The European Union and Russia have taken different approaches in response to the events in Belarus. While the EU supports the protests and is implementing sanctions against the regime, Russia is set on helping Lukashenko to cling on to power.
In the current Belarusian revolution of freedom, the context of external relations and interactions is important – which many analysts and publicists call the “geopolitical” factor.
This, without any doubt, has been present in the events in Belarus from the very beginning, creating a background that cannot be ignored.
On the whole, the fate of the Belarusian revolution may depend how this geopolitical factor manifests itself in various scenarios of further development.
Let us compare how two important international actors who make up a certain backbone of this geopolitical factor discussed today in the context of current events – the European Union and Russia – behave towards Belarus.
The EU helps Belarusians
The European Union, which closely monitors what is happening in Belarus, a country that is formally a member of its regional Eastern Partnership program, strongly condemned the falsification of the election results and the brutal violence perpetrated by the usurper Lukashenko against the country’s residents following the election.
The European Union did not recognise the rigged election results, called on authorities to engage in dialogue with civil society and insisted on holding a new election that would fully comply with international standards for fair and free elections.
The United States and other countries of the collective West have taken a similar position, joined by neighbouring Ukraine. The heads of the highest bodies of the European Union and leading representatives of EU member states have supported the Belarusian citizens in their struggle for freedom.
The winner of the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forcibly taken to Lithuania by the secret police of the Lukashenko regime, took on the role of the main representative of her country and its citizens in an exceptional – both from a legal and political point of view – situation. She is an elected head of state, who, however, did not receive official confirmation of her victory in the election, issued by the appropriate state body (election commission), and did not take office officially (that is, through inauguration).
However, this formal political and legal snag did not prevent the European Union from communicating with Tikhanovskaya as a representative of a country with distinct legitimacy forced by the circumstances.
Tikhanovskaya addressed members of the European Commission and MEPs, met with the foreign ministers of EU member states in Brussels, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, leader of the Polish opposition Donald Tusk and Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. As common for an actual head of state, French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius.
In this regard, unfortunately, the leaders of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries showed incomprehensible blindness. Although they supported the struggle of Belarusians for freedom from tyranny, they refused to meet with the de facto elected head of the Belarusian state at the suggestion of the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, citing the need for some restraint and caution (although it is not clear why they were so frightened).
A few days later, this time the V3 (Visegrad without Hungary) partially rehabilitated itself, when on the day of the secret ‘inauguration’ of the usurper, together with Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States, and Ukraine, refused to recognise Lukashenko as the current president. (The next day the whole EU took the same position.)
Approval of sanctions
For several weeks, the European Union was deciding on the issue of sanctions that will be imposed on Lukashenko’s regime for the crimes he has committed.
At first, it seemed that the main discussions between the participating countries would unfold as to whether to include Lukashenko in the sanctions list or if only his subordinates would be there. (in the end, the sanctions target 40 individuals but exclude Lukashenko from the list, ed.)
After the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Cyprus in early September (although there is the possibility of this just being a coincidence, the chronological correspondence with the subsequent event is undeniable, even though a causal relationship can only be assumed), this small EU member state blocked the process of adopting sanctions against the Minsk regime.
To unfreeze this situation, Cyprus called for the simultaneous imposition of sanctions against Turkey in response to their preparing gas production in the Eastern Mediterranean. The entire EU has unequivocally sided with Cyprus in this matter, but this was not enough for the Cyprus government. It demanded that the EU immediately approve sanctions against Ankara.
Aside from the need to adhere to a similar approach, the position of the government of Cyprus did not explain the connection between the situation in Belarus, where blood is literally pouring on the streets of cities, the dictator uses terrorist methods to suppress protests, and there is a sharp clash of economic interests of the two neighbouring states.
But be that as it may, with the ability of the European Union to convince one of its members to refuse to combine two incompatible agendas into a single whole, the position of the EU as an integral part of the democratic West is obvious. The European Union unconditionally condemned Lukashenko (as did some of its member states separately), implemented sanctions, supported the protesters and stated that it rejects any interference by external forces in the internal affairs of Belarus.
EU member states have granted asylum to Belarusian activists who were forcibly deported from the country or fleeing persecution. The representatives of Belarusian civil society remaining at large today (or are hiding from the repressions of the regime) are in Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, Brussels, Berlin, and other European cities.
They also organise meetings with foreign representatives there. There, and not in Moscow. This is an important and rather characteristic point, the importance of which should not be underestimated.
Russia is helping Lukashenko
Why should this moment not be underestimated?
Because Lukashenko, who for years has weaved a web with his fake game, presenting himself in the West as the primary defender of an independent Belarus from Russia (unfortunately, some EU member states at some point got entangled in this web and made the decision in 2016 to cancel sanctions imposed against the Minsk regime in response to political repression), is pointing the finger elsewhere today and, fearful of losing personal power, has attached itself to Moscow like a tick.
Many representatives of the current civil protest against Lukashenko, as well as currently imprisoned presidential candidates and other activists, constantly emphasise that their activities are not directed against Russia and that they advocate maintaining good relations with Russia, with which Belarus has multiple ties.
Political relations with Russia play a key role in the current situation. For the last 25 years, it was Lukashenko who shaped their contours from the Belarusian side. He initiated the creation of a union state, which until recently was more of a chimaera than the formation of a real state.
Today, however, this chimaera may become one of the trump cards in the hands of Vladimir Putin. Unlike the European Union, Putin is focused not on helping Belarusian citizens fighting for freedom, but on helping a dictator who suppresses citizens. There is an explanation for this both in the context of the political situation within Russia itself and in the context of Putin’s geopolitical (in fact, purely imperial) ambitions.
The first context is simple. It has to do with the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime, with Putin’s personal profile, and with unfree conditions in Russia. The Russian president supports Lukashenko because he fears that his fall resulting from popular protests could have an undesirable mobilising effect on the Russian population, which is unhappy with the situation in their own country. One cannot fail to see the energy with which Putin is helping the Syrian dictator Assad and the Venezuelan usurper Maduro to retain power.
As an autocratic leader, Putin feels called upon to help autocratic allies around the world. Today he is one of the world’s most reactionary politicians, contributing to the suppression of political freedoms wherever autocratic leaders like him see the freedom of citizens as a threat to their personal power. Lukashenko is on par with them.
The second context is broader and more complex. It is connected to one of the priorities of the imperial direction in Russian foreign policy and political thought. Vladimir Putin is the bearer of this direction in its most radical form.
Among other postulates, the aforementioned direction includes a persistent rejection of the independence of two countries – Ukraine and Belarus – based on the belief that Ukrainians and Belarusians are not two distinct nationalities and that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians constitute a single Russian nation. It is only because of two revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century and the 70-year existence of the Soviet Union as a federation of separate national republics that this unity was broken.
Putin’s policy towards Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea and an attempt to create a so-called Novorossia (new Russia), which failed thanks to the resistance of the Ukrainians who defended their state from Russian invaders and their local agents) revealed his true goal – the destruction of the independent statehood of Ukraine and its subordination to an imperial Russia.
The goal of Russian Putin-style politics is the territorial takeover of Ukraine and Belarus. With Ukraine, Putin was unsuccessful, and now he may try to do something similar with Belarus, which is smaller than Ukraine in terms of territory and population, but more closely tied to Russia, especially economically.
The situation in today’s Belarus, with all its differences from the situation in Ukraine in 2014 (the formal existence of the union state, the degree of economic integration, the level of the people’s national self-identification, the nature of the relationship between the leaders of states), is similar to it in the most important and essential way – that people stood up for freedom, democracy, and dignified life in their own state.
This contradicts the ideas of the bearers of the Russian imperial tradition, because, in their opinion, civic activity automatically threatens ‘secession’ from Russia and a move towards the West. This was the case in 2014 with Ukraine, and so it can also be said to be the case in 2020 with Belarus.
Some Belarusian opposition politicians and civic activists may endlessly repeat that their goal is not to part with Russia, that they want to maintain good relations with Russia and do not consider the possibility of Belarus joining Western economic and political (EU) or defence (NATO) structures. For imperials like Putin and his circle, all this is an empty noise. They are certain that everything is organised as they themselves assume.
Therefore, the Russian leader focused on preserving Lukashenko’s power, in part for geopolitical reasons, in order to ‘prevent’ Belarus from moving towards the West. And he does it very consistently. However, he acts in such a way that the ‘black’ (from his point of view) scenarios have a real chance of occurring.
In fact, he is doing everything possible to make ordinary Belarusians perceive Russia as hostile.
Protecting the corridor
Here is a list of his actions towards Belarus since the start of the peaceful protests on 9 August. This is what he did during the Belarusian revolution for freedom:
- immediately recognised the victory of Lukashenko in the election, despite convincing evidence of the falsification of voting results and despite the massive civil protests precipitated by this falsification
- in reaction to the extremely cruel behaviour of the Belarusian OMON (special services) in the first three days after the election, he praised fighters for their supposedly “careful” handling of citizens
- said that in accordance with an agreement reached with Lukashenko, he prepared reserve forces from his own special forces, which should come to the aid of Belarusian colleagues in case they fail to cope with the task. He then deployed these reserve forces on the border with Belarus. Kremlin internal security specialists arrived on board two FSB planes that landed at the Minsk airport in the early days after the election who were tasked with advising regime officials on how to effectively suppress the protests
- sent a troop of Russian propagandists and editors to Minsk, who replaced local journalists, “annexed” Belarusian television channels and began to spread Russian and pro-Lukashenko narratives. In addition, Belarusian state television stations included in their broadcasting materials prepared in Moscow in the editorial “kitchen” of the Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece Russia Today
- met with Lukashenko at his residence in Sochi, supported him again as the supposedly “legally elected president” and provided him with financial assistance in the amount of $1.5 billion
- organised joint military exercises of the Belarusian and Russian armies on the western borders of Belarus
Some experts dealing with issues of external security and defence point to such a specific component of the geopolitical’ factor influencing relations between Russia and Belarus – the so-called Suwałki corridor. It is less than a 100 km zone on the Polish-Lithuanian border, separating the territory of northwest Belarus from the Kaliningrad region of Russia.
The location of this zone prompts radical Russian imperials in military uniform to think about the possibility of its armed occupation with the aim of separating the Baltic states from their NATO allies and their subsequent occupation. The loss by Russian troops of the possibility of delivering such a blow in the event of the ‘separation’ of Belarus from Russia shines in the heads of Russian military strategists like a red light.
And, as you know, Vladimir Putin is distinguished by a special understanding of the ‘wants’ of his generals.
Long live Belarus!
If Vladimir Putin’s strategic plan is to prevent changes in Belarus and to ‘integrate’ it as much as possible (which, in the understanding of the Russian president, means to swallow it up), then, while he really behaves according to this plan, the only real force capable of preventing it, or at least seriously complicating its implementation, are Belarusians – ordinary citizens who have been protesting against the dictatorship for almost 7 weeks under white-red-white national flags and with national symbols and who will not give up.
They already make it clear today that Belarus will not be broken, that it is not Russia and will never be Russia.
While present-day democratic Europe is considering its approaches to this country in order to help it, it must carefully listen to the slogan that ordinary Belarusian citizens are chanting in the squares and streets of Belarusian cities – “Long live Belarus!”
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. A Russian version of this article is available on iSANS.