Michal SZCZERBA (Poland)
21 October 2021
This report was adopted by the Economics and Security Committee at the Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Lisbon.
Following highly problematic August 2020 Belarusian Presidential elections, which many observers subsequently characterised as neither free nor fair, widespread protests swept through Belarus. That the elections came to be seen as illegitimate was hardly surprising. Alexander Lukashenko has long maintained his grip on Presidential power in Belarus, through electoral fraud and harsh repression. This time, however, the opposition rallied around a single candidate after other candidates were either jailed or exiled and the public’s sense of betrayal became palpable.
The resulting political crisis has struck a society that is also struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis, that, though linked to that pandemic, also reveals the limits of the statist and centralised model that Lukashenko has long promoted. There are clear signs that this model can no longer meet the needs and expectations of the Belarusian people, particularly as it relies heavily both on state-run enterprises and Russian subsidies, particularly on imported energy. Lukashenko has also long sought to cultivate a spirit of Soviet nostalgia in this young country. As that thoroughly archaic model falters, the opposition is now raising fundamental questions, both about the country’s identity and its future direction.
Demonstrations have continued in the face of ever-more repressive government measures. The protests have drawn support from a large swath of society, including opposition activists, students, factory workers, health workers, religious figures, collective farmers, and representatives of the state media, among others. Women have played an extraordinarily important role, both in leading the opposition movement and acting as a vanguard in these peaceful marches.
Russian President Putin views Lukashenko as a difficult partner, and there has been constant tension between the two men, particularly as the leader of Belarus has long resisted implementing an agreement on the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Indeed, the illegitimate President of Belarus has played a “cat and mouse” game with Russia, in which he has sought to reap as many benefits as possible from close bilateral collaboration, without relinquishing the levers of national power. The Kremlin, however, is now starting to call in its chits and is pushing the vulnerable Belarusian dictator to embrace what it sees as the spirit of agreements signed in the 1990s to forge a Union State. In the face of mounting domestic criticism, Lukashenko initially seemed unwilling to give in to any Russian demands that could seriously limit his grip on the country. This dynamic is now changing as Lukashenko is highly unpopular in Belarus and is increasingly compelled to cling to Russia for external support, given his mounting domestic and international isolation. For its part, the Kremlin wants a pliable partner, ultimately willing to cede critical aspects of national sovereignty to a notional greater Russian state.
The situation in Belarus escalated markedly on 22 May when the government of Belarus falsely claimed that terrorists had planted a bomb on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, ordered the crew to land when the plane entered Belarusian air space and then arrested two passengers: Roman Protasevech, a 26-year-old dissident Belarusian blogger who lives and works in Lithuania and his partner, the Russian student Sofia Sapega. This chain of events has accorded the illegitimate ruler of Belarus the status of international pariah, and his actions in this case have triggered an array of sanctions which have further isolated the government, closed Belarusian airspace to international traffic, and denied the national airline access to airports around the world.
From a position of weakness, Lukashenko is now deepening military cooperation with Russia, agreeing to a more Russian inspired military doctrine, strengthening a Russian-Belarusian regional grouping of forces, integrating its national air defence system with that of Russia and extending new basing rights to its Russian partner. If fully implemented, these developments would significantly complicate NATO’s defensive position in that part of Europe. Russian military domination of Belarus, for example, could put more Russian troops on the border with allied countries. This would gravely upset the regional military equation, complicate the task of defending those front-line states and likely require new NATO deployments to enhance deterrence under altered and more dangerous circumstances. With forces permanently deployed in Belarus, Russia would perhaps be better positioned to move units into the Kaliningrad enclave and cut off the so-called Suwalki Corridor, which constitutes the only land bridge between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO. But the two countries’ forces are increasingly operating in lockstep and Russia may already be prepared to conduct such an operation. Of course, doing so would be profoundly escalatory and so would only be contemplated in very extreme circumstances.
Even if Russia is far more likely to work through subterfuge than through direct military action, NATO needs to account for all contingencies to make deterrence credible. On the political front, Russia is now promoting an overtly pro-Russian political party in Belarus, while engaging figures who previously worked to build illegitimate quasi-state institutions in occupied Crimea and in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. It may exploit calls for democratic reforms to push Kremlin-backed political forces to the centre of the state apparatus. From there, Russia might be in a better position to call the shots, advance its ambitions to enliven the “Union State” and thereby squelch Belarusian sovereignty.