So here we go again. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be doing what he does best: flirting with the West, antagonizing Russia, and implicitly threatening to stray from Moscow’s orbit.
It’s the Lukashenka two-step. And it seems we’ve seen this movie before.
And every time the Belarusian strongman has tried this trick in the past, it’s worked like a charm. He gets some concessions from the West and Russia keeps feeding him subsidies.
But if Lukashenka has been a master gamer in the past, this time the game feels different.
With Minsk and Moscow at odds over gas prices, oil deliveries, food exports, Belarus granting visa-free travel to Westerners, Russia imposing border controls, and the Kremlin’s push for a new air base, this time it all feels much more dangerous.
It feels more ominous. And it feels like the stakes are higher.
This time it feels like the movie just might have a different ending.
So what’s changed and why?
From ‘Social Contract’ To ‘Security Contract’
The landscape began to shift back in 2014, as Lukashenka was marking two decades in power.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas that year raised fears in Minsk that Belarus could someday become a target of Moscow’s imperial expansion.
Additionally, the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, falling oil prices, and Western sanctions meant that Moscow’s subsidies to Belarus were sharply reduced.
This made it difficult for Lukashenka to maintain the Soviet-style social welfare state that was the basis for his legitimacy.
According to Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Lukashenka then decided to switch from a “social contract” to a “security contract” as the main justification for his rule.
He refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and even ridiculed Moscow’s logic justifying the annexation, saying that Mongolia could just as easily lay claim to large swaths of Russian territory.
He carved out a neutral stance on the war in the Donbas, has said he would never allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack another state, and has made it clear that Belarus isn’t interested in being part of Putin’s so-called “Russian World.”
He began purging Belarus’s security apparatus of suspected fifth columnists who showed excessive enthusiasm for the Kremlin’s imperial projects.
And he resisted Russian efforts to establish a new air base on Belarusian territory in Babruysk, recently telling a news conference, “We do not need it here.”
Lukashenka was careful not to push too far, he was careful not to break with Moscow, but he nevertheless started presenting himself as the last best hope for Belarusian independence.
“The maintenance of statehood and national security,” Wilson writes, became “a much more prominent part of his governing formula.”
But just as Lukashenka was attempting to demonstrate a degree of independence from Moscow, Belarus’s geopolitical value to the Kremlin was also visibly rising.
In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO deployed thousands of troops in Eastern Europe, including in Belarus’s neighbors, Poland and Lithuania.
And when Western military planners look at scenarios for how a conflict between Russia and NATO would shape up, Belarus looms large.
It is widely assumed not only to be in Moscow’s camp, but for military purposes, its territory is seen as a virtual extension of Russia’s.
This is why the Suwalki Gap, a roughly 100-kilometer stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border wedged between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region, is such a problem.
If Russia captured the gap in a conflict, it would cut the Baltics off from the rest of the alliance.
Given all of this, in the current geopolitical environment, Moscow is increasingly less likely to tolerate too much of what it sees as insubordination from the Belarusian leader.
In fact, when two think tanks — the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation — recently war-gamed a potential conflict between Russia and NATO, the simulation began with a Moscow-backed coup in Belarus that overthrows Lukashenka and replaces him with a more pliant figure.
Given all of this, the massive Zapad military exercises planned for later this year, when tens of thousands of Russian troops will be on Belarusian soil, are taking on an ominous tone.
The Belarusian Street
One thing Lukashenka accomplished by switching to a “security contract” and presenting himself as the guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty was the establishment of an uneasy peace with the opposition.
Fears that any attempts to undermine his rule could lead to Putin’s “little green men” making an appearance on Belarusian soil kept street protests to a minimum.
Lukashenka also made limited overtures.
He freed some opposition activists. And in the 2016 parliamentary elections, Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim became the first opposition figures allowed to win seats in 20 years.
But the uneasy peace was not to last. Because all the while, the Belarusian economy was reeling, with GDP falling by 3.9 percent in 2015 and by 2.6 percent in 2016.
And when the authorities imposed a so-called parasite tax, which is essentially a fine on the unemployed, thousands took to the streets in cities across the country.
The protests, which appear to be driven by genuine grassroots anger, present a thorny dilemma for Lukashenka.
Because beyond their opposition to the unemployment tax, the protesters want something that he cannot deliver in the current economy: a return to the standards of living they enjoyed a decade ago.
Up until now, Lukashenka has gamed things out perfectly in Belarus.
He’s made himself indispensible to the West as a bulwark against Russia.
He’s made himself indispensible to Russia as Moscow’s last ally to the West.
And he’s made himself indispensible to Belarus’s opposition as the last defender of Belarusian sovereignty and independence.
But now there’s a new player in the game called the Belarusian people — and they appear to be fed up.
And if Lukashenka can’t defuse the situation quickly, it just might give Putin the idea that it’s time to replace him with a more pliant figure.
In that case, Lukashenka the gamer will have finally met his match.
“Lukashenka,” Wilson writes. “is now in uncharted territory.”