Belarus’s Political Dichotomy Continues to Widen

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 81

(Source: President of Belarus)

Executive Summary:

  • Belarusian politics are divided into two factions: the Lukashenka regime, with strong ties to Russia, located within Belarus, and the opposition, whose members are largely in exile.
  • The Lukashenka regime continues to rely on Russia economically but has worked to increase trade cooperation with Azerbaijan.
  • The opposition held its elections for the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition, but struggled to inspire voter turnout, even with an app that allowed Belarusians to vote from abroad or within Belarus.

On May 23, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka received his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on an official visit (, May 23). The two leaders emphasized that their discussions would focus on security measures and economics. Notably, during negotiations on May 24, Lukashenka stated: “Against all odds Minsk and Moscow preserve the policy in favor of stronger integration. We support each other and will support in all areas,” demonstrating how Minsk will continue to follow Moscow’s lead (, May 24). Belarus’s political spectrum is now divided geographically between the authoritarian regime within the country and the opposition, whose members mostly live in exile. Recently, there have been significant developments on both sides. In addition to Putin’s official visit, in the past two weeks, Lukashenka has visited Azerbaijan and appointed a new chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian army (Belta, May 26). Concurrently, elections to the so-called Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition took place, largely outside Belarus.

Lukashenka’s May 15–16 visit to Azerbaijan primarily focused on boosting mutual trade and cooperation. The Belarusian leader also visited the towns of Shusha and Fizuli in the formerly Armenian-controlled Karabakh region. He was accompanied by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who informed him about the restoration of these towns reclaimed by Azerbaijan. Lukashenka promised that Belarus would build a modern agricultural settlement (agrogorodok) in the area. Despite Armenia being Belarus’s formal ally through their participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, ties with Azerbaijan are significantly more important for Minsk. This is partly because Baku controls the North-South transportation corridor, which Minsk is interested in using to export its industrial goods. Azerbaijan has also been making concerted efforts to expand its strategic partnerships with European countries in and out of the European Union (see EDM, February 28, May 28). For Belarus, Azerbaijan can play a particularly important trade role as it is not beholden to EU sanctions and trade restrictions due to Russia’s war in Ukraine (Svaboda, May 16).

Azerbaijan and Belarus have steadily been strengthening their relationship over the years. Since 2018, the Azerbaijani army has been using Belarus’s Polonez, a 300 mm rocket artillery system (, September 27, 2018). During the 2020–21 period, amid tensions between Russia and Belarus over oil prices and Russia’s apparent desire for a leadership change in Minsk, oil from Azerbaijan helped diversify Belarus’s hydrocarbon dependency (, April 21, 2021). Lukashenka and Aliyev’s relationship, however, dates back even further. In 2010, amid a dispute with Russia’s Gazprom over Minsk’s debt repayment, Aliyev promptly lent Belarus $200 million to resolve the issue (, June 28, 2010). At the time, Lukashenka highlighted this maneuver as a way to stave off unjustified demands from Russia’s oligarchy (Minfin, June 26, 2010). While Belarusian relations with Moscow are now portrayed as impeccable, old favors are never forgotten.

The current regime’s second significant development this month was the appointment of Pavel Muraveiko as chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian army on May 23. Muraveiko recently gained notoriety for his October 2023 statement suggesting that Lithuania’s ban on Belarus using its seaport could be resolved by force (TASS, October 30). Muraveiko participated in the May 24 negotiations with Russia’s delegation, headed by Putin, as did Russia’s newly appointed Minister of Defense, Andrei Belousov (Belta, May 26). Muraveiko’s apparent willingness to engage in force could have effects down the line as Belarus continues to work closely with Russia on joint military exercises, and questions continue to rise about whether Belarus will engage in direct combat as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine (see EDM, April 17, May 23).

Regarding the latest round of Belarus-Russia negotiations, Lukashenka noted a shift from previous discussions, which focused 90 percent on defense and security, to the current emphasis on economic cooperation. During a brief Q&A session with journalists, it was revealed that Belarus will continue to buy Russia’s hydrocarbons at “preferential” prices, even though the single energy market Lukashenka has advocated for since the mid-1990s remains unachieved. (Belta, May 26).

Two peculiar incongruities were on display during the short press conference. First, while stating that the Belarus-Russia trade exchange is now worth $46.5 billion, Putin mentioned that 90 percent of mutual trade is effectively conducted in national currencies to avoid the destructive influences of third countries. Yet immediately after, he conveyed that “Russia has invested $5 billion” in Belarus, suggesting that the US dollar yardstick is still unavoidable. Second, Putin and Lukashenka gave different answers to the same question regarding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s legitimacy as a potential negotiation partner after May 20—the technical end date of Zelenskyy’s term, although he will remain in office indefinitely until Ukraine can hold elections. According to Putin, the legitimacy issue is real, and the upcoming Switzerland-based Summit of Peace in Ukraine was allegedly organized to extend Zelenskyy’s legitimacy. Lukashenka’s response was markedly different. He stated that regardless of Zelenskyy’s legitimacy, peace talks should be conducted with the true decision-makers, i.e., the West (Belta, May 26). Additionally, Lukashenka attributed the Iranian President’s death to the West’s sanctions on maintenance of Western-made helicopters and aircraft, to which Putin immediately noted that the two helicopters accompanying President Raisi were Russian-made and both safely returned to their base.

Recent developments from Belarus’s opposition have been less notable. On May 26, during the first of three days of elections to the Coordination Council, only 2,463 votes were cast. By the end of the second day, this number had increased to just slightly over 4,500 (Svaboda, May 27). Whereas opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Vilnius-based Provisional Cabinet is the equivalent of the executive power in exile, the Coordination Council is the equivalent of the legislature. A special app allowed for votes to be cast from abroad, and a special web instruction was available for those willing to vote from Belarus. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty attributes this low turnout to political apathy in Belarus and the émigré community and internecine fights within the opposition. The YouTube broadcast of the political conference, where the viewpoints of all electoral blocs within the opposition were presented on the eve of the elections, was watched by only a few hundred viewers. YouTube is not blocked in Belarus, and watching videos does not lead to imprisonment. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are abroad for political reasons. Watching the proceedings of that conference certainly did not pose any danger to them, yet the attention to the conference was minuscule (Svaboda, May 26).

As the two sides of Belarus’s political spectrum grow increasingly independent of one another ideologically and geographically, Western policymakers must monitor the actions each side takes. Lukashenka’s regime continues to maintain its deep-seated economic and military ties with Russia but seeks to strengthen its trade with other partners, like Azerbaijan. The opposition, meanwhile, continues to operate from abroad, holding elections for its exiled coalition. Still, the geographical dispersion and disagreements among the opposition have made rallying support among Belarusians difficult. The opposition will need to improve its organization to increase its impact.