• Owen Swift

Episode 51. Belarus: The Next Crimea?

Listen to this episode on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Libsyn RSS

Rundown:

Since 1994 Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed Europe's last dictator. 2020 though brought a brand new wave of protests and Lukashenko's position in power has become somewhat shaky, and he is beginning to outlive his usefulness to the Kremlin. Will the Kremlin fight to keep him there, or place someone else on the throne? Is there a future for Belarus in the West?

Guests:

Scott Rauland

  • Former Head of US Mission in Belarus

  • Former Assistant Public Affairs Officer in the US embassy in Baku

  • Senior member of US State department specialising in former Soviet Union countries.

Heather Conley

  • Senior Vice President and Director for the European, Eurasian, and Arctic programs of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

  • Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau for European-Eurasian Affairs for the US

  • Chairman of the Board of the American Red Cross

Steven Pifer

  • Senior Non-Resident Fellow for the Brookings Institute specialising in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus

  • Served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs

  • Former US ambassador to Ukraine, and Special Assistant to the President

  • Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasian National Security

Part 1: It Is What It Is (2:42)

  • Rauland takes us through how Lukashenko won Belarus' only free and fair election; their first in 1994, and how he has maintained power since. What was his pitch to the electorate given Belarus' complex relationship with Russia and Europe, and how has that pitch aged?

  • Lukashenko has successfully pulled off his balancing act for 25 years, keeping himself in power and managing Belarusian relations between Russia and Europe. We look at why this changed in 2020, and the prospects for Lukashenko to improve his relations in Europe again.

  • In the late 90s there was serious talk of a Russian-Belarusian union. We look at why this was and why it did not come to pass

  • Lukashenko's very Putin friendly tune changed slightly following the annexation of Crimea. Rauland helps analyse how his behaviour changed, where Russian propaganda is most effective, and if Belarus has an area like Crimea which could be exploited by Russian militias and propaganda.

  • We round out by looking at Rauland's view on what is likely to happen following the largest protests in Belarus' history in 2020. Will the state remain static until Lukashenko dies? Or is a real movement for change building?


Part 2: The Little Brother (23:55)

  • With Conley we look at the Putin angle in Belarus. His interests and goals, and the role he has played so far.

  • We look in more detail at the back-and-forth way that Lukashenko played European and Russian relations to his benefit, and how the recent events have ended that charade.

  • We look at the slow integration of the Belarusian and Russian military apparatus over the last 20 years, and the consequences of that for NATO.

  • The new generation in Belarus is actively demonstrating for democratic governance and higher standards of living. Do these demands represent a real threat to Lukashenko? Or will his rule continue unabated with more support from Moscow?

  • Conley helps us understand the new opposition in Belarus that emerged following Lukashenko jailing most of his political rivals. When their wives stepped into those political roles, he had a whole new set of issues to deal with and his rash actions to shut them down sparked the widespread demonstrations in 2020.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the primary Belarusian opposition leader. We look at why opposition in Belarus is not pro-western, and what Tsikhanouskaya seeks.

  • Factions within Russia have varying views about what is the best thing to do with Belarus. Some oppose encouraging any choice about political leaders, others seek economic stability, others seek to install a Russian controlled leader in the country, and still others are looking at disconnecting a bit from Belarus because of the economic toll supporting the country takes on Russia.

Part 3: The Next Crimea? (44:49)

  • Pifer takes us through how and why Lukashenko burned all his bridges to Europe after such a long time balancing between them, and what it means that he has been driven into full-throated support for Russia.

  • We analyse Russia's overall, long-term plans for Belarus. Does it seek a permanent buffer state? Would a semi-controlled middle-man like Hong Kong be of interest? And to what extent could or would they serve as the tip of the spear in a conflict with NATO?

  • The Defence in Depth strategy no longer has the meaning it once did. To what extent has the Russian military and political system adapted to new strategic outlooks, and how does this impact the future of Belarus?

  • We look at the growing tensions between Belarus and its neighbours. From increasingly frosty diplomacy from Europe, to the ban on Belarusian airlines in Ukraine, to the build-up of NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania.

  • Pifer concludes that if Lukashenko was overthrown, they would intervene, which in his analysis would be a huge strategic mistake. A population so well-disposed toward Russia is not as common as Moscow would like, and alienating a large portion of that population would not serve them well in the long run.

  • We get Pifer's short-medium term outlook for Belarus, and how political events might evolve around Lukashenko.

The Red Line's Belarus Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Belarus.


Books:

The Eagle and The Trident

Steven Pifer


Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship

Andrew Wilson


The Central and Eastern European Politics: From Communism to Democracy

Sharon L Wolchik


Articles/Journals:

For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/theredlinepodcast


This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Paul Glezan, Gabor Z, and BlackWarriorz.