Belarus Refuses To Support Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
At a meeting of presidents of the Customs Union on 5 March, Putin desperately tried to gain support on for Russia's invasion of Ukraine from his closest allies, Belarus and Kazakstan.
All his efforts, it would seem, appear to be in vain, as neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbaev publicly voiced support for Russia's aggression in Crimea. For both individuals, it became a dangerous precedent which showed the true nature of Russian politics in the post-Soviet space.
Now, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to re-launch their cooperation with the EU and preparing to host the Ice Hockey World Championship, they know full well that any involvement in the crisis in Ukraine could destroy their painfully reconstructed relations with the West.
Lukashenka's Thoughts on the Crisis in Ukraine
Aliaksandar Lukashenka first mentioned the Euromaidan protests on 21 January at a meeting with Belarusian media. “It is a nightmare, a catastrophe. As soon as the president’s children engage in business and his mistresses start to wear crowns – expect trouble,” he said, describing the corruption in Ukraine prior to the revolution.
A month later, Lukashenka spoke about Ukraine during an address to the security forces on Belarus' Armed Forces Day, 23 February. Here, he explained Belarus' position on the future of Ukrainian lands. “They have their own problems. Maidan is not new to us. This is not the first time it happened and you know, I still have good relationship with the orginal leaders of Maidan, Yushchenko and others…We have a singular view of Ukraine. It should be integral, nobody should divide this great country.”
Lukashenka also compared the Ukrainian Maidan with the 19 December 2010 protests in Minsk and assured Belarusians that Maidan was impossible here. “We did not steal anything, nor have we acquired any luxuries at the expense of others. In Ukraine, they drove people to a terrible state, and people decided: it could not get any worse than this anyways.” He stressed that in Belarus, the very capable armed forces and police will ensure order is upheld and prevent anarchy and a crisis like in Ukraine.
In a telephone conversation on 4 March Lukashenka assured Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma of his support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Foreign Minister Makej Tours the EU
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej became the other official who made public comments on the situation in Ukraine. At the end of February he visited Latvia and Lithuania, preparing for a new rapprochement with the EU and began discussing the prospects for renewed cooperation.
At the meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister in Riga on 27 February, Makej said that Belarus had already formulated several issues for the agenda of Riga Summit of Eastern Partnership in 2015.
Speaking about Ukraine, Makej mentioned the close economic and cultural ties Belarus had with Ukraine, called the events a tragedy and stated that Belarus supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
On 1 March, Makej gave an interview to the Baltic News Service, where he again explained Belarus' official stance. According to him, the victory of Euromaidan is not the end of the struggle, and Belarus will keep on observing how things develop. And despite the mess, Belarus will remain in contact with the new Ukrainian government.
Ukraine on Belarusian TV
Despite the very reserved and even pro-Ukrainian comments made by Belarusian senior officials about the crisis, some of Belarusian TV channels featured Russia-style propaganda tales.
ONT channel focused on the economic crisis in Kiev, where people are snatching up all the products in stores and huge queues are appearing near cash mashines, as everyone frantically lines up in an attempt to withdraw their money. It also criticised an attempt to reduce the status of Russian language.
The channel STV showed the events in Eastern Ukraine in a style typical of Russian propaganda. It accused Maidan radicals of violating the rights of Russophones and threatening their security. It also repeated information on the alleged 700,000 refugees from Ukraine that had left the country in the previous months.
Meanwhile, Belarus 1 channel simply mentioned that the events did indeed occur in Ukraine, though did not bother to provide any detailed coverage. This, in effect, means that no order was given to support or ignore Russian intervention. What Belarusian TV did have to make clear in their broadcasts was that anti-government protests lead to anarchy, regardless of the country, and they always have and always will.
Customs Union Discusses Ukraine
On 5 March, the three presidents of Customs Union attended the meeting of the High Eurasian Economic Council. Vladimir Putin put the economic issues of Ukraine crisis on the agenda, saying Customs Union needs to protect its economy from Ukrainian unrest and develop new approaches to cooperation with Ukraine.
However, Lukashenka appeared more concerned with remaining duty exemptions, which impede the building of a real economic union. For Lukashenka, the issue of equal prices for hydrocarbons remains essential in the union, and that is what Russia does not want to concede.
Nazarbaev in his speech focused on technical issues of the union building and did not publicly express any political concerns. So, neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbaev voiced support of Putin’s invasion. And it is quite clear why.
Russia's invasion of Crimea concerns Kazakhstan, which also has regions with large ethnic Russian populations. Therefore the reaction of Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan was neutral and urged all parties to maintain a balanced, objective and responsible approach towards the situation.
For Belarus, situation seems even more complicated. Russia, as Belarus' main political and military ally as well as its main financial supporter, considers Belarus within its sphere of interest, perhaps even more so than it does with Ukraine. And deployment of Russian troops in case Mr. Putin does not like Lukashenka’s behaviour indeed frightens Belarusian leader.
At the same time, the current foreign policy priorities make any anti-westeren moves highly undesirable for Belarus. As the country recently started a new period of rapprochement with the West, any support of Russian aggression can destroy any potential for a relaunch of a constructive Belarusian-Western dialogue.
Another threat for the regime, coming from support of Russian intervention, is the fate of Ice Hockey World Championship that will take place this May in Belarus. A pro-Russian position from Belarus in the current conflict could lead to a boycott of the championship games, which Belarusian authorities consider as a major international breakthrough in recent years.
At the moment, Lukashenka looks quite a brave politician. Despite pressure from Russia, for years he has been stubbornly refusing to recognise independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – two breakaway Georgian provinces. These days he again shows that Belarus has its own voice in international affairs.
In such a situation, Vladimir Putin looks indeed isolated. Even his closest allies cannot stand such an open and groundless aggression.
Local Elections in Belarus: the Easiest Campaign to Forecast
On 24 February the coordinator of the "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" initiative Valiantsin Stefanovich called the upcoming 23 March 2014 local elections in Belarus "an invisible campaign."
His point is not without merit, when considering the total passiveness, apathy and predictability surrounding the electoral process in Belarus.
While the authorities prepare themselves for the usual re-appointment of members of local councils, the opposition has little to respond with. It appears that, finally, society completely understands the profane nature of the whole process and yet, by ignoring the elections can create another set of problems for the authorities, this time – psychological ones.
Authorities Prepare their Usual Performance
Local elections have never been real issue for the authorities. In 2010 they even allowed the opposition to occupy ten out of 288 places in the nation's local councils. The government has little to be afraid of here because local councils have extremely narrow competencies and nearly no influence. In most cases their job is to approve the decisions of local executive committees, the heads of which are appointed by Alexander Lukashenka directly.
This time the authorities seem not to be conceding hardly anything to their opponents. The results of how the district electoral committees (DECs) are being formed and respective candidates registration in the elections shows this rather explicitly.
|Organisation||Members in (DECs)||Denials||Candidates registered||Denials|
|Loyal forces||Federation of Trade Unions||8,736||7%||No data|
|"Belaya Rus"||4,189||8%||No data|
|Women's Union||4,010||4%||No data|
|Belarusian Republican Youth Union||3,354||11%||No data|
|Republican Party of Labour and Justice||699||11%||48||6%|
|Unclear position||Liberal-Democratic Party||0||125||22%|
|Opposition||Belarusian Left Party "A Just World"||12||94%||88||26%|
|United Civil Party||3||97%||81||26%|
|Belarusian People's Front||6||91%||28||21%|
|Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada)||2||50%||52||48%|
|"Tell the Truth" campaign||No data||103||79%|
|"For Freedom" movement||No data||38||56%|
|Belarusian Christian Democracy||No data||43||67%|
This data speaks for itself: opposition candidates and representatives are registered or placed in DECs far more seldom than their pro-governmental counterparts. Even these figures provided above can be deceptive: many activists belong to several oppositional organisations at any given time and there may be double counting on these lists.
Local elections have never caused any tensions or even notable political activity in Belarus. Hence, the government tries to use this opportunity for purely reputational purposes: legitimisation in the eyes of its supporters, a demonstration of their position to credulous and politically indifferent people, while swaying them away from getting involved in the political process and keeping up maintenance of the government's projected image of unity between the people and the state.
Opposition: Exhausted and Divided
Only 1% of more than 22,300 registered candidates are representatives from the opposition. This indicates not only the authorities' strategy to turn their opponents down during registration is at work, but also the general weakness of the opposition and a lack of interest in taking part in the upcoming elections. Given the 20-80% denials' ratio, less than 300 registered candidates throughout the country means that far too few activists even have a hope of getting into office.
Most of the oppositional parties do not hide that they merely use the local campaign as a phase in their more general political strategies. The coalition from the "Tell the Truth" campaign, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada), Belarusian People's Front and Movement "For Freedom" use the legal possibility of collecting signatures during elections to promote their "People's Referendum" project. Another coalition – "Talaka" (Belarusian Left Party "A Just World", United Civil Party and several smaller initiatives) continues its campaign of free and fair elections.
The only area where the opposition has managed to form a broader coalition is election observations. Seven oppositional forces including four participants of People's Referendum coalition, Green Party, Party of Freedom and Progress and the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party have organised the "Right to Choose" campaign.
They plan to send out no fewer than a thousand observers to districts where oppositional candidates are running to observe the voting process. However, the legal restrictions of the observers' work (barring them from entering vote-counting areas, denying all of their complaints and their regular removal from the voting stations) leave few chances for the necessary observational control to be placed over the balloting process.
The latest polls have shown a further decline in Belarusians' trust and support for the opposition. Therefore, their prospects during the upcoming elections would not have been very good even if they managed to submit and register a large number of candidates. But in the present situation (having only 1% of all registered candidates) almost nobody, including the opposition themselves, seriously expect a successful outcome.
New Headache for the Government
In fact, the Belarusian authorities do not even need to resort to any kind of manipulation during the upcoming campaigns to make their results easy to predict: the average competition for a membership in a local council is 1.2 person per seat. This means that almost 80% of all electoral districts will undergo a one man race.
The absence of real power in the hands of local governments combined with the general political apathy in society and the expected rigging of the results have created a new sort of headache for the government. Whereas previously the opposition was the main irritant, now it is Belarusian citizens participation .
Before the previous 2010 local elections, the authorities removed an attendance barrier from the electoral code, foreseeing the passivity of voters. After the elections independent observers reported about a 40% attendance at polling stations, while the government announced 79%.
The December IISEPS survey also indicated than only 44% of respondents plan to vote. But "planning to vote" when asked by sociologists is not the same as actually leaving home and visiting the voting booth on Sunday.
Alexander Lukashenka himself addressed this issue at his latest press-conference in January. He called on people to vote, regardless of who it was, but be sure to go to the ballot box.
High attendance reflects the involvement of society in the political process, the people's recognition of the existing order. When the masses ignore the elections, authorities see that as a sign of citizens' rejecting the government's carefully orchestrated performance.
Through decades of gradual pushing opponents out of politics and the annihilation of any real local governance, Lukashenka has set for himself a trap: he remains politically interested in people's passiveness, but psychologically needs them to come to show their loyalty and recognise the validity of the existing order.
However, this does not change anyone's election forecasts. The March 2014 local elections will be invisible and apolitical because society has little interest in taking part in them. And neither the opposition, nor the government has the tools to make people show up.