Russia-Belarus Union in Crisis: Integration Paradoxes and Lukashenko’s Maidan

Russia-Belarus Union in Crisis: Integration Paradoxes and Lukashenko’s Maidan

How the Union State came to be

Belarus, or Belorussia (“White Russia”) is an average-sized country in Eastern Europe in terms of size and population (9.5 million people). This is a country whose name is far from known to every Western European and especially American reader. Perhaps we can jog the reader’s memory by mentioning who has been leading Belorussia for over 22 years. This man is President Alexander Lukashenko, the “last dictator in Europe” as he has been denounced by The New York Times. This sleight of hand of American journalists has all but become Lukashenko’s official title used by US and EU diplomats.

The US and EU’s dislike for Alexander Lukashenko is well known. For many years, he has been a persona non grata and barred from entering the countries of the “free world.” Meanwhile, Lukashenko has welcomed other leaders cast out by American policy, such as the late charismatic Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. And, of course, The Belorussian leader has been consistently supported by Russia.

Russians and Belorussians are in fact a single people with only small ethnographic and linguistic differences. It is even difficult to catch Belorussian being spoken on the streets of Belorussian cities, as the entire population speaks Russian. In villages and small towns in the country’s western regions, one can hear local dialects entirely different from one another and official Belorussian. While spending several days in Minsk, Belorussia’s capital, the author of these lines did not hear Belorussian spoken once. As is the case with the Ukrainian language, the Belorussian language is an artificial construct, a linguistic tool for resolving political goals such as dividing the single Russian people.

Yet Russia and Belorussia are tied not only by blood, spirit (the majority of Belorussians are Orthodox Christians), kinship, and common history dating back to the medieval Rurik dynasty of Kievan Rus. Russia and Belorussia share a common present. In 1996, on Alexander Lukashenko’s initiative, the Union State of Russia and Belorussia was established only four years after the violent collapse of the USSR, when relatives and even families ended up in different states. It is not surprising that the creation of the Union State was perceived in Russia and Belorussia with great hope for the reunification of two parts of this single nation (the third part being Ukrainians). Russians even perceived all attacks on Lukashenko as attacks on Russia itself. The public’s perception of the sanctions against Lukashenko was through the lens of Western Russophobia. Lukashenko and his entourage were and are accused of persecuting the pro-Western opposition and violating democratic rights and freedoms. But these charges, Russians have believed, are in the very least hypocritical.

The main reason behind Western sanctions against “Europe’s last dictator” is Lukashenko’s ambition to restore if not a common state, then at least maintain a close alliance with Russia. Millions of families in both countries have craved this. Lukashenko gave voice to this common wish and became its icon. If in 1996 he could have participated in Russia’s presidential elections, it is quite possible that he would have become president. But in July 1996, Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s president, who with his victory was obliged to be indebted to the aid of American politicians and political strategists, IMF loans, and unprecedented violations of electoral processes. The widespread hate for this American puppet was contrasted by widespread support for the Belorussian leader. The people and country upon which the West and traitorous “elites” wiped their feet simply psychologically needed a real leader. And Lukashenko seemed to many to be that person.

However, contrary to hopes and expectations, the degree of integration between Russia and Belorussia has been minimal, and far from all opportunities for cooperation have been exhausted. But to reflect on the positives for a moment, business ties between Russia and Belorussia were not destroyed in the 1990’s as was the case with economic relations between Russia and Ukraine, and citizens of Russia and Belorussia have the opportunity to freely cross the Union State’s borders in both directions. Finally, until very recently (more on this later) there was no persecution of the Russian language in Belorussia. Last but definitely not least, idolizing Nazi collaborators never came to Belorussians’ minds, unlike in neighboring Ukraine.

The integration of the Union State, of course, is not confined to the economy, although the latter does play a decisive role. Belorussia is one of the key members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a kind of anti-NATO established following the collapse of the USSR. Back in 1995, Russia and Belorussia signed the Agreement on Joint Efforts in Guarding the Western Border of Belorussia (the border with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland). Belorussia’s eastern border (with Russia) is not guarded, and citizens of Russia and Belorussia have the opportunity to freely cross the border in both directions with internal passports. Part of CSTO cooperation is comprised of joint Russian-Belorussian military exercises held on both countries’ territory and beyond.

The presence of such an important ally as Belorussia is extremely important for Russia. This allows NATO ground and air units to be kept at a distance of at least 500 km. Russia perfectly understands that before reaching Moscow in October 1941, Hitler’s troops had to spend several months overcoming the resistance of Soviet troops in Belorussia. It is these months and kilometers that probably saved the capital of Soviet Russia from falling to the Nazi blitzkrieg.

On another note, until 2010, Belorussia clung to a pro-Soviet ideological model on the state level, which emphasized Belorussia’s achievements in the Soviet decades and held a purely positive view of neighboring Russia.

Nevertheless, as the situation in Russia itself has improved since President Vladimir Putin came to power, the limitations and even corrupt sides of the integration model on which the Union State was based in 1996 have become all the more obvious. The Union State resembles more of a common market, but with one important clarification: it’s Russia’s markets that are common, while Belorussian markets, on the contrary, have had protectionist measures in place against competitors from Russia.

The economy of the Union State

Back in Soviet times, the Belorussian economy was export-oriented, and Belorussia was jokingly called the “assembly line of the Soviet Union.” Devoid of rich resources and with a relatively small population, the country was a priori compelled to seek external markets for its products. The opening of markets in Russia with a population of around 150 million people was salvational for Belorussia’s economy.

A characteristic detail is that Belorussia’s GDP growth directly correlates with Russia’s GDP growth. Amounting to $13.9 billion in the “pre-union” year of 1995, after several crashes it reached $30.2 billion in 2005, $60.8 billion in 2008, and $49.2 billion in the crisis year of 2009. It is in none other than this first decade of the 21st century that Russia also witnessed significantly GDP growth. In fact, this growth can be explained not only by favorable energy situation, as Russian liberals and Putin’s critics like to say, but because the Russian president forced the oligarchs to pay taxes. Before, on the contrary, they had only extracted aid from the state budget.

This mutually-tied growth is easily explainable. Russia is the main market for Belorussian products (40% of Belorussian exports), and the success of Belorussian exporters, and the Belorussian economy as a whole, directly depends on the purchasing power of Russian consumers and the infrastructure, mining, and industrial projects of Russia in which Belorussia participates.

The above-noted GDP growth of Belorussia looks particularly attractive in contrast to neighboring Ukraine. Before the first Maidan in Kiev in November-December 2004, the Ukrainian regime maneuvered between Russia and the West. In fact, it proclaimed unbreakable brotherhood with Russia while moving closer to the US and EU. Kiev acquired cheap energy resources from Russia while never hurrying to actually pay Russia even for super cheap oil and gas. The theft of Russian gas from pipelines running to Europe was commonplace. According to some Ukrainian analysts, all the largest capital holdings in Ukraine in the early 2000’s were created precisely on the basis of profits from stealing Russian gas.

Russia’s Belorussian ally’s behavior looked particularly appealing in this context. After all, there was no theft of Russian gas in Belorussia, where Alexander Lukashenko built a super-centralized vertical power. Russia achieved in Belorussia what it didn’t in Ukraine: control over gas pipelines which in particular became the property of Russia’s Gazprom monopoly. About 20% of Russian gas transported to the European Union has passed through the territory of Belorussia.

In turn Russia has periodically issued loans to Minsk on interest rates far more generous than the IMF, and has not furnished the receipt of loans with such political and social stipulations as allowing the pro-Western opposition access to government and raising the retirement age and utility bills (the latter in particular were the IMF’s ultimatums attached to its loans to Ukraine). In early March 2017, the Russian government reminded everyone that it had issued a $6 billion loan to Belorussia. For Ukraine, even with a population three and a half times larger (officially 42 million but in reality around 36 million people) than Belorussia, such a loan under such conditions remains an unattainable dream.

Russian assistance to the Belorussian economy is thus predicated on cheap energy supplies (mainly oil and gas), cheap loans, and free access to Russia’s markets. For the export-oriented Belorussian economy, the latter is no less important than low prices for gas and oil. In the early 2000’s, the author of this article worked in a large corporation, Rostselmash, which engaged in manufacturing combine harvesters. There the author regularly encountered manifestations of Belorussia’s lobbying policy. Belorussian authorities in Minsk and their representatives in Russia’s regions were an enormous help in promoting agricultural machinery in Russian regions. I was witness to the fact that Belorussian agricultural machinery even enjoyed support programs from the governors of Russia’s regions, which is generally a violation of Russian legislation. Nevertheless, attitudes towards Belorussia as towards “our own” left the state to close its eyes to such violations.

Contradictions were a priori laid in the foundations of the Union State of Russia and Belorussia. The two fraternal states’ integration was replaced by Russian economic preferences for Belorussia in exchange for Belorussian loyalty to Russia. The longer this model has gone on, the stronger this contradiction has made itself felt.

Belorussian authorities hurry to blame Russia for the increasing obsolescence of Belorussian industry and any problems encountered in the economy and social sphere. In Russia, voices critical of Belorussia have also been heard all the more often. Belorussian enterprises (in Belorussia, virtually all industry belongs to the state with the exception of some non-core industries) have been working at full capacity not least of all thanks to the fact that they have demand on markets in neighboring Russia. Although the Union State assumes equal opportunities for business, this basic rule has been violated insofar as all economic preferences are enjoyed by Belorussia. This is one of the paradoxes of the Union State.

Filters in the way of Russian capital penetrating Belorussia are ideologically justified by the fear that “Russia’s oligarchs want to buy up all of Belorussia.” The fact that Belorussia’s manufacturing has not been technically and technologically updated is the result of President Lukashenko’s not allowing Russian capital to participate in the privatization of Belorussian industry. Meanwhile, it is only from Russia that investments in modernizing Belorussian industry could come.

Consequently, Russian capital has lost interest in investing in the Belorussian economy with the exception of a rather small circle of enterprises. Belorussia’s industry has thus faced growing problems of illiquidity. Factories continue to produce but can’t sell their products, which subsequently end up sitting in warehouses. Huge financial investments are needed to technically and technologically re-equip Belorussian enterprises, yet there is nowhere from which such money is allowed to be taken.

The most serious blow to the Belorussian economy (and not only the economy) was dealt by the trade war that broke out with Russia in late 2016 and early 2017. Faced with constant reductions in production and foreign currency earnings, the Belorussian leadership took the risky path of coordinating energy (gas) prices, themselves independently revising them. Simultaneously, Minsk refused to pay its debt to Moscow for consumed gas, which is currently around $600 million. Parallel to this, Minsk has been arbitrarily increasing tariffs for Russian gas pumping to Europe. The crude oil supplied from Russia, according to effective agreements, is supposed to be processed at Belorussian refineries and then shipped back to Russia. Yet Belorussia is selling the remainder to EU countries and keeping the margins from processing for itself. All the while, Minsk refuses to supply Russia with gasoline, and is selling finished petroleum products to EU countries at higher prices.

Belorussia’s active participation in smuggling sanctioned goods into Russia from the EU and Ukraine, which causes considerable damage to the Russian economy, can also be mentioned. Overall, the list of accusations is not limited to these items, but we have named only the main areas of conflict.

It bears noting that President Lukashenko chose a very opportune moment to start this trade war with Russia. Over the past two to three years, the US and EU have visibly softened their policies towards Minsk. President Lukashenko is already no longer called the “last dictator in Europe,” whereas criticism against President Putin has skyrocketed. It cannot be ruled out that Lukashenko decided to use these attacks on Russia as the moment to join the “camp of the strong.” Has he not hastened with his choice of sides?

Despite all the difficulties in relations with the West, Russia has sufficient strength and resources to put its increasingly less loyal ally in its place. Russia has selectively and strictly introduced several responsive measures, in particular by reducing crude oil supplies to Belorussian refineries, imposing restrictions on food supplies, and upping the fight against smuggling. As a result, in 2016 Belorussia’s GDP fell a significant 2.6%. The prolongation of trade war could finally crash the Belorussian economy, whose relatively stable existence depends chiefly on Russia.

The Union State of Russia and Belorussia is thus experiencing perhaps its most profound crisis in all of its existence. Nevertheless, despite what claims Moscow might have against Lukashenko, Russia perfectly understands that Belorussia and Belorussians are Russia’s closest ally and fraternal people. It is in such a spirit that President Putin said in Bishkek at the end of February 2017 that Russia does not regret its constantly supporting the Belorussian economy.

The crisis of the Union State: the further from Russia, the closer to the West

Starting around 2010, the Union State entered a new, unfortunate phase of its development which is ongoing to this day. In Belorussia’s foreign and domestic policy, new powerful tendencies emerged which gradually came to replace the previous model. These changes were so deep that they at times have given the impression of a revolution.

In the foreign policy sphere, these changes consisted in changing the Eastern (Russian) vector of integration out for a Western orientation. In the evaluations of my Belorussian colleagues, this became definite around 2013, i.e., a year before the Maidan in Ukraine and the West’s imposition of the anti-Russian sanctions. Visits by Belorussian leaders to Western countries, particularly the US and EU, became more frequent and the head of Belorussia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makey, came to be called the main Belorussian “Westernizer.” As a result, sanctions on representatives of the Belorussian leadership were gradually lifted. In 2008, Belorussia refused to support Russia’s peacekeeping action in Georgia and refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the single most painful case in Russian public opinion was Lukashenko’s refusal to support Russia’s actions in returning Crimea, which was “gifted” to Ukraine in 1954 by communist leader Nikita Khrushchev. Belorussia’s refusal to support Russia in Crimea also has a reverse side: support for Ukraine’s actions, including Kiev’s punitive operation in Donbass.

Individual experts, including Belorussian specialists, have noted that the punitive operation against the people of Donbass would have been impossible without technical assistance provided to Ukraine by Belorussia. In particular, Belorussia has delivered fuel for military vehicles to Ukraine, and apparently munitions and missile systems used to shell Donbass cities have also come from Belorussia.

These profound changes also affected the sphere of state ideology. If Alexander Lukashenko’s first two presidential terms (he has been president uninterruptedly since 1994) were marked by a kind of Soviet ideology (Lukashenko’s famous expressions is “Belorussians are Russians with a quality mark”), then subsequently this was replaced by a mild version of “Lithuanianism” (a form of Belorussian nationalism declaring Belorussians to be the heirs of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania hostile to Muscovite Rus as a medieval state). The famous historian from Belorussia, Alexander Gronsky, wrote the following for Fort Russ:

“Belarusian authorities are trying to divide historical understandings and thus break this common history. Textbooks on Belarusian history, for example, teach of two states, part of which was made up by Belarus: Lithuania and Poland. Ancient Rus, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, of which Belorussia was also a part, are taught only in courses of world history. Belarusian “unity” with Polish-Lithuanian history is imposed upon students without any mention of unity with Russian history.”

The Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belorussia has consistently pursued a policy of isolating Belorussian history from common Russian and Soviet history. Parallel to the invention of Belorussian heroes (the Polish leaders of uprisings against the Russian Empire are often declared to be Belorussian national heroes), a desacralization of the historical heritage of Belorussia and Russia is ongoing. The Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia, for example, has been prohibited from being called “patriotic” (i.e., a national liberation war or war waged for the Motherland) in Belorussia.

Meanwhile, according to the appraisals of Belorussian scholars and public figures from the Western Rus movement, approximately two-thirds of the population believe Belorussians to be part of the Russian people (Belorussians being “Western Russians”) or, in the very least, very closely related peoples.

Since around 2013, Belorussia has observed a de facto ban of using the St. George ribbon, the symbol of the victory of the Russian and Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. In 2014, this ban became widespread. The St. George ribbon is one of the symbols of common Soviet victory, and rejecting these symbols ideologically links Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to the Nazi regime in Ukraine.

This ideological “revolution” in Belorussia might be explainable by a desire to distance themselves from Russia while the collective West is waging war against the latter. At the same time, Alexander Lukashenko, whom Belorussian society is fairly tired of, fears falling under the influence of his stronger neighbor. Having begun his political ascent with slogans for re-integration with Russia, Lukashenko is now concerned with preserving his own personal power. President Lukashenko sees a threat to his personal power in the wishes of the majority of Belorussian society for closer and more real integration with Russia.

Part of this ideological turn in Belorussia has comprised repression against Russophile intellectuals. Perhaps it was their publications exposing “dirty” trade with Ukraine that was the real reason behind the arrest of three scholars and experts in Belorussia, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin, and Sergey Shiptenko. But coincidence or not, the arrest of these scholars began during the visit of a delegation from Poland’s senate and parliament to Minsk. The arrest of Polish politician and leader of the Zmiana party, Mateusz Piskorski, was semantically continued by the arrest of these three Belorussian scholars. The charges brought against them, such as “inciting national hatred”, are absurd. According to some fragmentary testimonies, the scholars are faced with prison sentences of up to eight years. It must be admitted that the moral blame for this political repression, besides the Belorussian authorities, is also borne by representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented that these arrests are a domestic affair of Belorussia. The more or less same evaluation was given by Russia’s Ambassador to Belorussia, Alexander Surikov. In both Belorussia and Russia, Zakharova’s statements have been perceived as a carte blanche for repressing pro-Russian forces in Belorussia.

A Maidan in Belorussia: Will Alexander Lukashenko outplay the West and neo-Nazis?

Despite Russia’s significant assistance, the Belorussian economy is experiencing hard times with a trend towards further deterioration. According to reports from Belorussia, there are regular delays in the payment of salaries. In those enterprises where there are no delays, workers are left simply sitting at their workplace, i.e., the company does not have any orders to fill and people are not being fired, but are being deprived of all bonuses, being paid the base salary and then forced to sit through the entire working day.

The deterioration of the socio-economic situation in Belorussia has been observed in recent years, but it became especially noticeable in 2016. As a result, a protest movement is currently spreading across Belorussia, the specific occasion being Lukashenko’s signing of Decree #3 on so-called “spongers,” or unemployed citizens or citizens working abroad. The essence of the decree boils down to “spongers” having to pay taxes for maintaining the state apparatus. This decree sparked waves of outrage across the country, since it affects approximately 470,000 people. Thousands of protesters have come out on the streets of Minsk and other cities. Characteristically enough, these numerous (up to 1,000 people) protest marches have taken place in small towns. In the Belorussian cities of Brest (a regional center), Bobruysk, and Orsha, people have gone out on the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the “spongers decree.” In Molodechno, around 500 people came out to picket, which is an enormous number for such a small town.

Many of the protesters have stated that these are not opposition rallies, but attempts to reach the government’s ear. Gathered crowds have told their stories of not being able to find work in their city.

On March 15th, reports announced a second wave of “sponger marches” from Minsk and other small Belorussian cities. In particular, in the regional center of Grodno around 1,000 people have gathered, which is rather many for such a city. The authorized march in Minsk itself gathered more participants than was planned. The question thus arises: just how many participants will come out to the “March of Will” on March 25th?

The second characteristic feature of protests in small towns is that they have been held without the participation of professional opposition figures who receive Western grants and possess extensive networks around the country as well as experience in organizing mass protests. In other words, the protests in Belorussia’s provinces have been organized without professional organizers.

In Minsk itself and other large cities, rallies have been held mainly under the slogans of Belorussian Russophobic nationalists. Pro-Russian slogans are rarely heard insofar as pro-Russian organizations have long since been snuffed out by authorities. A particularly frightening trend for Belorussian authorities is that the marches are being participated in by the social strata that constitute the social base of President Lukashenko, i.e., workers and civil servants. Even more frightening is the fact that Belorussian neo-Nazis have become one of the organizing centers of the marches. This is an organized force, unlike the pro-Russian forces that have been dispersed by the Belorussian government. Therefore, Belorussian workers are compelled to protest under the banner of neo-Nazis, insofar as they have no other alternative. This is a frightening analogy to the Ukrainian Maidan.

The pro-Western, Russophobic opposition has partially managed to ride the wave of Belorussians’ protests against the government’s social policies and against President Lukashenko personally, except for in small towns. The pro-Western opposition lacks broad support in society, but the “spongers decree” has given it a wonderful opportunity to lead social protests.

The “spongers marches” have not subsided for days, which comes as a complete surprise for the government. The authorities are trying to revise the decree, but are afraid to cancel it insofar as such would be perceived in society as a manifestation of weakness in the face of street protests.

The Belorussian police are frankly afraid of ending up in the position of the Ukrainian Berkut police force which first fought neo-Nazi militants on Kiev’s streets only to then be betrayed by the government. Yet Berkut was “closer to the people” than the Belorussian KGB (intelligence and counter-intelligence).

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks and months, there will only be more mass protest actions. The annual March of Will will be held on March 25th, and April 26th is the day of the Chernobyl Liquidators March. The “spongers marches” are a dress rehearsal before a Belorussian Maidan.

President Lukashenko has hurried to blame the organizing of these so-called “marches of disgruntled Belorussians” on foreign forces. Lukashenko rather clearly hinted that the protests were being organized in the interests of Russia, who supposedly wants to subjugate Belorussia to its influence. However, even Belorussian authorities have realized the absurdity of these accusations. Now they are announcing another source of instability in Belorussia – Ukraine. Belorussian official television even compared the “spongers” to the Maidan, which caused outrage in Ukraine.

In fact, the Ukrainian factor is important here. On November 17th, Alexander Lukashenko told Russian journalists of a flow of smuggled weapons from Ukraine. Lukashenko’s statement was confirmed by numerous, albeit sensationalist Belarusian media. Belarusians’ concerns are understandable: the flow of weapons is passing through the very long (1200 km in length) border with Ukraine which, by definition, cannot be tightly controlled. Objectively, Belarus’ border guard is incapable of covering all of the holes and blocking the supply channels. What’s more, not only weapons, but also Belarusian and Ukrainian neo-Nazis who fought among the punitive battalions in Donbass might be rushing into Belarus from Ukraine.

In September 2016, Belorussia’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makey, announced that the number of refugees from Ukraine in Belorussia has reached 160,000. For a country of 9.5 million, 160,000 is an enormous figure. Belorussian authorities subsequently stated that they are incapable of controlling the long border with war-embroiled Ukraine. The arms flows which Lukashenko mentioned from last August and the migrant influx compel us to in all seriousness consider the scenario of a Belorussian Maidan being prepared by Ukraine. The main force of a future Belorussian Maidan, as in the Ukrainian one, of course, would be neo-Nazis. According to various estimates, the total number of Belorussian citizens who have passed through Ukrainian battalions is estimated by the Belorussian opposition to be up to 200 people. Belorussian (and Ukrainian) neo-Nazis’ goal is overthrowing Lukashenko’s regime, constructing a Nazi state (or states) in Belorussia and Ukraine, and then exporting the ideas and fighting forces of a white Nazi revolution to Europe.

The victory of the neo-Nazi Maidan in Ukraine has given a powerful impetus to overthrowing Lukashenko’s regime, who is too inconsistent for them in his sympathies or antipathies towards Russia and is losing social support in the face of Belorussian workers. Or, conversely, overthrowing Lukashenko is becoming a powerful incentive for Ukrainian neo-Nazis. In any case, the main threat to Lukashenko comes from neo-Nazis.

That being said, following the second wave of “sponger march” protests, the author received a message from friends in Belorussia close to law enforcement authorities. In order to provide a more accurate picture of what is happening, let us reproduce its main points. “A large number of people are being detained in the Belorussian countryside for participating in protest actions. The author’s source found it difficult to name the approximate number of detainees, but estimated a minimum of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people. Not only police stations and detention cells, but also courts are working in emergency mode. Arrests are happening literally every hour. Despite the unleashing of repression, people are still going out to protest as if they have nothing to lose. It seems as if the authorities and Lukashenko personally have lost legitimacy in the eyes of society.”

Nevertheless, Belorussian authorities are continuing their policy of confrontation with Russia which threatens further deterioration in the socio-economic situation and the growth of protest actions. Negotiations with the West are being held at the same time.

On March 15th, a delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly headed by Christine Muttonen arrived in Belorussia, where Belorussian authorities held a series of negotiations with the delegation that were marked by mutual friendliness. A working meeting was held with the speaker of Belorussia’s lower house of parliament, Vladimir Andreychenko, and the vice-speaker of the Council of the Republic, Marianna Shchetkina.

During a meeting with the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Belgium, Didier Reynders, Alexander Lukashenko called the European Union an “empire” and stated literally the following: “The EU is the most powerful pole alongside China and the United States of America. The European Union is a strong pillar for the planet. If it disappears, there will be trouble. So I don’t accept all your ‘Brexits’ and nationalist movements.”

Lukashenko did not name Russia among the “poles”, even though it is thanks to Russia that the Belorussian economy has kept even relative stability. It is safe to assume that these high-ranking guests from the EU arrived to admonish the “last dictator of Europe” not to use force to disperse the protests. In other words: to be ready to surrender to the mercy of the victors. Or they came to “forgive” all of President Lukashenko’s “sins and crimes” as long as he takes a tough anti-Russian stance. It turns out that the West is willing to turn a blind eye to any “violations of human rights” in order to support a Russophobic leader for Belorussia.

In our opinion, the most realistic scenario will nevertheless be a different one. Alexander Lukashenko is too odious of a figure for Western politics. Western politicians and intelligence will therefore reach agreements with more “sane” representatives of the Belorussian leadership behind his back who are to then “ditch” Lukashenko and win power in Belorussia. We witnessed something similar in Ukraine when the head of the presidential administration, Sergey Levochkin, played against his boss, President Viktor Yanukovych, in favor of the Euromaidan and the West.

Alexander Lukashenko in turn believes that he has drawn appropriate conclusions from the mistakes of Yanukovych, who dared to go against integration into the EU and NATO in the last moment. In this case, let us recall the sad experience of Muammar Gaddafi who committed one fatal mistake: believing that “Western partners” have decency. We all perfectly remember what ended up happening to him.

The Ukrainian experience should not be discounted. We can recall the events immediately preceding the coup in Ukraine: talks between the foreign ministers and their deputies from France, Germany, and Poland, and Ukrainian President Yanukovych. The heads of European diplomacy assured Yanukovych’s personal security. However, not even a few hours had passed when, after signing the document bearing the signatures of European ministers, there was an assassination attempt on the head of the Ukrainian state. Europe’s guarantees did not last more than a few hours.

Is this script prepared for Lukashenko? Belorussia’s leader finds himself between the hammer of popular protests and a neo-Nazi Maidan and the anvil of Western sanctions. The narrow loophole of salvation appears to be taking a tough anti-Russian stance, breaking all ties with Russia, and joining Ukraine. But in this case, Alexander Lukashenko’s days of political power would be numbered. Knowing the fate of Gaddafi and Milosevic, it is safe to predict that imprisonment or even death following a coup awaits him.

The only way out for Lukashenko and all of Belorussia is a thorough purging of the state apparatus of those advisors embroiling it with Russia and Belorussia’s own people – the pro-Western party in the leadership, a kind of collective Levochkin – abolishing the anti-people decisions, and establishing closer integration with Russia for the sake of saving the Belorussian economy.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I am a cautious optimist in regards to Belorussia. Yet the main hope is not the wisdom of the government, but the wisdom of the Belorussian people – that very thing which the Ukrainian people lacked.

Originally published on greanvillepost.com