MAREK JAN CHODAKIEWICZ | THE WEICHERT REPORT
It is tough being a strongman dictator. One must always remain unflappable in order to maintain your iron grip on absolute power, while still playing the domestic and international game accordingly. No single misstep is allowed. Thus, “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko, has had his plate full. Lately, he had to deal with a bout of demonstrations against taxation.
Introduced in April 2015, “the parasite tax” imposes a $240 fine on anybody who remains unemployed more than six months at a stretch. Much like the Obamacare penalty for the uninsured, the tax is intended to raise funds for health and social insurance costs. Its implementation in February 2017 prompted a mass protest in a dozen places from Mołodeczno, Brest, and Pinsk through Minsk to Orsha and Babruisk. There was even a concurrent sit-in at Kuropaty, a mass graveyard of Stalin’s victims near Minsk, to object to its threatened desecration by developers with ties to the regime. But mostly people objected to the new taxes for economic reasons.
The measure targeted in particular Belarusians working abroad and those employed in temporary jobs or small private businesses. Also, the “parasite tax” seems to have been the final straw reflecting the abysmal state of the economy of Belarus and widespread penury of the population. The 1990s social contract of “a vodka shot and a bacon bite” (чарка і шкварка) in exchange for stability and order would no longer do.
Previous unrest, the so-called “silent protest” of 2011, when the people gathered weekly at city squares to clap hands, also occurred for economic reasons. The regime devalued the currency by over half. Rather brutal repression followed. For instance, clapping became a serious legal offense. Soon, the protests fizzled out. They were also mostly limited to Minsk. The newest wave of demonstrations have attracted hundreds of participants each–not only in the capital, but also in provincial cities. The numbers involved-–large by passive Belarusian standards–-made them quite respectable. Lukashenko correctly judged them a threat. A carrot and stick approach followed.
The dictator first devolved the responsibility for the tax onto local officials who were told to grant exemptions to some. Since this measure failed to clear the streets, in March 2017 the Minsk supremo suspended the collection of the tax for a year. He also met with Iosif Siaredzič, the editor in chief of the dissident paper Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). As the demonstrations persisted, at the same stroke, Lukashenko arrested the ringleaders of the protest and intimidated their followers. Perhaps 900 people were seized throughout Belarus. The bulk were promptly released. About 200 of them were held, but some of them were subsequently let go. The rest received rather mild fines or detention sentences, not exceeding two weeks.
More seriously, however, 27 suspects allegedly connected to the émigré anti-post-Communist White Legion outfit were caught and put on trial for attempting to overthrow the government. The KGB reportedly found arms caches and prevented violent action in the nick of time. A leading American expert on non-Russian, post-Soviet nationalities, Paul Goble, suggests a Russian provocation; he plausibly suspects in particular that Moscow’s agents are impersonating “Belarusian” ultranationalists to stoke the fires of radicalism and compromise non-violent resistance against the dictatorship (as well as, perhaps, provide a pretext for the Kremlin’s intervention in Belarus) . The suspects stand accused of fof being agents of the United States, Poland, and even Ukraine. After this move by Lukashenko, the streets predictably emptied of all protesters. Order now reigns in Minsk.
Does this mean Lukashenko’s liberalization is over? Not necessarily.
Lukashenko’s response to the opposition was rather mild because, first, there is not much of an opposition; second, the dissidents lack a mass following among the atomized, post-Soviet population; and third, most importantly, Lukashenko at the moment treads very carefully to cultivate good relations with the West. He did that before between 2008 and 2010, ending with the clapping protests of 2011.
But now there is more at stake.
In 2015 and 2016, the dictator released political prisoners; substituted arbitrary arrests of dissidents with mandatory fines; staged a nonviolent “democratic” election which reconfirmed the strongman as president; and – for the first time in 20 years – appointed two female dissident activists, Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim, to the rubber stamp parliament.
As a result, the European Union lifted virtually all the sanctions that had been imposed in 2004. No freedom ensued, naturally, but the secret police ceased treating a peaceful assembly as an act of terrorism, which had been the case, say, in 2006. The tradeoff is obvious: economic relations with the West improve the living standards in Belarus; Western investment creates jobs. Lukashenko is not ready at the moment for a full-fledged crack-down and a violent anti-EU and anti-US backlash. It is not yet necessary.
Between Repression and Liberalization
Generally, the strongman shifts between repression and liberalization at home. Abroad, he alternatively either cozies up to or recoils from the great powers, while playing a variety of unilateral games with the post-Soviet successor states. That requires Lukashenka to be impressively flexible. Lukashenko’s dialectical skills as a Marxist-Leninist, sans ideology, is very helpful in this endeavor. This makes him a skilled post-Communist. Lukashenko is ruthlessly pragmatic: his is an integrated strategy for ruling Belarus and implementing Belarusian foreign policy. Also, Lukashenko’s strongman rule dictates the direction of his dance (or alternance, to borrow a term from the old Kremlinology vocabulary).
In fact, alternance was key to understanding the Soviet Union’s maneuvers during the Cold War. When the USSR wanted to reform itself, it played nice with the West to pacify it and, thus, acquire a free hand at home. A dictatorship is at its most vulnerable when it endeavors to fix its problems. The Kremlin therefore preached détente internationally and “liberalized” domestically to attract Western know-how and credit. When the Bolshevik Politburo obtained what it wanted, it would build up its military strength, crack down on the people, and face off with the West again (all the while it preached “peace,” “freedom,” and “democracy”). This repeated itself ad nauseam, at least until the implosion of the Evil Empire in 1992.
The old ways do not die. They mutate. For instance, North Korea pursues the alternance trick until this very day. Belarus also knows the game well, as its master is an old KGB border guard and a shrewd apparatchik. His hapless nation is relatively small, demographically unimpressive, and devoid of strategic resources. His people tend to lack a firm sense of national identity; Belarusian ethnicity and language play a second fiddle to a post-Soviet mentality and the Russian language. The dictatorship officially endorses the latter construct. Meanwhile, the opposition (democratic and otherwise), is quite feeble. There are no native oligarchs, for the strongman brokers no competition.
Initially, Lukashenko’s appetite was not Minsk but Moscow. He wanted to use Belarus as a springboard to the Kremlin. Already by 1994, before Vladimir Putin, he pioneered what later became known as “a sovereign democracy” in Russia. In fact, he copied the Central Asian model of the post-Soviet republics to maintain control of his realm. The strongman then championed a union between Belarus and Russia. He endeavored to impose “sovereign democracy” on Moscow by osmosis. This was his road map to the Kremlin. Of course, the bid failed. And, once Putin seized power and asserted himself, Lukashenko ceased talking of liquidating Belarus as a separate state. Minsk, once Lukashenko’s means to acquiring power in Moscow, became the end goal of Lukashenko’s bid for ultimate power in the region.
Wooing East and West
Domestically, the lord of Minsk has been able so far to neutralize all threats to his regime. Internationally, however, his position is much more precarious. Thus, he suavely uses the weapon of the weak: diplomacy. Through diplomacy, Lukashenko endeavors to weasel into an international security system that would allow him to stay in power without any unnecessary (in his view) democratic reforms. To remain on top, he has had to perform cyclical contortions, the alternance dance.
The strongman alternatively woos or rejects the same set of major suitors: Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union. He further flirts giddily with a bevy of lesser partners, including Lithuania, Poland, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and others. But, he alternates batting his eyelashes at them with an occasional cold shoulder. Lukashenko is, therefore, the ultimate tease: tantalizing his quarries and then pushing them away, leaving them wanting more (or so he hopes).
For instance, when Russia increased energy prices for Belarus in January 2017, the latter turned to Azerbaijan and Iran to buy oil and gas. To grease the skids, prior to the Azeri deal, Minsk arrested and deported to Baku an Israeli-Russian blogger who had posted articles critical of the Azeri regime. Lukashenko used a Polish company to handle the Iranian delivery. He further touts his plan to expand the south-north Odessa-Brody-Mozyr pipeline to Adamowo. The plan would greatly benefit Poland in its quest for energy independence from Russia. Thus, at one stroke, the Belarusian dictator put together an energy alliance autonomously from the Kremlin.
With the great powers, Belarus utters a variety of noises and executes a plethora of shrewd moves, depending on the circumstances, to get its way. The case of Russian-Belarusian relations is quite instructive. When, to counter the Western sanctions imposed upon them beginning in 2014, Russia starts to enforce border controls too stringently, it stems the flow eastwards of mostly Polish goods repackaged surreptitiously as “Belarusian.” The Lukashenko regime retaliates invariably by complaining loudly of the violation of free trade principles and the losses sustained by Belarus because of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its occupation of Crimea.
Further, to spite Russia, Belarus turns to China. Minsk sells itself to Beijing as a springboard to the European Union. It helps the Chinese establish joint ventures to sell cheap products westwards. Simultaneously, it also solicits Chinese infrastructural investments and purchases of Belarusian raw materials and semi-finished products, in particular in forest and food processing industries.
Its tactics somewhat resemble the method used by Third World satrapies to milk both the USSR and the US during the Cold War. These Third World regimes deftly maneuvered between both Washington and Moscow. For instance, if Washington did not give them what they wanted, they would simply turn to Moscow (or, to a lesser extent, Beijing) which gladly obliged.
There are usually strings attached, however, when dealing with the West. One must pay lip service to human rights. Until recently, Belarus has pursued a policy of rapprochement with the West. Minsk has been in the “liberal” mode. It has cozied up to the EU. It released political prisoners, and it eased up its persecution of dissidents. Lukashenko even eliminated visas for Westerners, including the Americans, along with 79 other nations. Now we can enjoy Belarus for 5 days, bureaucratic hassle-free (so long as we fly through Minsk in business class)!
Was that move coordinated to remove, or at least ease up, the bitter aftertaste of the Minsk government’s somewhat thuggish crack down on the anti-tax protesters? Probably so.
A Game With Moscow
Yes, Lukashenko is quite skilled. Yet, his international position continues to be very fragile. The strongman lacks nuclear weapons. He dares not take on his NATO neighbors to the west. And he realizes the looming threat of Russia. Putin remembers well Lukashenko’s imperial pretensions and treats him in a rather patronizing manner. The Russian desires to re-integrate the post-Soviet sphere, and Belarus is definitely on the list.
The scenario of absorption is not set yet. An outright invasion is the least likely option to occur. Patient infiltration and enfeeblement through subversion are on the table at the moment. “Tin can” GRU officers and their “little green men” may come into play later. Perhaps a regime change is more feasible than an annexation. But indirect control should suffice for now. A neutral, undemocratic, and rather pro-Russian Belarus can be allowed to vegetate on the fringe of the empire for now. Meanwhile, Lukashenko gets to play his games, even if they annoy Putin.
Take the case of the Russian military bases in Belarus. In 2013, Lukashenko agreed enthusiastically to welcome the permanent presence of Russian troops in his country. They were going to use the pre-World War II Polish garrison of Baranowicze (Baranovichi) as an air force base. But now the dictator claimed to have changed his mind. The Russian Air Force was no longer welcome in Baranovichi. Never mind, retorted Putin. Russia could put its base in Orsha or Bobruisk. Lukashenko shot back that he wanted Russia’s equipment and not her troops. Accordingly, Moscow has agreed to equip Minsk with twelve Su-30 military jets.
Then, out of the blue, Lukashenko startled most observers by issuing a statement in support of “fighting fraternal Ukraine.” This came straight on the heels of Minsk’s refusal to recognize the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation. The dictator mockingly invoked the medieval Mongol invasion of the lands of Ruthenia as a current justification for the Russian Federation’s ceding its territory to contemporary Mongolia. Moreover, reportedly, there are also deep purges of pro-Muscovite element in Minsk’s security apparatus. Lukashenko has mobilized his military reservists and staged maneuvers. He has vowed to defend Belarus from any outside aggression. And, truthfully, the threat of invasion can only come from the east.
Putin has come to dislike Lukashenko’s newfound uppityness. To add insult to injury, at a Eurasia Economic Union (EEC) summit at Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Belarusian prime minister Andrey Kabyakou criticized Russia for failing to integrate properly in the Eurasian system and for increasing the energy prices for Belarus by 110% over a previous year. Minsk earns serious hard currency revenue by refining oil products for foreign markets. But its state owned companies can only compete in world markets if subsidized energy prices continue from Moscow.
Regime change in Minsk?
The regime of Belarus trumpets any concession from Moscow with great triumph. The Kremlin does not mind supplying a token force to throw Lukashenko a bone. Serious compliance requires serious energy subsidies, however. Putin giveth and he taketh away in his own bouts of alternance. He also keeps all options open. For all its posturing, Lukashenko has not cancelled massive Zapad military exercises that will see tens of thousands of Russian troops on Belarusian soil. Neither has Minsk reneged on its cooperation in Moscow’s vaunted Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) system. Belarus plays an actively crucial role in Russia’s plan to sever the Baltic States from its NATO branch by attacking Poland through the Suwałki Gap.
Strategically, Belarus remains a major ally of the Russian Federation. Lukashenko may be beating the patriotic drum of “national sovereignty,” but it pretty much sounds like Lenin and Stalin’s national Bolshevism. The Communists routinely invoked Russian nationalism to mobilize the masses to defend their regime. As noted above, Lukashenko emulates them perfectly. However, that does not mean that he is ready to take on Putin.
Why would he?
The master of the Kremlin is the best guarantor of the Minsk satrap’s throne. Belarus is his sphere of influence, but not his puppet. The West would quite naturally like to get rid of the petty dictator as soon as possible, even if it cringes while supporting him in a mold of some latter day Tito. Lukashenko knows the ropes. Moscow is better for him than anyone else. Putin is ruthless and will only aid Lukashenko for as long as it serves his purpose. Meanwhile, Russia maintains–nay, ever so imperceptibly increases–its influence with its western neighbor. The threat of a regime change in Minsk is always a possibility. But, like in Kyiv, Moscow is unlikely to move seriously unless the post-Communist regime of Belarus is threatened by a local mutation of a Maidan revolt.
Many Western observers and émigrés got very excited about the latest bout of the anti-government demonstrations in Belarus. Move on, folks. Sadly, there is not really anything to see anymore. The West still smarts from the debacle in Ukraine; it has no plans for a regime change in Minsk. Moscow does, but we do not know when it will act on them. For now, there will be no major change without a grassroots Belarusian push for regime change (and Western support for it). But that will most likely trigger a fierce Russian reaction. Perhaps then a regime change in Moscow is the key to the stability of the Intermarium, the lands between the Baltic and Black seas, including Belarus. For the moment, Lukashenko is firmly in control in Minsk, showing off his alternance skills.
Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is the Kościuszko Chair at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. where he conducts research on East Central Europe and Russia. His expert areas include History, Democracy Building, Communism, American Foreign Policy and International Relations. His most recent book is “Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas” was published in 2012 by Transaction Publishers.