Lukashenko’s ever closer Russian ties raise risks for Putin

This month, exactly one year after mass protests first roiled the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, a range of western countries tightened economic sanctions against Belarus.

In response, Lukashenko turned again to Vladimir Putin, asking the Russian president for debt relief on a $1.5bn loan agreed with Moscow last year.

As the west has sought to isolate Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader has put himself ever more in Putin’s debt. Yet while that may have suited Putin so far, Minsk’s increasing dependence on Moscow comes with growing risks for the Kremlin too, analysts say.

“A weak Lukashenko is good for Moscow as it can expect greater conditionality. But not if he is so weak as to destabilise the situation in the streets,” said Alex Kokcharov, principal country risk analyst at IHS in London.

The Belarusian strongman’s stand-off with the west escalated after he launched a violent crackdown on popular protests sparked by the August 2020 presidential election that critics had described as rigged.

Since then, Lukashenko has referred to Putin as a partner, a friend and, most recently, a brother, while using every means available to repress dissent at home and to push back against his European opponents abroad.

He has forced a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk. He has also dispatched migrants to Belarus’s borders with Europe as part of what Brussels has called a “hybrid warfare” campaign against the EU.

Last week, Poland sent 900 soldiers to stop migrants, some of them Afghans, from crossing over from Belarus.

Lukashenko’s confrontation with the west may suit Putin’s purposes in that it weakens the EU and buttresses Russia’s strategic position by providing Moscow with a buffer. But analysts say it comes with potential political and economic costs for Putin as well.

Most immediately, Baltic states have warned that Belarus’s “weaponisation” of migration to the EU and imminent military exercises involving Russian and Belarusian troops could lead to a border “incident” with Nato troops.

Lukashenko even appears to relish that prospect.

“They [the west] should be afraid,” he declared after the western sanctions were announced. “If needed, there will be not just a base here [in Belarus]. All the Russian military forces will be based [here] in case of a new world war outbreak.”

Then there is the risk to Putin if he continues to support Lukashenko only for the Belarusian president to totter and fall. Rising Belarusian protests could also spark internal unease in Russia and poison Moscow’s reputation among Lukashenko’s internal opponents and any eventual successor.

“Last year it was clear that many in Russia were following the protests in Belarus with great interest and Putin and his circle are extremely paranoid about protests at home,” said Eleanor Bindman, an expert in eastern European politics at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Mindful of the risks, Russia’s foreign ministry has so far trod a careful line. It has said that “Russia will continue providing assistance to brotherly Belarus and its people in resisting the western pressure and asserting its sovereignty.”

But it has also admitted the existence of “demand for certain political change” in Belarusian society.

“What Putin should be doing is leaving Belarus alone, because for the Belarusian people it is not the struggle between Russia and the west, very explicitly not so,” said Sofya Orlosky, deputy director of Europe and Eurasia programmes at Freedom House in New York.

As well as the political risks, Moscow faces potential economic and financial costs from the sanctions placed on Belarus over the past year by the US, EU, UK, Canada and Switzerland.

Russia is Belarus’s biggest trading partner, accounting for about half of its exports and imports, and Russian companies have stakes in key Belarusian businesses, including the Mozyr refinery, one of the country’s two oil processing enterprises.

Those ties may soon be strengthened when Belarus’s balance of payments position is bolstered by a $900m payment from the IMF. The funds form part of the IMF’s $650bn issuance of special drawing rights to all its members to help fund their response to Covid-19 and are due to become available on August 23.

US lawmakers and opponents of Lukashenko have objected, but other countries out of favour with the west such as Iran and Russia will also get allocations.

Nonetheless, the western sanctions — especially on sectors such as potash, Belarus’s biggest foreign currency earner — will still bite in Russia.

“Any [Russian] company working with Belarus’s state companies, banks, institutions . . . will automatically get on the US sanctions list,” said IHS’s Kokcharov, noting that a similar process hit European companies that traded with Tehran after the US imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

“I can easily imagine a large number of Russian companies preferring to fully stop economic activity with state counterparts in Belarus,” he added.

The EU, UK and Swiss sanctions already include Russian oil businessman Mikhail Gutseriev, whose family holding has a stake in Belarusian potassium processor Slavkali.

Russia may face more of this indirect pressure as western countries ratchet up the pressure on Minsk, especially if Lukashenko exploits any outflow of refugees from Afghanistan by continuing his policy of funnelling Middle Eastern migrants towards the EU.

“It is important to raise the stakes for Putin and his oligarchs of dealing with Lukashenko,” said Freedom House’s Orlosky. “If the west can collectively raise the costs . . . of supporting authoritarian regimes, it will send a very powerful message that this is just not worth it.”

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