Settling up with Putin 

Settling up with Putin
Photo: Reuters

Lukashenka himself led Belarus into the trap of «deep integration.» Let us set aside the complex topic of operations of influence on the closest neighbor, carried out within the framework of establishing control over the territories of the former USSR, and see what triggered the catastrophe with which we are now dealing.

The bureaucratic routine of the «union state» quietly smoldered, not attracting much attention against the background of other large-scale events in Eurasia, until in 2013 the Russian Ministry of Finance decided to execute a «tax scheme.» Because of this, Siluanov said, the Russian budget will receive 7 trillion rubles. Since the maneuver affected the interests of everyone in the oil industry, there was a lot of discussion, with Ulyukaev and Dvorkovich speaking out against the move. Now one of these is in prison while the other has gone to play a game of intrigue while Russian oil experts wrote carefully about the consequences of the scheme.

The tax scheme began to be implemented in 2015. In May 2018, the newspaper Vedomosti wrote, «After more than two years of disputes between oil representatives and the Ministry of Finance, the oil and gas tax scheme will be completed. This decision was made at the end of April by Russian President Vladimir Putin

Who would have guessed that the persistence of the Russian Ministry of Finance would lead to a large-scale political catastrophe in Eastern Europe, comparable only to the annexation of Crimea?

Having initiated a battle over compensation for losses, estimated at $1 billion over five years by the Belarusian authorities, Moscow and Minsk destroyed everything they could, with the «union state» turning from a beneficial custom for political pensioners of both countries into a difficult problem.

In the summer and fall of 2018, Lukashenka began to forcefully demand the compensation that «Siluanov promised,» in response to which in December 2018, Medvedev sharply stated that there would be «no compensation without full integration.» In January, the Kremlin unleashed its media, and they hung on Lukashenka for a whole year like hunting dogs on a bear. For a year, Russian public speakers discussed the «takeover of Belarus» in the most cynical detail. Lukashenka met with Putin six times during 2019, and for the seventh in February 2020. And he left with nothing. As a result, Lukashenka was driven to a deep neurosis and panic and he entered the presidential campaign completely disoriented. Every bush in the dark looks like a beast of prey. Now it is incredibly interesting to re-read commentary by Belarusian experts from the first half of 2020. Karbalevich, with his typical caution, commented on Pompeo’s visit (February 2020): «Belarus’s foreign policy has been gradually changing since 2014, taking on the role of a regional peacemaker in not supporting Russia in its conflict with Ukraine while the West remained neutral. Following the energy conflict with Russia, its distance from Russia will increase…» In May, the Belarusian expert community actively discussed whether Lukashenka would be able to conduct the election campaign as it was done in 2015 – that is, quietly – or like in 2010 – loudly and with arrests.

In mid-June 2020, headlines like the following appeared: «Presidential elections in Belarus are not at all going according to Lukashenka’s plan.» Lukashenka found himself in the center of a loud chorus of voices made up of his own staff, Belarusian experts, Kyiv media, Moscow media, and, likely, the Russian and Belarusian special services. At the start of the campaign, they were whispering into his ears that Putin was betting on his defeat in the elections and that the other candidates represented «the hand of Moscow.» Even though six months after the disaster, no convincing evidence was found of the «hand of Moscow» in the nomination of Tsikhanouski, Tsapkala, and Babaryka, and then in the alliance of the «three sisters,» Lukashenka, in a state of panic, arrested the «Wagnerites,» brashly insulted Putin in an interview with Gordon, and said that Shoygu also believes that the Kremlin’s moves on Ukraine were «too much.»

Lukashenka spent the entire campaign eliminating the «Russian factor,» believing that he was fighting not with Babariko in the elections, but directly with Putin.

On July 14, the CEC did not register Tsapkala or Babaryka, leaving only Tsikhanouskaya. Lukashenka was sure that he was safe, which was a huge mistake. On July 16, the opposition campaigns united around Tsikhanouskaya and Lukashenka completely lost control over the situation. The conflict over the tax scheme in the oil sector (December 2018 — February 2020) ended with Lukashenka being driven into the Kremlin’s trap.

In hindsight, we can say that he fell victim to a sinister special operation by the Kremlin’s political managers, or even a «reflexive war,» as Arseny Sivitsky calls it. It is possible, as Moscow and Minsk are doing now, to convince their own citizens that all this is the result of an insidious conspiracy between Poland and Lithuania. And the Belarusian KGB can convince Lukashenka that this is the result of the treacherous game by the SBU. However, the fact is that having entered a long-term habit of bargaining with the Kremlin over $1 billion in losses from the «tax scheme,» Lukashenka, through a series of missteps, reached a situation where not only the entire «union state» turned into a mess, but the whole concept of the «Switzerland of Eastern Europe,» which he enthusiastically talked about during the visit of the Swiss Foreign Minister to Minsk in February 2020, collapsed.

Although the rhetoric around the «union state» and «road maps» continues ritualistically, it is already clear that Lukashenka is in the routine of «settling up for support.» With the suppression of six months of protests he has paid off Putin with Ust-Luga and publicly rejected the concept of neutrality. He has not, however, pulled his bear’s paw out of the Kremlin trap. He has created a political catastrophe not only in Belarus, but for the whole of Europe. The result of 2020 was that instead of the traditional format of the “union state” and national unity of the border regions of Russia and Belarus in the style of a pioneer camp, a new monster was formed – two states under sanctions that went far beyond the lines of the broadest interpretation of the rule of law, human rights, and democracy. Putin was magnified by Lukashenka, and Lukashenka by Putin. Minsk suddenly disappeared from the Minsk agreements. NATO’s defense doctrine for the eastern flank needs to be revised. The European Union, which has already breathed a sigh of relief after the lifting of sanctions in 2016, now looks with horror at the fact that Lukashenka committed so much violence and repression during the suppression of protests that he completely lost any opportunity to maneuver in the direction of the West. Putin plunged into the depths of the sea in his bathyscaphe and Lukashenka clung tightly to him along with his surfboard.

National Unity Day is celebrated on April 2 this year with a feeling of deep mourning. Undoubtedly, part of Russian society deeply sympathizes with the Belarusians, who are sinking together with the Kremlin to an indefinite bottom. However, this sympathy has no political projection. Certainly, part of the Belarusian society hoped that Putin would help get rid of Lukashenka. This hope, however, was not based on anything. There is no doubt that European Union countries have kept themselves at a celestial distance from the 2020 elections. However, this did not help Lukashenka at all to preserve his imaginary «Eastern European Switzerland.»

On the contrary, because of the political catastrophe, a more intense military alliance is being formed between Minsk and Moscow on top of the Union State. Regarding this, hawks in Moscow are happy to say that their dreams have come true because they are coming directly into contact with NATO in Poland. «From there we will threaten the Swedes!»

In raising a toast to the friendship of the Belarusian and Russian peoples on April 2, 2021, we can say only one thing: Lukashenka is crushing Belarusian society, destroying this modern Eastern European people of 10 million that has the excellent potential for development, by tying them to Putin’s wicked autocracy. Lukashenka is condemning Belarus to pay a monstrous price that is much higher than the $1 billion in losses on the «tax scheme» with which this whole story began.

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