The Cold War may have ended some decades ago, but the tensions between the West and Russia seem to be heating up once again. In the east, Ukraine is a hotbed of tension as Russian vehicles and military pour in from three borders Across the various NATO countries, forces mobilize, sanctions are thrown left and right, and weapons and aid are sent to aid Ukraine. Countries have been showing their support for NATO or Russia over the past weeks, either sympathizing with the Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk or criticizing Russia for its aggressive actions.
Of all of these major countries taking a stance on the situation or getting fully involved with it, it seems that Belarus is an interesting case among them. One of the few European states to take the side of Russia, not only in words but in actually harboring troops for them and letting the Russian military use them as a staging ground for invasion into Ukraine as well as supplementing the Russian forces with its own. Belarus remains unique among the former Warsaw Pact states as being one of the only that maintains a friendly relationship with Russia, joining the Union state, in stark contrast to the others, such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, who scrambled to join the umbrella of protection that NATO offers.
Examining this interesting relationship that Belarus and Russia have mostly leads back to the president of Belarus, Alexsander Lukashenko. Commonly known as “Europe’s last dictator”, Lukashenko has been head of the country since 1994. Though the country has a seemingly democratic electoral process, it has been clear that the former Soviet Parlimentarian and oppositional voice to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. has been anything but democratic after his election to office. In 2004, he helped the passage of a constitutional amendment to allow him to seek a third term, which he won in 2006 amid allegations of tampering. Through control of propaganda outlets, silencing of opposition, and old-fashioned electoral manipulation, Lukashenko has held a stronghold over the Belarusian government, one that he seems not keen on relieving, especially with the rapid escalation of tension and conflict in Eastern Europe, and as Russia sets its eyes upon the Baltics.
Tensions among the Belarusian populace and its government reached a head in 2020, with the results of a highly controversial election led to announce another win for Lukashenko in his 6-term streak. According to the country’s Central Electoral Commission, Lukashenko won with an overwhelming 80% of the vote, a turnout that was disputed by his main opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. There was already a wave of controversy that treaded behind Lukashenko throughout the entire election cycle, with numerous candidates conveniently being arrested or labeled invalid to run, such as Valery Tsepkalo, founder of “Belarus’ Silicon Valley”, the Belarus High Technologies Park (HTP). There was also Sergei Tikhanovsky, the husband of Svetlana, whose arrest by Belarusian police prompted his announcement to run for President, an initiative rejected by the Country’s electoral system, leading to his wife running in his stead. These controversies reached a head however when the results of the election came forward. Tikhanovskaya immediately disputed the results, citing a lack of scrutiny and no election observers present.
What followed in the country was widespread protests, met with a brutal response by Belarusian police. Workers went on strike, students boycotted class, and thousands took to the streets all over, in the biggest popular demonstration in the country since the fall of the USSR. Lukashenko cracked down hard on the demonstrators, labeling them as “foreign-controlled rats,”, a common populist move, and sent in police to quell the protests harshly. In a report by the United Nations Human Rights Division (UNHR), there were over 7,000 arrests made, with over 450 reports of torture, sexual abuse, and rape of detainees. Lukashenko made sure to target social media and the media as well, leading to a short internet blackout for some days and specific targeting of journalists, many of whom were arrested and brutalized, with Lukashekno’s government removing accreditation for at least 17 of them. Tikhanovskaya fled the country to nearby Lithuania, reportedly fearing for her life.
Lukashenko remains firmly in power as of 2022. Though he has claimed that he is willing to step down should some constitutional concession be made, no progress has yet been made in this. And East of Belarus lies Russia, and its other authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. While Lukashenko and Putin had some troubling relations in the past, they are in many ways very similar leaders, sharing very similar sentiments. Both cited the fall of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, and employ similar populist sentiments in their hatred and condemnation of the West. The president of Belarus stated that Russia and Belarus were not only allies but a single nation bound by the goal to keep former Soviet territories from falling into the sphere of the West. This all came to a head in the past few months, with thousands of Russian troops moving into Belarus’ southern border to conduct joint military exercises, and as of the 24th of February now conducting a full invasion of the country. It was these anti-Western, pro-Soviet sentiments that formed the populist rhetoric in motivating the invasion, and only time will tell what the future will hold for Belarus and Lukashenko.
This is a very good synopsis of Belarussian politics. I did a huge paper on this last Spring, and it is all some very crazy stuff. Comparing Lukashenko to Putin is very apt, and I think they are more similar than people give them credit. At the fall of the USSR, many states approached the EU and asked for candidacy, accountability, things like that. The Baltics were pioneers in this area. However, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and a few others almost immediately drew up some new trade agreements that redefined the borders of the Soviet Union for anyone who wanted them. In traditional Russian geopolitical scheming, Putin has used this time and time again to achieve his own ends in these different countries. Since coming into power, Lukashenko has fashioned himself to behave like a smaller Putin. He tamps out protests, handles dissent, and disseminates misinformation in much the same way that Putin does all those things. Lukashenko parading his fake democracy and touting his citizen’s freedoms is reminiscent of Putin’s leadership style. Putin’s handling of the Russian opposition to the war in Ukraine is eerily similar to how Lukashenko used his police to arrest and kill people for dissenting with his truth. A third example of this is how Putin used his peacekeepers in the recent uprisings in Kazakhstan to cement his control there. Though Lukashenko has not been able to emulate the scope that Putin’s actions have, the methodology is much the same. On top of this, he provided Putin a back door into Ukraine in the war. Since last November, when analysts and news medias started noticing Russia’s moves, Russia started conducting training exercises with Belarus’s army. This was much to Lukashenko’s liking, and probably won him even more support from Putin.