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Alexander Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving non-royal leader – and he hopes to hang on despite Russia’s now waning war support against Ukraine.
The February 24 Russian invasion was launched partly from Belarusian territory – providing the starting point for troops aiming to seize kyiv from the north. Belarus provided logistical support and airbases, but never sent its forces to join the fighting.
Russian troops have since withdrawn from northern Ukraine and largely moved out of Belarus, paving the way for Lukashenko to try to return to his tried and true method of staying in power by balancing the Kremlin against the West.
He is investigating whether his sanctioned regime can play a role in possible peace talks ending the war in Ukraine.
“There can be no negotiations without Belarus,” Lukashenko said last month. “There cannot be separate agreements behind Belarus’s back.”
It’s a terrible idea, said Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian ambassador to Poland, France and Spain, and now an opposition leader living in exile. He said Lukashenko was trying “to be legalized in the eyes of the international community”.
“That should not be allowed under any circumstances,” Latushko told POLITICO. “It would be perceived as a betrayal by the Belarusian population and would send a very demotivating message to civil society that it is impossible to replace [a] dictatorship with democracy.
Lukashenko’s skills at placating more powerful neighbors have been tested by war.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin built up forces around Ukraine ahead of the invasion, Lukashenko first said they were part of military drills and would soon return home, before changing course and to say that they would stay much longer.
Once the invasion was underway, he visited the Kremlin and pedantically explained to Putin why an invasion was necessary – an appearance that spawned dozens of memes mocking his subservience to the Russian leader.
While trying to please Putin, who provides the political and financial support that keeps Lukashenko in power, the Belarusian leader has also dodged pressure to send his small army into the fray.
War is not popular with us. According to a poll by independent Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky, two-thirds of the country are opposed to the use of Belarusian infrastructure for Russian military operations in Ukraine, 11% support the entry of Belarusian troops into Ukraine and 50.4% disapprove of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Dissent at home
Although street protests in late February lost momentum almost immediately, opposition leaders called on supporters to engage in acts of sabotage, such as disrupting rail traffic carrying supplies to Russian troops.
In March, an opposition supporter was seriously injured during a police raid on attempted railway sabotage.
“The harsh arrests of the criminals had a rather effective and sobering effect,” Belarusian Interior Minister Ivan Kubrakov told Lukashenko last month, referring to what he called “terrorist attacks.” against rail infrastructure.
“I have enough forces and assets and the guys who will support me, and we will behead anyone who wants to disturb the peace and quiet in our country,” Lukashenko replied.
The Belarusian parliament has also approved changes to the criminal code that make “attempted acts of terrorism” punishable by death.
The extent and effectiveness of these resistance and sabotage efforts are difficult to assess independently; the opposition claims to have succeeded in obstructing rail traffic, although the network was not paralyzed.
Lukashenko is also trying to use the sanctions imposed on his regime to give the impression that the country is under threat, with the aim of strengthening his grip on power; he has ruled Belarus since 1994.
“We just have to work hard and stop complaining about the sanctions,” he said last week, adding: “We have to be careful not to get caught up in problems. The main thing is to avoid the war.
His government has been under sanctions for years, but the scale accelerated after the violent crackdown following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, was further amplified when the country last year illegally hijacked a plane to land in Minsk to arrest an opposition activist, then reached new levels of tenacity after the invasion of Ukraine.
“We are once again tightening our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, the Lukashenko regime,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the war began.
Now Lukashenko is trying to shed some light between Minsk and Moscow.
Despite tougher laws against protests, Lukashenko also transferred some political prisoners from prison to house arrest and allowed visa-free travel to Belarus from Lithuania and Latvia. A migration crisis sparked by Lukashenko, who encouraged people to fly to Minsk and try to enter the EU, has eased.
On March 6, almost immediately after the withdrawal of Russian troops from northern Ukraine, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei sent a letter to some of his EU counterparts, in which he “categorically” rejected “any insinuation that Belarus is somehow involved in the hostilities in Ukraine”.
He also urged “[availing] of the diplomatic toolbox to restore dialogue.
Latushko said Makei’s letter should be met with “frosty silence”.
The letter was sent to Germany, France, Austria and Hungary, the opposition said. But the response was cautious.
A French diplomat tells POLITICO that France does not recognize the results of the 2020 presidential election, demands the release of all political prisoners and calls on Belarus to stop allowing the use of its territory in the war of Russia against Ukraine.
A spokesperson for the Austrian Foreign Ministry confirmed receipt of the letter and said Vienna “is discussing it with its EU partners”. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Latushko warned that Belarus would likely revert to past efforts to swap political prisoners for easing sanctions, and that Lukashenko’s diplomats also argue that ‘the only person who can save Belarus and protect it from Russia is Lukashenko’ .
“It’s an attempt to regain legitimacy, lift the sanctions and carry on as if nothing had happened,” mentioned Franak Viačorka, adviser to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.