When Alexander Lukashenko, the ever since President of Belarus, went out of the room where Petro Poroshenko swearing-in ceremony was held, told Ukrainian journalists “Go to Crimea, negotiate and try to take it back”.
Something you do not expect from one of the most faithful allies of Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, it is not the first time that Lukashenko stands differently from his strong ally. Especially since the crisis in Ukraine erupted.
Belarus is not Russia nor Ukraine. Lukashenko has ruled the country since its independence with a firm hand, very firm indeed. The opposition is non-existent, a few political activists make their feeble voices heard only on the web and from abroad, and elections always end up being a plebiscite in favor of the president, which amended the constitution to remain in office for life. Yet in the aftermath of the revolution of Euromaidan, Lukashenko said he was ready to cooperate with the government formed after the demonstrations. “Our position is not aligned with that of Moscow. And we are not getting pressure, nor by the Kremlin or anybody else.” When the winds of separatism and civil war started blowing, he called several times for the unit of Ukraine and against the federal solution. The exact opposite of Moscow stance. “If Ukraine is divided into two federal entities, the east and the west, then someone might come to mind of taking one of them,” he said to the newspaper Belaruskij Partizan.
The invasion of Belarus
The day of Poroshenko’s swearing-in – who, despite the conciliatory statements, has not been acknowledged by the Kremlin yet – he, the last dictator of Europe, sat in the front row next to Herman Van Rompuy, President of the Council of Europe, and Dalia Gribauskaite, President of Lithuania and one of the strongest supporters of the sanctions on Russia. A few days later, however, Lukashenko was in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, along with his fellow dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev and mentor Putin, to sign the historic agreement on the Eurasian Economic, a step towards deeper political union among the former Soviet countries. They seem irreconcilable positions. As it seems irreconcilable an interview to the Russian opposition channel Dozhd TV, in which he repeatedly criticized the expansionist policy of Putin, even saying that “If Russia decides to occupy Belarus, it is unclear which side the Russian soldiers will take. A Russian will never turn a gun on a Belarusian, here we are the most pro-Russian province in our mutual fatherland.” Beyond declarations of unity, it is incredible to hear Lukashenko speak of a Russian invasion of his country.
The dictators are scared
Many believe that the Eurasian Union leaders did not like Putin’s stance in defense of Russian citizens living outside Russia. Lukashenko has described the annexation of Crimea “a bad precedent” and Nazarbayev must have immediately thought of the nearly 4 million Russians who live in Kazakhstan. It is likely that Lukashenko has spent more than a few sleepless nights since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, agitated by the risk of a Euromaidan in Belarus on one hand, and by the suffocating embrace of Moscow on the other.
Sources from the security services, cited by the independent website Belarus Digest, revealed that police have prepared a plan to avoid a Ukrainian scenario in Belarus, providing countermeasures in case of massive demonstrations and occupations of government buildings. At the same time, however, Lukashenko has refused to send observers during the separatist referendum in Crimea and the Donbass, calling them several times “foolish.”
Many see the claims of Lukashenko as a cautious openness to Europe, but it is much more likely that he is just trying to juggle between two fires. Showing a certain degree of autonomy from Moscow, calling for the return of Yanukovych before, and endorsing president-elect Poroshenko after, engaging his country in a political union with Russia and criticizing its foreign policy could be nothing more than expressions of a strategy balance. A precarious one.