Belarus Regime’s Lobbyists in Russia
On 4 December Russian Ambassador to Belarus said that he greatly respects Belarusian president and thinks that Aliaksandr Lukashenka inspired many by his policies. Ambassador Surikov is not the only Russian inspired by Lukashenka. Lukashenka's populism and pro-Russian rhetoric made him popular among various groups in Russia.
Although the popularity of the Belarus development model continues to fall in Russia, it remains attractive for a large part of the Russian population because of various lobbying groups which advocate the interests of the Belarusian regime. These groups include communists, army, nationalists, certain state officials and ordinary Russians nostalgic about the Soviet Union.
What Do the Russians Think about Belarus?
Until 2008, the attractiveness of Belarus as a reliable ally and a development model was on its peak. Russian people, who were tired of corruption, bureaucracy and low living standards in their own country, considered Belarus as “state for the people” or even a Soviet-style paradise across the border. This myth remained almost unchallenged by Russian state institutions and media until recently.
The situation has changed when Belarus refused to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and then came into a series of conflicts with Russia over the formation of the Customs Union, including gas and milk “wars”. Russian TV channels and newspapers started a massive campaign against Belarus and its leader, using various types of propaganda and unveiling unpleasant facts about Lukashenka family.
These measures have decreased public support for Lukashenka’s rule, but have not seriously affected his lobby in Russia. They keep supporting his brave image of Robin Hood who takes money from the rich to redistribute it among the poor and disadvantaged state employees and workers.
Support of Russian Communists
The first and the most influential lobbying group is the Russian Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov. Almost every month he makes positive statements about Belarus and cites its experience as an example worth following. For instance, on 9 October he noted that Russia will benefit from investing money into the Belarusian economy even despite the current financial crisis.
Previously Zyuganov defended interests of the Belarusian regime in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He also appealed to Medvedev and Putin to provide money and other types of help for Belarus without any preconditions. Russian communists are the main opposition party that obtained almost 20% of votes in the latest parliamentary election and their election program highlights the need to actively cooperate with Belarus and to protect it from the “Russian oligarchs”.
Respect of the Military
The second group of support is the Russian military, especially middle-ranking officers who see Lukashenka as a strong leader ruling Belarus. They think he rules the country in a barrack-like manner, not allowing any behaviour deviations such as being a dissident, a hipster, a gay or any other kind of person not in the mainstream.
One of the striking examples is Vladimir Kvachkov, former colonel of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (GRU), who is thought to be implicated in an attempt on life of Anatoly Chubays – a close liberal aid of Boris Yeltsin in 1990s who currently heads the Russian state corporation Rosnano.
Just before the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, Kvachkov was received warmly in the Belarusian Presidential Administration and was interviewed by the Belarusian government newspaper Respublica. According to Kvachkov, Russian authorities are rogue and they must be replaced by new ones in order to “restore the real Union between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”.
Belarus regularly obtains a considerable amount of new military vehicles, ammunition and equipment at low prices from Russia.
Admiration of Russian Nationalists
Russia faces a rise in nationalist sentiments as a result of interethnic problems related to the North Causasus. The importance of the Russian culture and language is diminishing in most of post-Soviet countries. This is why Russian nationalists view Lukashenka as the only defender of Russian interests in the former Soviet Union. They refer to Belarus as an example of truly pro-Russian and anti-American state where all rights of Russian citizens are respected and the Russian language has an official status.
More radical of them tend to imagine Belarus as a place where there are no Gypsies and the people of “white race” occupy the jobs which representatives of Caucasian nations traditionally occupy in Russia. Alexander Prokhanov, a writer and an Editor-in-Chief of the Russian nationalist and often anti-Semitic newspaper Zavtra, is the most visible nationalist advocates of the Belarusian regime in Russia. He spoke highly of the results of the Belarusian presidential elections after his return from the inauguration.
Yuri Luzhkov, a Mayor of Moscow and a vice-chairman of the ruling United Russia party used to be one of the most influential lobbyists of Belarusian interests in Moscow. He was allowed to participate in several large business projects in Belarus in return for his friendship with Lukashenka.
After Luzhkov was fired from his post, the First Deputy Mayor of the Russian capital Vladimir Resin who was born in Minsk acts as a good mediator between Minsk and Moscow.
Pavel Borodin, the State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia has also done a lot in order to place Lukashenka in a good light in Russia.
Evgeniy Primakov, former Russian prime minister and president of the Russian Chamber of Trade and Commerce has also supported Lukashenka for a very long time. Lukashenka himself even called Primakov his teacher. But today Primakov does not hold any important posts, although he still can share necessary contacts.
General Public Support
Nevertheless, the Belarusian regime is supported not only by those mentioned above. Many ordinary Russian people genuinely believe that Belarus is a “social state” based on an improved version of communism. In general, these people do not live in big cities, have low salaries, and are used to paternalistic model of state and economic management which Lukashenka represents.
Belarusian authorities try to use their propaganda machine to reach the Russian population. Every year Belarus Presidential Administration invites editors and journalists of leading Russian regional newspapers. The presidential administration dines and wines them and shows them the best examples of the Belarusian economic and political model.
One of the examples of pro-Lukashenka “people’s” projects in Russia is the website Lukashenko2008.ru that has proposed him as a candidate for the Russian presidency. The web site has been online and is regularly updated foe more than 4 years.
As Belarus struggles with a severe economic crisis, its policymakers continue their efforts to influence Russian authorities. Since after December 2010 Belarus is increasingly becoming more dependent upon Russia and the role of the West is diminishing. This is why lobbying the interests of the Belarusian regime in Russia is becoming even more important.