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Is Belarus Moving Away From Russia?

Is Belarus Moving Away From Russia?
Moscow to Minsk (night train)
Image by vladimir.guryanov

The coronavirus crises has pushed Minsk away from Moscow. Russia closed its borders with Belarus and banned Belarusians from entering its territory from March 18 to May 1. The Kremlin-friendly media are constantly ridiculing President Alexander Lukashenko after he refused to implement draconian measures and shut down Belarusian economy. Unlike him, Russian leaders have introduced some very restrictive measures, as well as a China-style digital tracking system to enforce a coronavirus lockdown. 

According to Russian officials, such measures are paying off as two million people have been tested and the death rate is low. However, the lockdown in Russia, as in many other countries, has caused much suffering and already has severe consequences on economy. Recently, hundreds of people protested against regional authorities in southern Russia over what they said were restrictive and unnecessary coronavirus measures.

Belarus, on the other hand, is the only country in Europe, besides Sweden, that did not limit its economic activities. President Lukashenko openly called the coronavirus pandemic a psychosis and refused to put life in Belarus on hold until there’s a vaccine. Unlike Russia, which has canceled the Victory Day Parade, Belarusian Defense Ministry has confirmed that the military parade scheduled for May 9 will take place despite the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

“The current epidemiological situation in the Republic of Belarus allows the Armed Forces to carry out planned combat training activities. Preparations for the parade and the event itself is an integral part of the combat training of the troops,” the ministry explained.

It is also worth noting that hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christian believers flocked to churches in Belarus on Sunday to celebrate Easter, a sharp contrast with reserved Orthodox Easter observances in Russia and other countries that banned public services. Lukashenko himself attended the services, accompanied by his 15-year-old son.

According to Lukashenko, Belarus has turned out to be better prepared to combat coronavirus thanks to preserving the necessary capacities in the healthcare system. In other words, unlike many other former socialist countries, Belarus did not devastate its healthcare system. It refused to implement the West-backed privatization plans which would result in destruction of Belarusian Soviet-style economy and would also have severe impact on its healthcare delivery capability. Over the years, Minsk has also managed to preserve its economy from Russian oligarchs, even though Lukashenko had to make some painful compromises to Russia. 

After the coronavirus global crisis hit Belarus, Minsk was expected to ask Moscow for loans, as it did many times in the past twenty years. However, this time Belarus apparently made a political maneuver. Instead of endless negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko turned westward, at least when it comes to loans. According to reports, Belarus is due to receive emergency funding of $500-900 million from the International Monetary Fund this year due to the coronavirus crisis. In addition to that, the United States has recently named its first ambassador to Belarus in more than a decade. In 2006 Washington imposed sanctions on Minsk in response to alleged human rights abuses and a political crackdown around the 2006 Belarusian presidential election. The appointment of a new envoy can be interpreted as a sign of warming relations between the two countries. On the other hand, relations between Belarus and Russia seem to get worse.  

“People around the world are poking fun at me, in particular in Russia, as if they had nothing else to discuss”, said Lukashenko explaining his controversial attitude on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Once the Russian economy is re-opened, the two countries will likely have to redefine their relations.

According to official information, in June 2019 Belarus owed Russia $7.55 billion. Since the oil crisis has a major impact on Russian economy, it is very questionable if Moscow will keep subsidizing Minsk, as it has been doing since 1999 when the Russia – Belarus Union State was created.  Pundits all over the globe are sure that the world will not be the same after the coronavirus crisis, which means that relations between Russia and Belarus will not be the same either. That means that Russia could lose its interests in buying Lukashenko’s loyalty, and he could decide not to continue hosting two Russian military bases in Belarus after 2021. 

If that happens, the very existence of the Russia – Belarus Union state will also be quite debatable. That, however, does not mean the two countries will completely break ties. As long as Lukashenko is in power, he will keep balancing between Russia and the West. He will also occasionally flirt with China, or some other global or regional powers. However, most of all he will try to preserve Belarusian sovereignty. In other words, Lukashenko will try to fortify the non-aligned foreign policy that was originally implemented by the late Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito. It remains to be seen if major global actors will allow Lukashenko’s Belarus to remain sovereign and relatively independent, or if someone will eventually decide to force a regime change in Minsk.

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