Protests in Belarus and the fighting in Karabakh have upended relations between the Russian authorities and the leaders of Minsk and Yerevan. In the past, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, despite generally acting in conjunction with Moscow, have nonetheless tried to distance themselves from Russia as much as possible and periodically sided with the West in condemning certain Kremlin actions (Ukrinform, September 7, 2018). However, in recent months, each of them, for his own reasons, has had to turn to Russia for help. Lukashenka, rejected by what appears to be a majority of his own people and not recognized by the West as the legitimate president (Eeas.europa.eu, September 15), began to seek Vladimir Putin’s support. He has sought to affirm his absolute loyalty to the Kremlin and prove Belarus’s irreplaceable role in protecting Russia “from Western aggression” (YouTube, September 9). Similarly, Pashinyan, in seeking Moscow’s support in Armenia’s war against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, also promised his loyalty (Gazeta.ru, September 30).
All this encouraged the Russian authorities in recent weeks to launch a new round of pro-imperialistic propaganda. Using the statements of the leaders of Belarus and Armenia, the media began to promote the idea that only Russia can help its neighbors, which automatically demonstrates the Russian Federation’s status as a great power (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 30). At the same time, Russian propaganda emphasizes that the only way for the post-Soviet states to survive is to abandon their “multi-vector” approaches and fulfill a number of conditions set by the Kremlin, including recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, integrating more deeply with the Eurasian Economic Union, lobbying for the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions, reducing the United States’ influence and banning a number of pro-Western non-governmental organizations (NGO), and so on (T.me/russica2, September 28). The general editor of RT, Margarita Simonyan, notably stated, “Armenia is either doomed to return to Russia or simply doomed” (Twitter, September 28). Various Russian observers argue that Armenia cannot survive without becoming part of Russia.
Nevertheless, independent economists and sociologists are inclined to believe that, unlike in 2014, the Russian authorities will not succeed in sparking a new “patriotic surge” within Russian society based on neo-imperial ideas. Economist and the director of the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies, Vladislav Inozemtsev, believes the military conflict in Karabakh is worrisome for representatives of the Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas in Russia, but not for ordinary Russians. “In addition, people understand quite well that the leaders of neighboring countries only turn to Russia for financial support, and nothing more,” he said (Author’s interview, September 29).
Elena Galkina, a political analyst and doctor of historical sciences, agrees. “Imperial propaganda is accompanied by another devaluation of the ruble and, accordingly, a rise in prices, which today worries Russians much more than foreign policy influence. As for Belarus, ordinary Russians will rather regret that Belarusian sausage and milk will disappear in stores, which will certainly happen if Belarus is absorbed by Russia,” the expert suggests (Author’s interview, September 29).
These analysts’ conclusions are supported by sociological data. Based on the results of an August poll, the deputy director of the Levada Center, Denis Volkov, noted that although the majority of Russians support the further development of economic cooperation between Moscow and Minsk, the desire to “annex Belarus” and “include it in Russia” is marginal—only a small number of elderly respondents express support for such unification (Forbes.ru, September 6).
The continuing decline in economic well-being also does not contribute to the readiness of Russians to make new sacrifices for the sake of the “greatness of the empire.” According to the state pollster Rosstat, every fourth child in Russia lives below the poverty line (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, August 7). Experts argue that the government is unable to solve the problem of declining incomes; by the end of 2020, 16 percent of the working-age population may live below the poverty line (Gazeta.ru, June 3). Such a situation does not lead to an increase in patriotism but, on the contrary, to a feeling of dissatisfaction with life and distrust of the authorities (see EDM, July 8).
For now at least, the Belarusian street demonstrations against Lukashenka are incapable of inspiring Russians to increase their own protest activities. “Russian media are sending contradictory signals to the domestic audience, hinting that the situation [in Minsk] is under control. Only if a successful political revolution really takes place in Belarus, will it be able to influence Russians,” Galkina believes. “Many [ordinary Russians] stand in solidarity with the Belarusian opposition, but they hardly think about replicating its experience,” Inozemtsev clarified (Author’s interview, September 29).
At the same time, Russian sociologists note that the country’s liberal opposition is extremely divided and does not have a clear program of economic reforms or understanding of issues of state structure. According to Sergei Belanovsky and Anastasia Nikolskaya, the prevailing feeling among the opposition manifests itself in “an atmosphere of expectation of a social miracle that will supposedly come true when the existing regime is replaced by a democratic one.” The two experts contended that “there is a gap between the real programs of state and economic reforms and ideas about these reforms among the democratic opposition.” And yet the supporters of liberal reforms, despite their lack of professional knowledge, are not ready to cooperate with “latent dissidents” among the lower and middle-level professional officials (Riddle, September 6).
Belanovsky and Nikolskaya fear the Russian opposition may fragment if an opportunity to democratically transform the country suddenly presents itself. This breakup could, in turn, lead to a stream of insoluble political conflicts that will again revive a desire within Russian society to “return to the idea of a ‘strong hand’ that will restore order” (Riddle, September 6). However, even in such a case, the Russian people only appear inclined to support authoritarianism as the “lesser evil” compared to anarchy—not as a result of imperial nostalgia and a desire to “save” neighboring countries.