Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko last month opened the second European Games, four years after the inaugural session hosted by Azerbaijan.
Lukashenko likely thought hosting the games would be an opportunity to rally Belarusians around his leadership. Instead, his country is feeling increasingly anxious amid mounting tensions with Russia.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attendance for the closing ceremony on June 30 didn’t calm the situation.
Ever since winning the presidential election in 1994, Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist, obsessed with staying in power. He disappeared several opponents and critics in the late 1990s.
In 2006, he resorted to fraud to secure victory in the presidential election and cracked down violently against his opponents. The United States and European Union in turn slapped sanctions on him and his regime.
After Lukashenko released all the political prisoners in 2008, the West eased sanctions; they reimposed sanctions after another bad election and crackdown in 2010.
They lifted them almost entirely after the 2015 elections, which did not see a repeat of the crackdown in previous elections; this easing of sanctions also came against the backdrop of Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.
Before Putin, the doddering Boris Yeltsin was Lukashenko’s Russian counterpart, and Lukashenko was convinced he could outmanoeuvre Yeltsin.
Lukashenko thought a union treaty between Minsk and Moscow signed in December 1999 would be the path for him to run the two countries together.
Lukashenko’s plans were scuttled, however, when Putin replaced Yeltsin as Russian president. In Putin, Lukashenko found himself with a new Russian leader who had no intention of serving as second fiddle.
Putin’s pressure builds
Putin steadily pursued a more assertive policy toward Russia’s neighbours, including invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Pressure on Belarus grew as well, as Putin reduced oil subsidies and other financial support to Belarus. He convinced Lukashenko to join various regional entities – the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union – as part of an effort to establish a Russian sphere of influence.
Putin also wants to set up a military base in Belarus, which would take to another level the increasing integration of Belarusian and Russian military and security forces.
The recent report of the International Strategic Action Network for Security clearly demonstrates Putin’s “creeping assault on the sovereignty of Belarus.”
More recently, the Russia-Belarus union, dating back to 1999, is back in fashion, because formalising such an arrangement is one way for Putin to stay in power beyond his term limits as Russian president come 2024.
With his approval ratings dropping – from a high of about 85 percent following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to 66 percent this year, according to the Levada Center – Putin risks triggering blowback if he tries to abolish term limits by amending the Russian constitution.
Leading a Russia-Belarus union state might give Putin a less objectionable way of hanging on – but that would come at the expense of Belarus.
Over the 25 years he has been in power, Lukashenko has done enormous harm to Belarusian identity and independence, sacrificing whatever was necessary to maintain Kremlin backing, especially when the West applied sanctions.
As he has done on numerous occasions, Lukashenko is trying to play Russia and the West off of each other to get the best deal.
But Belarus is much more than Lukahsenko. It is home to a younger generation of Belarusians, who dream of making it a better place. They were born and raised in an independent Belarus and have no attachments to the Soviet Union.
To them, Russia is a foreign and separate state, and they don’t want to lose their independence to a union state under Kremlin pressure.
Young Belarusians live on the internet, which enables them to evade government repression, communicate with each other and organise large-scale events. They are interested in local issues as well as such things as the celebration of 100 years of Belarusian independence when the country emerged from the ruins of the Russian Empire.
These young people love their country, for it is the only home they know.
Putin’s cyber-warriors have been bombarding Belarus with propaganda claiming Belarus is not a real nation. Russian media used to describe Belarus as a “brotherly nation,” but more recently, Kremlin spin-doctors peddle the notion that Belarusian language, culture, history, and very existence are fake.
This Kremlin-backed approach is not working, however. Belarusian media activists have turned out to be resilient. They have refused to sell off their social media accounts, websites, and local public pages to customers from the east.
They have come to understand that they represent the final frontier for their country. Young Belarusians are taking a stand against Putin’s expansionist tendencies and authoritarianism at home, which has brought them to the edge of crisis.
Like Ukrainians and Georgians, who are fighting for their independence and territorial integrity, the people of Belarus are doing the same.
The younger generation of Belarusians refuses to allow their country’s sovereignty to be traded away in any geopolitical machinations. They are the ones who deserve Western support, not the regime in Minsk.
Indeed, the US and EU should find better ways to support Belarusian civil society and independent media more broadly.
A country of 9.5 million people standing between the European Union and Russia, Belarus matters; it is a key part of fulfilling the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.
And yet it finds itself in its current predicament because of Putin’s revanchist policies and because Lukashenko has left his country vulnerable and exposed by protecting his personal interests, not his country’s.
For the West, boosting Lukashenko is not the answer but standing up for Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity is by making clear to Putin now the costs of any untoward move against Belarus.
Belarus may be hosting the European Games, but Putin is not playing games when it comes to Belarus’ independence. The West needs to get serious as well.
This article is also available on euobserver.com.
Vlad Kobets is executive director of the International Strategic Action Network for Security(ISANS).
David J. Kramer is senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy and director of European and Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Green School of International & Public Affairs, and a former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; he is author of Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime.