Belarus has the geographic misfortune of being placed between a militarily resurgent Russia and an enlarging Western alliance. Since the mid 1990’s, the country has been under the authoritarian rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Although the country has remained in the economic and political orbit of Russia, the president has always maintained opens channels with the European Union.
President Lukashenka became frightened with the invasion of Crimea and the subsequent annexation of the territory, from Ukraine in the spring of 2014.
In addition to this seizure of territory, the Russian ignition of the Ukrainian civil war in the eastern provinces of Donbass and Luhansk, further panicked the Belorussian President.
Lukashenka has maintained an iron grip on political power for 22 years. He has often been referred to as Europe’s last dictator. His brutal repression in the wake of the 2010 elections in Belarus, reminded everyone what steps he is willing to take, to remain in office. It also has prevented stronger ties with the European Union.
That is why it was surprising that he permitted thousands of protesters to demonstrate against government policy, in February of this year.
The discontent began over the decision by the government to enforce the 2015 provision known as the law against social parasites. The legislation levies a $250.00 USD (United States Dollar) tax on those who work less than 183 days a year, but do not register with the government labor office.
After thousands of people took to the streets, the government decided to postpone enforcement. The tax would not be collected in 2016, but would be implemented for 2017.
The belated government action did not stop the discontent. Cracks in the closed political system have been widening.
To complicate matters for the government, living standards are declining in Belarus. Further decreases are expected this year and in 2018. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell near 3% last year after dropping near 3.9% in 2015.
The former central bank head in Belarus has already indicated that the population is being impoverished, with falling incomes, decreasing wages and increasing inflation.
Right before the March 25th anniversary of the founding of the Belorussian Peoples Republic, the government struck by arresting hundreds of civil society activists, opposition figures and journalists.
When the anniversary arrived, several thousand more took to the streets for peaceful protests against President Lukashenka. They were willing to brave a government ban on such activity, in the capital of Minsk. They were soon met by the riot police, who arrested hundreds and beat up many more.
Despite the rising unrest, President Lukashenka remains firmly in control. He still retains absolute authority over the country’s security forces.
The President is still popular in rural areas and the opposition is weak and divided. Up to now, the business community has not turned restive, still preferring stability to reform.
Although tensions are rising between Belarus and Russia, they are unlikely to fray beyond a certain point. It is largely a reality of the dependence of the Belorussian economy, on the latter. Russian subsidies have become a mainstay although there are regular disputes, over the price of Russian energy deliveries.
More recently, fully aware of this fact, Russia has cut deliveries of oil and natural gas to Belarus.
In addition, Russian officials are claiming Belarus owes the equivalent of $425 million USD. Before that sum is paid, normal delivers of energy cannot occur.
Russia has retaliated by banning European agricultural products, from their country. A rather new development, has been the sale of farming goods from Europe in Belarus, which is then re-exported to Russia.
The friction in trade and fuel, has spilled over into the political relationship between Belarus and Russia, as well. President Lukashenka insists on maintaining significant ties with Ukraine and other former republics of the Soviet Union, over the objections of the Russian government.
Belarus also objects to the construction of border controls between the two countries, to monitor the flow of goods and people from Belarus into and out of Russia.
In addition, Lukashenka has totally rejected the suggestion, that his country host a new Russian air force base. Yet, the president of Belarus maintains his country’s participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, both created and maintained by Russia, as a way to control their former territories.
A flash point between the two countries may arrive later this year. Joint military exercises between the two countries in September, on the soil of Belarus, could increase tensions even further. There are some who fear that Russian President Putin, may use the event as opportunity, to keep Russian troops in Belarus on a more permanent basis.
This fear could be one reason why Lukashenka has encouraged the monitoring of these activities, by observers from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
The Western defensive military alliance which has moved to the borders of his country, by including Poland and the neighboring Baltic Republics, has increased the strategic value of Belarus enormously on both sides.
However, an outright invasion of Belarus by Russian forces remains unlikely, while Lukashenka remains in power.
Despite the idea of presenting Belarus as a geographic barrier, to further Russian meddling in the region, European influence inside the country, is still at a minimal level.
This has remained the case, irregardless of the participation of Belarus in the European Union Eastern Partnership. Deepening ties further, would require far greater economic and political reforms in Belarus. Those needed requirements are obviously problematic for President Lukashenka.
Lukashenka has indeed, taken steps to widen ties to the West. The latest example is the decree allowing citizens from the European Union, the United States and 51 other countries, visa free entry into Belarus with various limitations.
The pardoning of jailed opposition figures in 2015, did lead to a doubling of financial assistance from the European Union last year. Officials from Europe are also advising the government of Belarus, how to better manage security of its borders.
It will remain challenging for the European Union,to try to pry Belarus away from the Russian orbit of power. For one thing, further engagement through the Eastern Partnership has remained minimal.
The recent crackdown of peaceful demonstrators by President Lukashenka, shows he has little tolerance of Western principles of government and society. He is more concerned with remaining in power.
Although there are a number of good reasons to advance relations with Belarus, European officials have their hands full with more pressing issues, like the ongoing migrant crisis, the unresolved debt situation in Greece, the possible banking implosion in Italy and upcoming difficult negotiations concerning the departure of the United Kingdom, from the European Union commonly known as the Brexit.
There are additional constraints, as economic and political differences between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, have escalated within the European Union itself. Instead of presenting a unitary bulwark against Russia, recent developments have underlined the variations of interest, that exist in the nations that used to be part of the Russian sphere of influence during the Cold War.
A new schism is developing in Eastern Europe between the more Western orientated portions of the region like the Baltic Republics and those nations that prefer a more independent course, like Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania for example.
Russia is also unlikely to take real military action against Belarus. Despite Putin’s reputation for making rather rash and unpredictable moves.
President Putin himself, is bogged down with numerous issues as well. The stagnant Russian economy will somewhat constrain, further geopolitical moves at this time. The cost of involvement in eastern Ukraine, parts of Georgia, Moldova and more recently Syria, have put an additional strain on Russian resources.
As Western sanctions continue to hamper the economy of Russia, further military action by Putin, would only strengthen European resolve to resist. More restrictions on trade, economic ties and political contacts would no doubt escalate.
Although Putin may well increase economic and political pressure on Belarus, outright invasion therefore, remains improbable. Russian influence in Eastern Europe would actually be reversed in such a situation, as politicians in individual countries, would be forced to realign themselves even more closely to the West for security reasons.
NATO would then feel compelled to further militarize Eastern Europe, increasing military tensions in the region substantially. This would eventually work to the disadvantage of both Lukashenka and Putin.
Russian overtures to former Soviet Republics in the Caucasus region and Central Asia would also be undermined. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, would all be forced to reassess their relationship with a more militaristic Russia.
What is far more likely is a continuation of the status quo. Even as criticism of Lukashenka is more noticeable in the Russian media, it is more a political tactic than anything else.
Public demonstrations in both Belarus and Russia this year, will remind both leaders, that they have more to gain through cooperation rather than antagonism.
The economic stagnation and lack of a political alternatives along with widespread corruption, keeps the citizens of both Belarus and Russia disgruntled and in some cases restive. It forces both Lukashenka and Putin to keep a wary eye on those who would politically undermine them. Using the West as a scapegoat for domestic problems, has finite limitations.