By Nikola Mikovic
Belarus, a landlocked nation in Eastern Europe, firmly stands in Russia’s geopolitical orbit. The Western sanctions against Minsk – imposed following the crackdown on mass protests in the summer of 2020, as well as the recent controversial arrest of a prominent dissident Roman Protasevich – have effectively ended the country’s “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Ever since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, Belarus developed strong political, economic and cultural ties with the Russian Federation. That, however, does not mean that relations between Minks and Moscow were always ideal. Over the years, Lukashenko was successfully balancing between Russia and the West. The Kremlin has been providing cheap energy to its ally, and subsidizing the Belarusian Soviet style-economy for decades. Indeed, Minsk benefited from such a policy, although the two countries had numerous energy disputes. Whenever Lukashenko wanted to get better gas and oil deals with the Kremlin, he threatened to turn Belarus westward. He often had a strong anti-Russian rhetoric, but always carefully avoided crossing Russia’s “red lines”. Now that the West again sees the Belarusian leader as “Europe’s last dictator”, his room for political maneuver is rather limited.
Lukashenko can no longer insist that Minsk’s integrations into the Russia – Belarus Union State must be “based on equality”. Such a policy was absurd in the first place, given that Russia is 82 times larger than Belarus, and has far greater economic and military strength than its ally. “The new reality” has already forced Lukashenko to agree on Russia’s terms and conditions regarding the energy price for Belarus. In the foreseeable future, he will likely have to make additional concessions to the Kremlin, primarily in the field of economy. Still, even though the embattled Belarusian President will likely keep playing “the Russian card”, that does not mean that he will not preserve some form of autonomy at home. For instance, the pro-Russian party Soyuz was recently denied registration in Belarus, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to create a parliamentary political system in the former Soviet republic, where political parties still have a fairly symbolic role. Thus, the influence of Russia on domestic politics in Belarus remains very limited.
On the other hand, the two countries intensified their military cooperation, and Minsk had started transiting its oil products through Russian seaports, after having withdrawn from the more profitable ports in the Baltic states, notably in Lithuania. Moreover, Belarus expelled all Latvian diplomatic and administrative staff from the embassy in Minsk, after the mayor of Latvia’s capital Riga – where the Ice Hockey World Championship is taking place – substituted the official red and green Belarusian flag outside the arena with the red and white banner used by the opposition. He did so after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, to land in Minsk in order to detain Roman Protasevich, the 26 year old co-founder of Warsaw-based Nexta TV – the most important Belarusian Telegram channel. This incident triggered the Western sanctions on Minsk. An air embargo was imposed, and all Belarusian airlines are not allowed to use the European Union’s airspace and airports, and major European airlines have already suspended their flights to Minsk.
To this day, Belarus has not responded to the EU sanctions, although Minsk reportedly prepares set of measures in response to the Western actions. According to the country’s Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, a large number of foreign companies operating in Belarus can lose the market of the former Soviet republic.
“Of course, we will have to move away from Western goods, from Western technologies. We know what to replace them with, we know the suppliers, and we are ready to refocus. China alone can replace 90 percent of European and American technologies. We are also talking about Russian technologies, which have been actively developing,” said Roman Golovchenko.
Such actions, at least at this point, do not seem very probable. The EU is Belarus’ second main trade partner, representing 18 percent of the country’s overall trade in goods, reaching almost €11 billion in 2019. Thus, from the economic perspective, breaking ties with the European Union would have an extremely negative impact on the Belarusian economy that already heavily depends on the Russian loans. However, there are reports suggesting that Lukashenko found a way to indirectly respond to the EU sanctions. He recently promised to “punish the EU” by not stopping drug trafficking and illegal migrants
“We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves”, Lukashenko said.
According to reports, in 2021, about 160 people, mostly Iraqis, have entered Lithuania from Belarus — three times more than in all of 2020. There are fears in the EU that Lukashenko could play the same role as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – to use refugees as pawns to blackmail Brussels. Indeed, over the past few years a significant number of citizens of the Russian North Caucasus republic of Chechnya arrived to Belarus hoping to get asylum in the European Union. Thus, Lukashenko certainly has plenty of options he can use to prevent the West from imposing new, more severe sanctions on Minks. It remains unclear, though, if Russia would approve such actions, especially if its President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Joe Biden reach a wider geopolitical deal during the upcoming summit in Switzerland.