Belarus’s Lukashenko walks a tightrope ahead of presidential poll

When Belarusian strongman Aleksander Lukashenko visited Russia last week to commemorate a series of bloody second world war battles, he reminded his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, how much Moscow needed its smaller western neighbour.

“If before, Russia had room to manoeuvre in the west — in Ukraine, the Baltics — they do not any more. Russia only has one window left to co-operate with Europe,” Mr Lukashenko said, referring to the country he has ruled for more than a quarter of a century.

“That is to our advantage,” he continued. “The EU is tugging at us, the Americans have started paying attention and Russia can’t imagine in its worst nightmares that they might lose this ally.”

During his 26 years in charge of the former Soviet state wedged between Russia and the EU, Mr Lukashenko has turned playing off his eastern and western neighbours into a fine art, using periodic improvements in relations with Brussels to counterbalance Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow.

But in recent weeks that balancing act has begun to look more difficult. Faced with mounting public discontent at his botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic ahead of a presidential election on August 9, Mr Lukashenko has cracked down hard on his opponents.

Two prominent opposition leaders and scores of activists have been detained. Analysts say that if the crackdown continues, Mr Lukashenko’s efforts to improve relations with the west, which has long pressured the autocratic leader over his human rights record, could be set back.

“I think the EU will try to maintain relations, but it will be hard for them,” said Veronica Laputska of the German Marshall Fund of the US think-tank. “And this raises the risk that Belarus will be more vulnerable to Russian political and economic pressure.”

The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus after crackdowns on political opponents around elections in 2006 and 2010. But it removed most of them in 2016 following peaceful elections the previous year and the release of political prisoners. Over the past two years the two sides have eased travel restrictions, and in November Mr Lukashenko made his first trip to an EU state in three years when he visited Austria.

Links with the US have also improved, with Washington planning to restore ambassadorial relations with Minsk. In February, just before the pandemic crisis took hold, Mike Pompeo became the first US secretary of state to visit Belarus in a quarter of a century, pledging to help it cut its dependence on Russia oil.

But analysts say the current clampdown could send these processes into reverse, and leave Mr Lukashenko even more dependent on Mr Putin. Moscow has over the past year been increasing the pressure on Minsk to accept deeper economic and political integration.

Vladimir Putin, second right, and Alexander Lukashenko, right, greet second world war veterans in Russia. Analysts say the current clampdown on opponents could leave Mr Lukashenko even more dependent on Mr Putin © Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

“[Lukashenko] tried to diversify his relations with the West, but it did not really work as much as he hoped,” said Artyom Shraibman, the founder of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy.

“They got some alternative to Russian oil, they got some loans, but now there are two things in the way: the unexpectedly repressive election and the increased state support for the economy, which is completely at odds with what the IMF wants.

“So there is not much chance this attempt to compensate for his problems in the east will pay off.”

Mr Lukashenko’s move against potential rivals began in May with the detention of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger. Last month, Viktor Babariko, seen as the biggest threat to Mr Lukashenko, was detained in connection with alleged offences including money-laundering. Last week, another candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, was barred from the ballot after the electoral commission deemed he had not collected enough signatures.

Despite being in detention, Mr Babariko, a former head of Belgazprombank, has yet to be officially disqualified, which some observers have interpreted as a gesture to the west. But others are more sceptical.

“Lukashenko understands the psychology of crowds very well,” said Aleksandr Feduta, a former adviser to the president who was imprisoned after supporting an opposition candidate in 2010.

“They do everything to make sure anger against him is not concentrated on one day. First Tikhanovsky was detained. Two weeks later, Tsepkalo was not registered. And in two more weeks, Babariko will not be registered.”

After the detention of Mr Babariko, Mr Lukashenko claimed to have thwarted a foreign plot to destabilise the country, and the head of Belarus’s state control committee claimed Mr Babariko was controlled by “puppet masters” under the thumb of “big bosses in [Russia’s state-run gas group] Gazprom and higher up”.

But despite his claims, analysts say the Kremlin’s preferred outcome would be for Mr Lukashenko to be weakened, rather than ousted.

“Russia does not want any of its allies to go over to the enemy camp and force the Kremlin to readjust. That is why Lukashenko is the best candidate — it is obvious that with him Belarus has no chance of joining [Nato or the EU] and the door is closed,” said Mr Shraibman.

“They want him to have as little room to manoeuvre as possible. The more untouchable he becomes in the west, the less he can diversify his foreign policy and energy system and the more dependent he becomes on Russia.”