In 2017, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko could be an important factor in upcoming Eurasian affairs. Belarus’ geographical position and historically pro-Russian policies has made the country a reliable partner for Moscow. President Lukashenko has actually been referred to as the ‘last dictator in Europe’ by the Bush administration and scholars alike. Secretary of State Rice gave Lukashenko the title of dictator because he “has stifled dissent, persecuted independent media and opposition parties and prolonged his power through fraudulent elections.” President Lukashenko has been in office since 1994.
Currently, almost half of all Belorussian exports go to Russia, and, much like Ukraine, it relies heavily on the subsidized price of Russian oil and gas which makes their relationship a vital national economic interest for Belarus.
But despite similarities between Lukashenko and Putin, like their longing for the prestige, power, and the nationalistic fervor of the Soviet Union, the two leaders have experienced a falling out recently over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Belarus and Ukraine share a border stretching almost 700 miles. Recent conflicts and separatist backed violence in Eastern Ukraine have officials in Minsk worried, in part because the Kremlin’s actions have further isolated itself from the international community; thus negatively impacting Belarus, but also because it does not want to be next on Putin’s hit list of defectors. But currently, Minsk is struggling to maintain a positive economic outlook and President Lukashenko desperately seeks new sources of revenue, like visa-free tourism from the EU. And so, in a play for a more promising economic future, Belarus has tried to undergo minor political reforms in order to reduce various EU sanctions for various human rights abuses and cases of political suppression.
In their most recent attempt at improving ties with the EU, Belarus has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a means of European appeasement and has even acted as a neutral third party to the Ukrainian conflict by helping to negotiate the ‘Minsk agreement’.
Today, Belarus finds itself in a similar position to that of Ukraine in 2013 and 2014.
In 2013, the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych had led his country to an Association Agreement with the European Union only to renege on his promise to help Ukraine pivot West as Yanukovych fell victim to political pressure being imposed upon him from Moscow.
And so today, Belarus is seeking new economic partners and trade deals by way of the EU, while also trying to remain close to Russia for their subsidized gas and consumption of Belorussian exports.
Given Belarus’ precarious geographical position and ideological orientation, it can be assumed that Russia will refuse to let Belarus even attempt to pivot away from Russia in the same way Russia refused to let Ukraine pivot towards the West. As with each iteration of Russia’s use of force in its near abroad, whether that be Georgia or Ukraine, the Kremlin obviously prefers to see its neighbors be bogged down in conflict and dysfunction than to allow Western institutions and political ideologies to creep any closer to Russia.
While Ukraine represented an extremely important geographical partner for Russia because of its military port in Sevastopol, Belarus is arguably more important to Russia due to its location to both Kaliningrad and the Baltics.
It is possible that Moscow’s goal is to ensure that Belarus remains at least semi-neutral to Russian forces and influence. This is because if Russia can freely move its troops around in Belarus it allows for the creation of a bottleneck between Belarus and Kaliningrad (sovereign Russian territory laying outside of its borders) which Russia can use if it ever decided to attack the Baltic States. Although, it is extremely unlikely Putin would ever make such a bold move, it certainly plays to his advantage to have every option available to him.