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Lukashenko strengthens his turn towards Russia in the middle of the crisis

Anchored in power while facing his greatest challenge from the historic protests for democracy in Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko veers further towards Russia. The authoritarian leader, sponsored for decades by Moscow and who today has become a problematic ally, is increasingly willing, in exchange for support, to make concessions long demanded by the Kremlin and that may lead to greater integration between Russia and Belarus. A roadmap of economic, fiscal and military agreements that he has been reluctant to do for years and that would strengthen Belarus’ dependence on Moscow. The agreements between the two allies had been frozen for months, but this Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced new energy pacts and others to come, during a visit to Minsk. One more step in the choreographed diplomatic dance that precedes the next meeting between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

“Russia, as a sister country, main economic partner and export market did not leave us,” Lukashenko told Mishustin, who arrived in the Belarusian capital with several ministers, including those of Transport and Energy, two key portfolios in the relationship. between Minsk and Moscow. But if it finally guarantees more support, the Kremlin also expects something in return, beyond ensuring that Belarus, in a key geostrategic position, remains under its sphere of influence ”, remarks Belarusian political scientist Ales Lagvinets. The expert points out that Moscow could take advantage of Lukashenko’s weakness and need to boost its long-desired union through tax deals, extending the pacts that expire this year whereby Russia has two military points on Belarusian territory – a communication center in Vileika. and a radar station in Baranovichi — and maybe expanding them.

Russia and Belarus are united by a union agreement, a syndicated model that consists of the elimination of immigration controls, energy and trade agreements. On the table are other chapters of that treaty signed in 1999 that have never been completed, such as common legislative chambers, flag or single currency. Russia is the main creditor of Belarus, and these days Moscow and Minsk are also discussing the terms of refinancing their debt and analyzing redirecting the supplies of Belarusian fuel from Lithuanian ports to Russia.

“Belarus is in a difficult position to negotiate. And Moscow, under a ‘banner of integration’ will advance its own socio-economic agenda, which entails privatization of large Belarusian companies [responsables de alrededor del 50% del PIB y del 75% de la producción industrial, según datos del Banco Mundial], more Russian capital in Belarus and more dependence on Russia, ”says researcher Petr Piatrouski from the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences, who believes that Lukashenko will not give in on all points of the road map set by Moscow.

The Belarusian leader has radically changed his speech in recent weeks. A few months ago he assured that Russia was using the tightening of trade agreements, especially energy, to pressure and “achieve a merger” between the two countries. And before the presidential elections on August 9, he went further and pointed to Moscow as the architect of a “plot” to oust him from power.

After the elections and with massive protests in the streets against the alleged electoral fraud that he has repressed with great harshness, Lukashenko completely changed the step and accused the West and NATO of an alleged interference, and countries such as Lithuania or Poland of financing the persecuted opposition, which he has blamed for wanting to break “historical ties” with Russia and yearning to build “a wall” with the neighboring country. A speech about the ‘foreign enemy’ in line with the ideology and interests of the Kremlin that Moscow has quickly bought.

Russia, which has taken great care to verbally support the person of Lukashenko very explicitly, is propping him up for the moment, however, through other gestures. A few days ago, Putin defended the official result of the elections – which with serious evidence of fraud gives Lukashenko 80% – and remarked that he had agreed with Minsk to send police reinforcements to Belarus if the situation “got out of control”. Furthermore, propagandists and communication strategists have come to Minsk from Moscow these weeks to hold key positions in state media that have reinforced the joint narrative of Western interference, while tightening pressure on independent media.

Until now, Lukashenko had resisted narrowing the union agreements for fear of losing sovereignty, giving up his own power and having Belarus absorbed by the influential and powerful neighbor. But the man who once played the card of being the buffer between the West and Moscow has little choice but to lean on Moscow. “If the roadmaps desired by Moscow are executed, it would not be an integration, but rather an incorporation of Belarus into Russia. Moscow would not sacrifice its powers or powers; Rather, Minsk would cede its sovereignty for the benefit of the Kremlin ”, considers Lagvinets.

Navalni poisoning

Future roadmaps and agreements, however, could also pave the way for Moscow to remove Lukashenko from the equation once its objectives have been achieved, highlights Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of consultancy R. Politik.

Most Belarusians do not support further integration with Russia, according to polls. So Moscow is taking a lead so as not to arouse anti-Russian sentiments. “The future of the State Union will be based on the absolutely independent position of our states,” Mishustin stressed this Thursday at a meeting in which Lukashenko assured him that his secret services had “intercepted” a conversation between Warsaw and Berlin in which it is claimed that the poisoning of the opponent Alexei Navalni in Siberia “is false.” The anti-corruption lawyer and blogger and one of the Kremlin’s most visible critics in the West was attacked with Novichok, according to the German government. The same toxic agent that was used against the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, an assassination attempt that the United Kingdom linked in 2018 with Russian military intelligence and that led to harsh diplomatic sanctions against Moscow.

Russia is Belarus’s main creditor, and these days Moscow and Minsk are also discussing the terms of refinancing their debt. Last year 42% of Belarus exports – mostly agricultural products and trucks – went to Russia. Minsk is also highly dependent on energy agreements with the neighboring country: it obtains 100% of its natural gas and most of its oil; in addition, its economy has been fed for years by the supply of cheap oil that it then sold at a profit margin. Terms that Russia revised this year downwards and that, according to observers, has been one of the levers that it has pressed to achieve greater union.

This breeding ground has contributed to weaken Lukashenko, who struggles with the stagnant economy (GDP has grown by 0.1% on average over the last five years). The Belarusian ruble has plunged to record lows against the dollar and the euro. And more when citizen discontent is on the surface and with regional elections this year and some key legislative elections that next no it does but increase public anger over the alleged electoral fraud and violent police repression. The protests against Lukashenko have arrived this Thursday when it has almost reached the fourth week of demonstrations.

Social mobilizations, dangerous for the Kremlin, which is terrified of something similar happening on its territory. And even more so when citizen discontent is on the surface and with regional elections this year and key legislative elections next.