Sunday 23 September 2018 | 14:56

In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine?

10.03.2017  |  Politics   |  Sabra Ayres, Los Angeles Times,  
In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine? Photo by Maksim Guchek / Pool Photo

The relationship between Russia and Belarus has never been an easy one.

The two former Soviet republics have spent the last two decades on a roller coaster ride — sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries in heated public rows.

Now, as Russia’s neighbors grow increasingly worried about Moscow’s ambitions in the region, Belarus has joined them: The country’s ever-more-tenuous relationship with Moscow has deteriorated to the point of a regional crisis.

The situation echoes the tensions over Ukraine in 2014, when a mass protest movement ousted a Kremlin-friendly president, setting the stage for a Russian invasion and seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine’s nearly three-year war with Russian-backed separatist fighters in the east has killed 10,000 and displaced 1.75 million.

Previous disputes between the two countries have followed a predictable pattern that includes oil and gas price wars, public accusations, anti-Belarusan information campaigns from Moscow, and eventually a resolution, said Andrei Yahorau, the director of Center for European Transformation, a regional think tank in Minsk.

This time, though, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing signs that he is less likely to negotiate.

“What’s different about this crisis is Ukraine, Crimea and the so-called new Cold War,” Yahorau said.

The stakes are now higher.

At the heart of the feud is the status of what is quietly referred to here as the “oil for kisses” deal, in which Russia supplies Belarus with subsidized oil and gas in exchange for Minsk’s loyalty.

When Russia in 2015 refused to lower its gas prices to reflect a decrease in global oil prices, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko began exploring closer relations with the West.

Lukashenko has refused so far to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Last year, he said no to a Kremlin proposal to build a Russian air base in eastern Belarus.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this former Soviet republic with an authoritarian grip for 22 years, bowed to Western pressure in 2015 to release six prominent political prisoners, and ushered in a period of “softening” against political dissent and public gatherings. This earned him cautious praise from Western governments, which subsequently lifted sanctions on Belarus.

With Russia’s economy in decline because of lower oil prices and its own Western sanctions placed after the Crimean annexation, Lukashenko in 2016 turned for help elsewhere, entering loan talks with the International Monetary Fund.

In Moscow, such moves were seen as a betrayal from a country long perceived as a brotherly neighbor, and one heavily subsidized by the Kremlin budget.

Throughout the current crisis, Russian media have been ratcheting up what some say is a Kremlin-orchestrated information war.

Nina Stuzhinskaya, a Belarusan historian from Minsk, said the information campaign is designed to fuel the crisis and spark fears among the Russian public that Belarus is looking to follow Ukraine into an alliance with the West.

In November, Stuzhinskaya appeared as a guest on “Time Will Tell,” a popular, live evening talk show on Russian state-owned television.

The show began with a discussion about how Russia had failed to react quickly enough to stop Ukraine’s betrayal of Moscow during the protests of 2014. The host, Artyom Sheynin, then turned to Belarus, introducing it as a country suffering from a “similar sickness.”

Surrounding the subsequent conversation, Stuzhinskaya said, seemed to be an underlying question of whether Belarus had a right to call itself a separate nation from Russia.

“I went into that show like it was a boxing ring, and I came out feeling like I was the punching bag,” she said.

Already, Russia has shown signs that the Kremlin is willing to react more harshly than in the past.

Russia has banned some Belarusan meat, dairy and other agricultural products, diminishing Minsk’s exports, of which 40% go to Russia. The Kremlin has reduced crude oil shipments to Belarus, hurting another important sector of Belarus’ economy. State-run enterprises refine Russian oil and then sell it abroad.

In January, Minsk announced that it would introduce visa-free travel for tourists from more than 80 countries. Russia responded by moving troops from the Federal Security Services, the successor to the KGB, to the shared border, which had previously stood relatively unchecked.

“What the Lukashenko administration doesn’t accept yet is that the Kremlin is only giving ultimatums now,” said Andrei Porotnikov, a security analyst with the Belarus Security Blog. “Things aren’t going to be resolved in the same way they previously were.”

In recent weeks, public protests have sprung up in Minsk and a few regional cities against an unpopular law instituting a yearly flat tax on the unemployed. So far, the protests have been small, and authorities have not cracked down on demonstrators, a rarity in Lukashenko’s tightly controlled Belarus.

Still, Belarusans are wary of their unpredictable neighbor to the east, who some fear could use the public unrest as a pretext for Russian intervention. Speculation about a possible Crimea-like annexation occurring in Belarus, thus far without foundation, is sparking uneasiness around the country.

When Stuzhinskaya returned to Minsk after the Moscow talk show, her friend picked her up at the airport and said she had seen the show. It’s a good thing Belarus won’t be going the way of Crimea, Stuzhinskaya later recalled her saying on the car ride back to her private house on the outskirts of Minsk.

“I told her, ‘You know what? In Russia’s eyes, we are exactly like Crimea. And that’s what’s so worrying,’” Stuzhinskaya said.

Los Angeles Times

Other news section «Politics»

Statement of the BNP in connection with the wave of searches in the editorial offices of the Belarus
Statement of the BNP in connection with the wave of searches in the editorial offices of the Belarus
The Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF issued a statement in connection with the wave of searches in the editorial offices of the Belarusan media and the detention of journalists.
Statement of the Belarusan EaP CSF National Platform on solidarity with the civil society of Armenia
Statement of the Belarusan EaP CSF National Platform on solidarity with the civil society of Armenia
The Belarusan National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued a statement on solidarity with the civil society of Armenia.
"Vilnius Consultations": Key points and recommendations on the future of EU Eastern Partnership
"Vilnius Consultations": Key points and recommendations on the future of EU Eastern Partnership
On September 11, the inaugural „Vilnius Consultations“ conference was organized by Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
From farewell to a new Eastern policy and towards a new development
From farewell to a new Eastern policy and towards a new development
Poland and Germany were both initiators and drivers of a New Eastern policy linked to the Eastern neighborhood and Russia/Soviet Union.
Uladzimir Matskevich: The sooner the "Union State" is denounced, the better for Belarus
Uladzimir Matskevich: The sooner the "Union State" is denounced, the better for Belarus
Not only does the "Union State" undermine the establishment of civilized relations with Europe, but it hinders the possibility of normal relations between Belarus and Russia.
Uladzimir Matskevich: The regime can no longer control the situation in the country
Uladzimir Matskevich: The regime can no longer control the situation in the country
The authorities are unable to prolong the social contract with the people: there is no way out of the social crisis.
Press release in connection with the dialogue in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group
Press release in connection with the dialogue in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group
Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF welcomes the dialogue process in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group, the third round of which was held in Minsk on 3-4 April 2017.
Statement of the BNP in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan
Statement of the BNP in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan
Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF issued a statement in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan cities.
Statement by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum on mass repressions in Belarus
Statement by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum on mass repressions in Belarus
The EaP CSF Steering Committee issued a statement on repressions against civil society activists and journalists in Belarus, in view of the demonstrations planned on 25 March 2017.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Belarus-Ukraine relations need to be re-established
Uladzimir Matskevich: Belarus-Ukraine relations need to be re-established
"Case of Zhadan" demonstrated that Belarus does not actually have a clear policy - neither domestic nor foreign.
Belarus
Belarus's Lukashenko alleges “fifth column” plot as unrest continues
Belarusan President Lukashenko said on Tuesday a “fifth column” was plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, days before a planned street protest in Minsk against a new tax.
In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine?
In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine?
The relationship between Russia and Belarus has never been an easy one.
Andrei Yahorau: European window of opportunity is slowly closing, relations take form of fatigue
Andrei Yahorau: European window of opportunity is slowly closing, relations take form of fatigue
The Belarusian regime is not able to pursue a truly multi-vector policy, and the EU cannot decide what it needs in the region on the whole and from Belarus in particular.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Today Belarus is in a very difficult situation
Uladzimir Matskevich: Today Belarus is in a very difficult situation
But even under the circumstances the authorities have various ways out.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Lukashenka does not disrupt Russian plans to annex Belarus
Uladzimir Matskevich: Lukashenka does not disrupt Russian plans to annex Belarus
But Lukashenka is afraid for his fate and position - he needs Belarus to be sovereign to fully exercise his power.
Andrei Yeliseyeu: Russia is taking drastic unconstructive steps  
Andrei Yeliseyeu: Russia is taking drastic unconstructive steps  
There should be no actual passport control for the Belarusians arriving in Russia within the framework of the existing Belarusian-Russian agreements.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Visa-free regime is not a political concession to the West
Uladzimir Matskevich: Visa-free regime is not a political concession to the West
It is a process of normalization of Belarus-EU relations. Belarus just fulfils its international commitments.
Andrei Yahorau: Belarusian regime is self-improving, the only threat so far is the economy crisis
Andrei Yahorau: Belarusian regime is self-improving, the only threat so far is the economy crisis
Political analyst emphasizes that Belarus is the first modern authoritarianism in the European space, a phenomenon not yet studied by anyone.
Andrei Parotnikau: Russia will return to the issue of an air base in Belarus
Andrei Parotnikau: Russia will return to the issue of an air base in Belarus
However the military base is only image-building for the Kremlin and has no practical use.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Antibelarusian mood in Russia is a part of a trend, it will continue to grow
Uladzimir Matskevich: Antibelarusian mood in Russia is a part of a trend, it will continue to grow
So far the information attacks at Belarus may not be a thought out campaign, but they correspond to the "general policy of the Kremlin."
Gintautas Mažeikis: The relation of political field and arena in the framework of information war

In his report, philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis discusses several concepts that have been a part of the European social and philosophical thought for quite a time.

"Vilnius Consultations": Key points and recommendations on the future of EU Eastern Partnership

On September 11, the inaugural „Vilnius Consultations“ conference was organized by Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Belarus's Lukashenko alleges “fifth column” plot as unrest continues

Belarusan President Lukashenko said on Tuesday a “fifth column” was plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, days before a planned street protest in Minsk against a new tax.

The real work of the Convention depends on all interested communities and organizations

What results has the campaign "Agenda 50" given, what helps to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the regions?