The domestic power base of dictator Alexander Lukashenko is now mostly limited to Belarus’ security structures. Although he is still popular with aged babushkas and dedushkas, who see no reason for or even fear change, Lukashenko can no longer count on blue-collar support from the ‘working collectives’ of the large state-owned factories, or from the younger generations of Belarusians protesting with the white-red-white flags he detests.
The generals and colonels of the Belarusian KGB, OMON and armed forces, however, continue to show surprising levels of loyalty to a dictator who has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the West. While they probably care little about Western attitudes, they are surely keeping a careful eye on Russia’s reactions to developments in Belarus. Lukashenko thus finds himself in the hands of generals and colonels who may switch their loyalties very quickly if the Kremlin’s master plan changes—and so, by turn, at the mercy of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
However, Lukashenko still has a few cards to play. Putin has promised to save his regime—at least for the time being—with a loan of USD 1.5 billion to reschedule debts, and save the Belarusian economy and currency. In return, Putin wants accelerated ‘integration’ of the Russia-Belarus Union State, an entity that legally came into being at the beginning of the new millennium, just after former president Boris Yeltsin stepped down.
Through the Union State, Russia hopes to get hold of the strategic Belarusian enterprises that are the country’s main exporters (oil refineries and fertilizer factories) and to redirect Belarusian exports to Russian ports in the Bay of Finland (Ust-Luga), instead of those in the Baltic states and Poland. Economic subjugation would be followed by far closer political and military ‘integration’ but, besides the loan, the Belarusian and world public does not know what agreements were reached between Putin and Lukashenko.
Lukashenko assumes that he does not need to sell his country’s further ‘integration’ with Russia to the generals, colonels, babushkas and dedushkas. And he does not care that the anti-Lukashenko protesters and entire opposition will not agree to the sell-out of Belarus for the sake of his salvation, as his aim is simply to crush them with brutal force.
This situation is nevertheless very difficult for both Putin and Lukashenko, even if they strive to portray themselves as strong, confident men. Although he has been boosted by Russia’s support, Lukashenko is clearly desperate and probably worried that he has allowed the Trojan horse to enter Belarus. Minsk has been invaded by hordes of Russian propagandists, FSB officers and military advisors, and perhaps even by Russian Guard units—in recent days, the capital has seen masked, insignia-free men attacking students in universities and women in parks. Lukashenko is increasingly under the Kremlin’s control.
Putin, meanwhile, perhaps fears that the mass protests in Belarus will continue and might, because of the Kremlin’s persistent and open support to Lukashenko, take on an anti-Russian (i.e. anti-Putin) flavour. On the other hand, Putin’s hands are tied. He cannot arrange to bring down Lukashenko following a fake election and amidst popular protests, as this would clearly signal to the Russian opposition that major changes are only possible through street politics.
Last but not least, the expiry of Lukashenko’s best-before date after 26 years in power would spell bad news for Putin who, while obviously contemplating ruling for life, will reach the same milestone in 2024. Putin thus has another reason to contemplate keeping Lukashenko in power indefinitely, alongside Venezuela’s Maduro, Syria’s al-Assad and others.