Belarus is widely regarded as an authoritarian state, headed by President Alexander Lukashenko. His most recent, fraudulent reelection in 2020 inspired unprecedented pro-democracy protests, leading to an intense government crackdown. An upcoming constitutional referendum, scheduled for February 27, stands to further consolidate Lukashenko’s power. Currently, the role of Belarus in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is troubling for the future of the country.
Throughout much of Lukashenko’s presidency, he has balanced dealings with both Russia and the West. However, this has changed due to Lukashenko’s continued authoritarian tactics. Law professor and author Ozan Varol argues that authoritarian regimes face significant costs such as the loss of international legitimacy and economic and military sanctions .This is the position that Belarus occupies in regard to the West, particularly following the aftermath of the 2020 election. For example, the United States, Britain, the European Union, and Canada are targeting Belarus with intense economic sanctions designed to pressure Lukashenko into acknowledging his democratic opposition and ceasing human rights abuses, such as the keeping of political prisoners.
How has Belarus resisted this pressure? Lukashenko, now largely cut off from the West, is dependent on Russia and President Putin. Varol argues that, “some regimes are more dependent on international approval, global legitimacy, and domestic popular support than other regimes that derive their support structures and legitimacy from other sources” . Belarus, despite damaging relations with the international community, has derived sufficient support from Russia. This may lower the cost of authoritarian rule for Lukashenko, but his dependence has shifted the balance of power towards Russia.
This is evident in the significant role of Belarus in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prior to the invasion on February 24, Belarus hosted some 30,000 Russian troops for alleged military exercises and now, they will remain in Belarus until the removal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe. These Russian troops were able to attack the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, departing from Belarus and reaching the outskirts of Kyiv in about a day. Lukashenko’s rhetoric surrounding the actions of Russia is concerning. For example, he has characterized this as a consequence of the influence of the United States on Ukraine. His message to Ukraine: “Stop! Shoo away these masters from over the ocean… As soon as they can’t use you any more, they will dump you at the junkyard of history.” Putin and Lukashenko have described plans for further integration of the two countries, perhaps in a general alliance against Western nations and NATO. One reporter states that in a recent meeting, “Mr. Lukashenko described Russia and Belarus as not only neighbors and allies, but in many ways, a single nation bound by a determination to keep former Soviet lands from drifting into the orbit of the West.” This growing alliance is encouraged by the fact that without a shift toward democracy in Belarus, Lukashenko has nowhere else to turn but Russia.
Despite this apparent alliance, there is concern that the future of Belarus is under Russian control. Opposition leader, and likely winner of the disputed 2020 election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has expressed fears about the upcoming constitutional referendum in particular. The reforms hold sinister details in regard to security. The current constitution dictates the “neutrality” and “non-nuclear status” of Belarus and the proposed reforms would remove both clauses. Lukashenko has made his intentions clear, stating that if NATO were to move nuclear weapons from Germany to Eastern Europe, Belarus would host Russian nuclear weapons. The United States, when announcing further sanctions, has acknowledged the risk of Russia to Belarus as well. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen states that by supporting the invasion, Lukashenko is endangering the future sovereignty of Belarus. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg describes Belarus as simply an enabler to an aggressive Russia. Atlantic Council fellow Brian Whitmore observes that Russia is embarking on an imperial project, essentially taking over Belarus in the process of the invasion of Ukraine.
Tikhanovskaya is vehemently opposed to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and believes that the people of Belarus would be behind her in that regard. However, Lukashenko’s refusal to embrace democratic norms and the subsequent necessity of Belarus’s dependence on Russia in the face of global illegitimacy may have consequences. Tikhanovskaya argues that even Lukashenko recognizes the ultimate goal of further integrating Belarus and Russia, claiming that, ”The illegitimate leader understands this is a threat to himself as well. He is weak and he may also think that one day when the Kremlin does not need him, they can get rid of him.” Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1724-1735.