Why Does Belarus' Self-Styled Dictator Lukashenko Take Dictations From Putin?
Putin has helped Lukashenko hold on to power for years, building valuable leverage that is being exerted today.
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Belarus, led by the 'last dictator of Europe' Alexander Lukashenko, has been used as a launchpad for the Russian assault on Ukraine that began last week on 24 February.
Russian tanks have been seen advancing into Ukrainian territory from south-western Belarus.
And now, the first talks between Moscow and Kyiv since the invasion are being held in Belarus, making the country's geopolitical stance very important to understand.
The takeover of Chernobyl nuclear power plant by the Russian forces is also believed to have had Belarus' role in it, given that it is located around 10 miles away from the southern border of the country.
Additionally, both countries conducted their most recent military drills on 10 February, near Belarus' southern border with Ukraine. Naval drills were also held in the Black sea.
The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have already sanctioned Belarus, accusing it of being an accomplice to the Russian aggression, but that hasn't led to any policy change by the Lukashenko government.
In this piece, we take a look a closer look at Alexander Lukashenko himself, the warm relationship between Belarus and Russia, and the role Belarus has been playing in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Role in the War
The joint 'military exercises' of Russia and Belarus were originally supposed to end by 20 February.
On that day itself, four days before the invasion, Russia stated that in light of the "deterioration of situation" in Eastern Ukraine, the estimated 30,000 Russian troops have extended their stay in Belarus.
The US, the United Kingdom, and NATO intelligence warned that the Russians were using Belarus to encircle Ukraine, and were poised to invade it.
Lukashenko has continued to deny the role of his troops in Putin's assault on Ukraine, but a top US official claimed on 27 February that Belarusian troops were indeed going to join their Russian counterparts.
On top of all that, Belarus held a referendum on 27 February, approving a new constitution, that would, among other things, leave the country's non-nuclear status behind.
The central elections commission stated that 65 percent had voted in favour of the modifications, which is hardly a surprise given the lack of freedoms and civil liberties that the Belarusian people are allowed to exercise.
This means that nuclear weapons could end up on the country's soil for the first time since Minsk gave them back to Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, based on the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.
On the day of the referendum, Lukashenko said, addressing European countries, "If you (the West) transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions," as quoted by Reuters.
Some experts believe that Lukashenko is an unwilling participant in the war, given that trade between Ukraine and Belarus is also huge.
Olga Dryndova, who runs the Belarus-Analysen at the University of Bremen, argues that since Lukashenko was able to stay in power because of Putin, the Russian president has enormous leverage over his Belarusian counterpart.
"I don't see how possible it was for him to stay in power without the support of Putin. But it came at a price. That’s also the tragedy of the protests of 2020—that they made [Lukashenko] so weak that he is now not able to ask Putin to move his tanks out of the territory," Dryndova told Time.
During the 2020 anti-government protests in Belarus, Putin had aided Lukashenko with security forces and media propaganda that had helped him overcome the crisis that his regime was facing.
Lukashenko gains nothing from the Russian assault on Ukraine. But as Dryndova says, he doesn't seem to have much of a choice other than letting Putin use his territory for the Kremlin's military and geopolitical objectives.
In fact, the Belarusian president loses economically, because his country's defence sector, banks, financial institutions, and politically powerful individuals have already been targeted for sanctions by the US and the EU.
More sanctions have been threatened by the west.
Belarus' Dependence on Russia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus became the only former Soviet republic that continued to maintain tight relations with Russia.
Due to the Lukashenko government's anti-democratic practices and blatant human rights violations, Minsk's relations with Western Europe and the US severely deteriorated, furthering its unity with Moscow.
Belarus depends on Russia for natural gas. More than 40 percent of the exports from Belarus go to Russia.
Bilateral trading between the two was almost $30 billion in 2020, as per published government data.
That's a huge number for a country that has been shunned by the West.
An isolated Lukashenko publicly pledged allegiance to Russia in August 2020.
Lukashenko – The Last Dictator of Europe
During a rare interview with Reuters, Lukashenko had called himself the "last dictator of Europe."
Any why not? The self-styled dictator, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has a history of cracking down on critics, dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists, leading to a sharp decline in relations between Belarus and the EU.
During the 2020 presidential elections for his sixth term as president, Lukashenko was accused of massive electoral fraud, while the opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed that she had won the election with two-thirds of the total vote.
Lukashenko, however, refused to cede his throne.
He instead, from his chopper, surveyed the pro-democracy protests that were happening on the ground, and initiated a brutal assault on the protesters.
Following his refusal to step down, and following the horrific show of force against his own people, the EU announced and enforced sanctions against government officials that it blamed for election fraud and humans rights violations.
He also made headlines for arresting anti-government journalist Roman Protasevich by diverting a flight, after a false bomb threat issued by the Belarusian air traffic control.
(With inputs from Reuters and Time.)
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Topics: Russia Ukraine Crisis
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