Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka?
On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as 'groans and wails.'
Recently, rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.
However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin's interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.
Would the Kremlin replace Lukashenka and occupy Belarus?
In recent months, people of different political views and backgrounds have begun to voice concerns that the Kremlin plans to replace Lukashenka.
On 4 January, the chief editor of the Belarusian oppositional news source Charter 97 Natallia Radzina stated that 'Russia is currently conducting an operation to depose Lukashenka.' Her colleague Dzmitry Bandarenka had spoken about the existence of documents that prove the existence of a plan to replace Lukashenka a few days earlier.
Meanwhile, on 11 January analysts Arsen Sivitski and Yuri Tsarik, who have warmer attitudes towards the Belarusian authorities, published a report claiming that Russia is considering occupying Belarus. Their conclusion was based on information regarding the Russian Ministry of Defence's plans to send four thousand railway carriages to Belarus next year, which is 83 times more than in 2016.
Although these two claims are coming from very different ideological backgrounds, both sides believe the Kremlin is angry because of Belarus's refusal to support the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine as well as its resistance towards the idea of a Russian base on its territory. Moreover, they believe the Kremlin is angry enough to attempt to get rid of Lukashenka. However, Russia has little chance of replacing the Belarusian president: unlike Ukraine, Belarus has stable public institutions.
Relations in conflict
These speculations do indeed seem to hold water given the present condition of Belarusian-Russian relations. Lately, it seems that Belarus and Russia are butting heads on just about every issue.
On 20 January, Lukashenka publicly responded to the criticism Russian officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, regarding the introduction of a visa-free regime in Belarus. The Russian government sees this new policy as a threat to its security and hinted that Belarus should create a single visa space with Russia, instead of taking such steps on its own. However, according to Lukashenka, 'they should accept this calmly and focus on their own work.'
One month prior, on 26 December 2016, Lukashenka ignored the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, where Union heads of state signed the Customs Code, which members had discussed for three years. Although the code was signed by all other members on 26 December, the president of Belarus only agreed to approve it two days later on condition of further negotiations.
It is no secret that the Belarusian authorities are hindering the Eurasian integration project because of the oil and gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow, which has now dragged on for more than a year. Minsk demands a reduction in the price of gas while Russia seeks to make Belarus pay back their debt for previous deliveries, now amounting to $400 m. In order to encourage Minsk to pay, Moscow plans to reduce its supply of oil to Belarus by 12%, according to claims by Russian business newspaper Kommersant from 9 January.
On 26 December, Uladzimir Andreichanka, the head of the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament, stated in Moscow that 'the situation at the Belarusian-Russian border goes beyond the contractual framework and common sense.' In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-country nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.
Belarus's list of grievances is quite long: Belarusian officials periodically complain about Russia implementing protectionist measures, or that the Russian media and commentators are portraying Belarus in a bad light. On 22 December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even recalled a Russian diplomat to protest statements by the head of the Russian Strategic Research Institute questioning Belarusian sovereignty.
Moscow and Minsk fluctuate between love and war
If the present misunderstandings between the two countries were a reason to overthrow Lukashenka or occupy Belarus, the Kremlin would have already done so dozens of times, as the countries have already been through many similar conflicts. But despite all the animosity between Lukashenka and Putin, the Belarusian leader remains simply a difficult ally for the Kremlin – not an enemy.
Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict Moscow will keep Minsk in its sphere of influence for a long time, given the great political and economic significance that Belarus has for Russia.
Even given the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian government is less pro-Ukrainian than it lets on. According to information published by Radio Liberty on 4 January, a Belarusian militant fighting against Ukraine in Donbass, who has killed dozens of Ukrainians, freely visits Belarus. The KGB has invited him for talks, but has not opened a criminal case. Previously, Belarusian KGB officials stated that they would prosecute Belarusians who join the fight in Ukraine, on either the Ukrainian or the Russian side. However, evidence shows that the Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to initiate criminal cases.
Although Belarus's rejection of a Russian military base on its territory was certainly painful for the Kremlin, Belarus managed recover from the conflict by announcing the launch of an Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System. Belarusian diplomats have repeatedly refused to support a UN resolution that would have condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Although the Belarusian authorities are making small steps towards promoting their own culture, which Russian nationalists seem so afraid of, Russian culture and media still dominate in Belarus. When Russian television broadcasts reports about a possible re-orientation of Belarus to the West, Belarusian authorities do not block them. Even the recent arrests of several Belarusophobic authors seem relatively insignificant compared to Kazakhstan, where the authorities have consistently been condemning pro-Russian activists for several years now.
Neither does Belarus intend to undermine Eurasian economic integration, as Belarus needs this market to sell its own manufacture goods, while Western countries remain primarily interested in Belarusian petrol. Minsk is slowing down Eurasian integration to gain concessions from the Russian side, as the Belarusian economic system exists thanks to Russian energy 'subsidies'.
This new iteration of the off and on Belarus-Russia conflict is hardly unique, albeit with one exception. Russia has started to count money and seems reluctant to give Belarus handouts, demanding more loyalty from Belarus. However, this is a far cry from replacing Lukashenka or occupying Belarus.