtures to Baltic energy trade. Despite successful restructuring and diversification, Russia still accounts for the majority of Belarus’s external trade and debt. Withholding fiscal assistance – as the Russian government did with a $600 million loan in October – can cause disruptions and force concessions. If Lukashenko remains intransigent, Russia is able to stir up some trouble in next year’s presidential election, even without relying on its shrinking constituency in the country, simply relying on the rightful frustration and anger against a nasty autocrat who has been in power for 25 years. Its seamless recognition of the Armenian government of Nikol Pashinyan in 2018 certainly chilled Lukashenko to the bone.
In the end whether Russia has a coherent Belarus policy independently from Putin’s succession troubles will be crucial. If it does, whether or not Lukashenko wins a sixth term next year may not matter much after all. If it does not, next year may very well be even more contentious than this year has been. Ironically, Belarus’s next election might reveal more about Russia than about Belarus.