Belarus’s already strained relations with Russia have recently deteriorated even further. Several new indications add to the previously compiled list (see EDM, January 18, 20). First, during a January 18 episode of the Russian talk show Pravo Golosa, a casual survey of the TV audience included the question whether viewers “like” the fact that Belarus is an independent state. Most (69 percent) appeared to “like” it, but the scandalous essence of the question was not lost on Minsk (Belorussky Partizan, January 19). Second, in their televised working meeting, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka specifically underscored to Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko that “We agreed that in the nearest future you would report to me about the situation in the oil and gas sector in conjunction with Russia’s behavior” (President.gov, January 20). Third, Belarus’s agreement with the European Union to open several small camps for illegal migrants intercepted on the Belarusian-EU border caused a furor in the Russian media (Lenta.ru, January 21) and led to concerns expressed by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, which the Belarusian foreign ministry sought to alleviate (Belta.by, January 17).
To add insult to injury, Belarus announced the upcoming extradition of the Russian blogger Alexander Lapshin to Azerbaijan for his alleged 2011 trip to Karabakh without the permission of the authorities in Baku. The extradition decision, now under appeal, was announced on January 17, despite Lavrov’s request to block it. Azerbaijan is the only country Belarus can rely upon to compensate—at a reasonable price—for the shortage of imported Russian oil at its refineries. Note that this shortage was caused by Russia’s decision to penalize Belarus for its non-payment of a debt for natural gas (Tut.by, January 22).
Growing bilateral tensions continue to provoke commentary in the Belarusian media and think tanks. Here, the disposition is unusual. Perhaps the utmost doomsayer regarding Russia’s intentions has been an entity close to the Belarusian government (which is routinely blamed for strengthening ties with Russia). Whereas, skepticism about Moscow’s aggression has been most consistently expressed by Westernizing opposition-minded pundits (who have a long history of faulting the government for those ties). Raising the alarm has been the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research (CSFPR). According to a recent CSFPR report, at some point in 2017 Russia is likely to attain “total military-political control” over Belarus “either through regime change or by exerting extreme forms of pressure on the current leadership of Belarus” (Csfps.by, January 12).
Yet, according to Valer Karbalevich, a Minsk-based analyst at Radio Liberty, Moscow is unlikely to conduct regime change in Minsk if only because Russia is seeking the lifting of Western sanctions. Karbalevich sees the CSFPR report as an attempt by the ruling regime to rally the society around Lukashenka (Svaboda.org, January 18). Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran opposition analyst, claims that Moscow would only complicate its overall problems if it were to invade Belarus; therefore, the probability for such an invasion is low. The roots of Belarus’s vulnerability are not in the designs of Moscow but in the fact that “its civic society is weak, the political system has been broken, and there is no mechanism for the transfer of power” (Naviny.by, January 17).
The opinions of Belarus’s most reputable opposition commentators are in line with Arkady Moshes, from the Finnish Institute for International Relations. According to Moshes, Moscow has nothing to worry about from improving relations between Minsk and the West. Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia is still overwhelming; thus, Belarus is firmly within Russia’s information space. In addition, the EU has “dramatically lowered the level of its regional ambitions” following the crisis in Ukraine. What is more, Western financial institutions have not demonstrated a willingness to ease Belarus’s economic travails. Even the much-heralded resumption of the loan program by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has yet to materialize; without it, all other sources of Western financial assistance are destined to be limited (Globalaffairs.ru, January 17).
The most caustic denunciation of the CSFPR arguably came from Alexander Feduta, the prodigy on the side of the opposition—he was the Young Communist League chairman, a member of Lukashenka’s winning team in 1994, a subsequently active opposition politician, a prisoner, and a Russian-style polittechnolog (“political technologist”) with recent experience in Ukraine and Russia; currently, he is a philologist, a specialist on Alexander Pushkin, a blogger and a political analyst. Feduta hints that the CSFPR report may be an attempt on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to muster Western support for Belarus on the eve of the January 24 session of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) (Naviny.by, January 22).
What can explain this avalanche of skepticism regarding accusations of malevolent Russian intentions against Belarus? Part of the problem is the background of the CSFPR report’s authors: Tsarik used to work for the Presidential Administration of Belarus and for the Ministry of Information, while Sivitsky is a PhD student at the Institute of Philosophy and he used to be a freelance columnist for Russian Izvestia, a staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid. The other part of the problem is the legendary Belarusian “stability.” After all, it pertains not merely to the country’s ability to avoid any of the internal or external conflicts that have engulfed much of the rest of the post-Soviet space in the past two and a half decades. Nor does Belarusian “stability” only refer to intransience at the helm of power. Rather, it also reflects the bewildering permanency in the ranks of the opposition and its opinion molders. Tsarik and Sivitsky are the upstarts who disturbed their calm within a short period of time by issuing reports that have captured everybody’s attention. Thus, debunking them has become an irresistible target for the old opposition.
That said, this intra-opposition debate says nothing about the quality of Tsarik and Sivitsky’s predictions as such. In fact, predicting Belarus’s future remains as confusing as ever; and “nothing” may not be the worst conclusion at all.