Why Does Belarus Matter to Russia and the West?

Mass protests in Belarus against the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko have now entered their fifty-second consecutive day. The former Soviet state has now fallen deeply into the post-Cold War proxy war involving Russia and the West.

The European Union (EU) stated that Lukashenko – who has been in power for 26 years – must resign. Brussels refuses to acknowledge the election result due to alleged election fraud. Russia, meanwhile, is ready to intervene in the Belarus crisis as a last resort. 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin added that Lukashenko asked him to form a  law-enforcement reserve force, but said that Russia will not deploy the special unit unless the situation becomes uncontrollable.

Why do Russia and the West care so much about Belarus? To answer that a brief overview is necessary.

How Did the Belarus Crisis Begin?

The current political turmoil in Belarus began when a state-sponsored poll showed that Lukashenko had been reelected, securing his sixth term in office. He beat reform-minded politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband was jailed by the Lukashenko regime.

Lukashenko’s triumph triggered a nationwide protest, with widespread accusations that the election was neither free nor fair. The 66-year-old also arrested several opposition figures such as Viktor Babaryko and Maxim Znak, with the latter being detained by a masked man.

More than 100 have been arrested for protesting against the election result. Demonstrations and scores of arrests have also spread to numerous other cities in Belarus.

On Wednesday night, September 23, thousands of Belarusians took to the street protesting Lukashenko’s secret inauguration. Protesters formed a human chain that blocked several roads and caused congestion. Similarly large protests are still ongoing.

Belarus-Russia Ties: a Rocky Road

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus and Russia maintained close ties. Even though Lukashenko sometimes annoys Putin – like accusing Russian mercenaries of planning a terror act ahead of the poll and refusing to host a Russian airbase – Belarus needs Russia to support its economy, given that Russia supplies 80 percent of Belarus’ energy needs.

Belarus and Russia signed a Union State Treaty in 1997, aimed at boosting both countries’ cooperation, especially in socioeconomic, international relations and defense. It is expected that the treaty will also lead to a similar currency and legal system.

However, the relationship strained after Russia was not ready to continue subsidizing Belarus’ energy without a deeper economic integration. Lukashenko refused a deeper economic integration, leading to Russia’s decision to suspend oil shipments to its traditional ally temporarily.

Even though Lukashenko is trying to balance his policy by cooperating with the West, he is turning to Russia for help in facing these prolonged protests.

The West vs. Russia in Belarus

What is happening in Belarus may not be overly surprising in terms of the Western response. Indeed it has become common for the West to oppose any leaders endorsed by Russia. Venezuela is one example of how the West is trying to oust a legitimate president using the rigged election allegation.

The West is using the strained Belarus-Russia ties to exert its influence. Carnegie Moscow stated that Belarus has tried to boost its national identity instead of being under Russia’s shadow for the past few years. This represents a potential point of entry for Western influence and involvement. 

Crimea’s annexation by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 triggered sharp condemnation from the West, given Crimea’s strategic location surrounded by the oil-rich Black Sea.  Even though Russia may refrain itself from intervening militarily in Belarus and Putin has urged the conflicting sides in Belarus to seek peaceful solutions, the West is concerned and doesn’t want to lose even more ground in the post-Soviet sphere. 

As long as Europe and Russia continue trying to exert greater influence on Belarus, it is likely that Belarus’s internal conflict will only continue and intensify.