The Ukrainian crisis is still unfurling like some hideous blood-soaked flag, but as Poroshenko switches from chocolates to international diplomacy and the Union of New Russia lays claim to half of Ukraine’s territory, discussion rages about the lessons for other Eastern European nations. Mikheil Saakashvili’s efforts to remain relevant after losing the Georgian presidency by haranguing Western leaders smack a bit too much of ‘I told you so’ to be appealing. Viktor Orbán, who rose to prominence standing in front of Soviet tanks and telling them to get out of Hungary in 1989, has in the past few months changed his tune since catching a glimpse of Vladimir Putin’s impressive collection of money, and was one of the few European leaders to say absolutely nothing at all about Ukraine despite the fact that the country he runs borders onto it. The duty of publicly decrying Putin’s actions has fallen to the Poles, who know something about Russian seizure of territory since Stalin moved their entire nation several hundred miles to the West during World War Two.
Closer to the border, anywhere with a population of Russians has been the subject of numerous articles considering if it could be the next stop in some plan to recreate the Soviet Union. President Nazarbayev is presumably congratulating himself on his foresight in moving the Kazakh capital into the northern part of the country in the early 1990s for no conceivable reason other than to keep the Russian population there under control. The Baltic states, which are the most likely candidates, are protected by their membership of the EU and NATO, and pleas for annexation by the Transnistrian government overlook the fact that the Russians would have to get through all of Ukraine first. With the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine seemingly coming to slow halt and Russia’s palpable reluctance to honour the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums, the worst of the annexation fever is almost certainly over. But then there’s Belarus.
The fracture of Ukraine and overall chaos in the region presents a very interesting opportunity for the Belarussian government, should it choose to take it (and it certainly looks that way). From taking power in 1994 until the charmingly violent election in 2010, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (or Aleksandr Lukashenko if you’re Russian) had a tried and true method of gaming the international system. He and his government would alternately approach the Europeans and the Russians, playing the two sides off against each other and asking for funding and resources. To the EU, Lukashenka’s line was that he wanted to democratise, oh, how he wanted to, but the Russians wouldn’t let him, and therefore it was important that the EU backed him to stand up to Russia (and could he have a lot of money please?). To Russia – or more correctly, Putin; Putin and Lukashenka have a testy but usually pleasant working relationship – Lukashenka explained that the EU was meddling in Belarussian internal affairs (and could he have a lot of money please?). This astoundingly simple and transparent gambit kept Lukashenka going for nearly two decades.
Of course, there were costs: on the European side, political prisoners were released (but then re-arrested again once everyone had forgotten about them, naturally); on the Russian side things were rather more serious. Since coming to power, Lukashenka has maintained the public fiction that Belarus will eventually re-unite with Russia, and the two nations have been in a State Union for many years. At the same time, the occasional spats between the two leaders tended to revolve around issues of Belarussian sovereignty: Lukashenka more than once raged against the influence of “Russian mafias” in the country, and clearly enjoys power enough to understand that union with Russia would damage his position immensely.
In the winter of 2010, Belarus foolishly held an election. Lukashenka won, the result was contested, and the KGB and Belarussian police forces launched a vicious and thorough assault on anti-government protesters. Lines of black-garbed riot police charging at civilians in the snow dominated the news (an excellent selection of pictures can be found here). The European Union lost its patience and imposed financial and political sanctions. The music had stopped on the diplomatic game of musical chairs, and Lukashenka was sitting in Putin’s lap. Within months, Belarussian foreign currency stocks of Euros, pounds, and dollars had almost vanished. The currency collapsed – twice. On the 1st of May 2011, one pound was worth 4,605 rubles, already unimpressive; by the 1st of November, the rate was over 14,000 to the pound. Lukashenka’s relationship with Putin deteriorated.
Then Ukraine happened, and now Belarus may be edging its way back into quantum diplomacy. For one thing, it has raised speculation about Lukashenka’s future, and Russia’s role in that decision. From one point of view, Russia’s reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster should be deeply reassuring to Lukashenka, and Belarussian activists certainly suggest that people now fear that any future uprising will simply be negated by Russia. At the same time, Lukashenka is far more independent of Moscow than Yanukovych, or at least he wants to be, and he also has a longer history in power even than Putin. He has been contemptuous of Yanukovych-style oligarch presidents, although not of Yanukovych personally, and may suspect that the Russians would adore an opportunity to shove him aside and replace him with some squalid billionaire Putinist.
Perhaps this explains Lukashenka’s refusal to toe the line on Ukraine since Yanukovych’s ouster. He incurred Russia’s wrath by meeting with the acting president Oleskandr Turchynov, whom Putin had denounced as illegitimate, and dismissed the option of a federated Ukrainian state in favour of preserving a unified structure. He ridiculed the referendums held in Donetsk and Luhansk, and his comments on Russia’s annexation of Crimea have been somewhat less than enthusiastic.
Obviously, this deliberately ambiguous stance is partly directed towards keeping his own position stable and secure, but it is also an attempt to appeal, once again, to Europe and the West. The present moment of upheaval gives Belarus a chance to undo the political isolation which has dogged it since 2010. If Lukashenka is smart, he can start playing the sides against each other for his own benefit, not least in order to forestall the possibility of Russian activity within Belarus. It won’t be easy, particularly on the European side, which already has almost every Eastern European country speaking for it. But Lukashenka’s alternative future, as the Chief Governor of Russia’s Belarusskaya Oblast, doesn’t have much to recommend it.