The Lukashenko Method: How Long Can Belarus Keep Teasing The Russian Bear?
The regime in Belarus bet on a rapid Russian victory in Ukraine. But after a year of war, the armed forces of Belarus still haven't been ordered to attack. Why? Ukrainian publication Livy Bereg looks at Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's cunning game — and how much longer it can go on.
KYIV — When it comes to his Russian neighbor, Alexander Lukashenko appears to be a walking contradiction: he is a firm supporter of the war in Ukraine, and yet continues to stand by his decision not to send troops.
And yet such an apparent anomaly is nothing new for the Belarus strongman: political scientists had already dubbed his leadership style "adaptive authoritarianism," whereby ruling elites in Minsk use opportunistic and pragmatic strategies to maintain power over time.
This has largely succeeded since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, despite long-term predictions of the president’s imminent demise. Maneuvering between the EU and Russia and putting his eggs in different baskets, Lukashenko has managed not only to run the country like a collective farm, as some observers sometimes dismissively describe it, but also to adapt skillfully to new challenges.
The first sanctions against Belarus were imposed in 1996, in response to a fraudulent referendum that expanded presidential powers. But the EU lifted sanctions by 1999. The president, whose legitimacy was not recognized, released political prisoners, allowing relations between Belarus and Europe to warm.
Over the next decades of Lukashenko's tenure, a similar pattern was repeated many times. Another round of sanctions was imposed as a result of the rigged presidential election in 2010, then eased a few years later as Minsk offered its services in negotiations after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
After 2020, when Belarus was rocked by the largest protests in its history, many political commentators who were tempted to predict a long-awaited change of power were wrong in their assessments of the regime's stability. Lukashenko's ability to adapt was hugely underestimated.
Still, no dictatorship lasts forever.
Adaptability does not mean that the regime has evolved into something new or "better," but rather explains the nature of its survival. Understanding this feature of the Belarusian dictator's regime allows us to better understand the logic of his actions in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, it profited from its alliance with Minsk to launch an attack from Belarusian territory. Since then, the country's infrastructure — roads, railways, military bases and hospitals — have been at Russia’s disposal.
But on Feb. 28, the first talks between the delegations of Ukraine and Russia took place near the Pripyat River on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. For Lukashenko, it was a chance to repeat the 2014 scenario: there was hope that after a period of isolation, Europe might need him again, and he once again took advantage of the negotiating table, hoping to gain international respect.
Belarusians do not want their country to turn into "bloodlands" again.
The bitter irony of a war criminal trying to win the image of a peacemaker may appear naïve. But Lukashenko's hopes of gaining leverage and taking advantage of the moment have borne fruit in the past. His moves in 2022 and 2023 were no different.
The majority of Belarusian society would still like friendly relations with Russia. At the same time, this does not mean automatic support for the Kremlin's aggressive policy, not to mention Belarus’ direct involvement in the war. While supporting Putin, Lukashenko at the same time tries to distance himself from direct aggression. This allows him to sell artificial stability to his domestic audience, claiming that it is thanks to him that the country lives in relative peace.
Lukashenko knows that Belarusians do not want their country to turn into "bloodlands" again. In addition to repression and support for Russia, he relies on populist rhetoric to maintain his power. He has managed once again to stabilize his regime and establish a shaky equilibrium against the background of the war in Ukraine, where Belarus paradoxically is both an accomplice to aggression and a "third party" at the same time.
A T-72BME tank crew of Belarus competing in the finals of the Tank Biathlon competition as part of the 2022 International Army Games at the Alabino training range
The self-proclaimed president continues to look for ways to improve relations with Europe — as he did recently when Hungary's foreign minister visited Minsk. In addition, statements about the readiness to transport Ukrainian grain through the territory of Belarus are an opportunity for Lukashenko to once again become needed by the region, strengthening his image as a "peace-loving" dictator.
The key thesis, systematically pushed by Putin's main ally, is a call to sit down at the negotiating table. He spoke about the possibility of negotiations in the summer, at his last meeting with Putin and again at a press conference last week.
But the European Parliament insists on the creation of a special international tribunal to try the political and military leadership not only of Russia, but also of Belarus, which would include Lukashenko. In Nov. 2022, they adopted a resolution that unequivocally called him a war criminal and emphasized his responsibility for political repression in Belarus.
Despite his efforts to have his cake and eat it too, it looks like "Europe’s last dictator" has more than a little to fear.
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