Updated at 13:33,29-11-2021

Most radical option for Belarus is to follow Finland’s path, expert says

Alyaksandr Klaskowski, BelaPAN

Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a challenge for Belarus. Observers realize that the Kremlin can use the same aggressive tactic against Belarus, Russia’s military outpost.

If Alyaksandr Lukashenka objects to Russia’s Eurasian integration proposals – for instance he would not delegate his powers to supranational bodies or refuse to introduce the Russian rubel in Belarus – Moscow may deploy its tanks and paratroopers to the neighboring country under the pretext of defending Russian speakers, its gas pipelines or military facilities.

A similar invasion is possible if Lukashenka’s grip on power loosens or a pro-Western government takes over the country.

A rabbit and a boa constrictor

Belarus and Russia are like a rabbit and a boa constrictor with the rabbit’s fate being predetermined, some observers say.

"The Russian curse will always weigh on Belarus," says Valery Karbalevich, of the Stratehiya think tank.

"The curse is more geographic than geopolitical," notes Dzyanis Melyantsow, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS).

But both say that Belarus is not fated to be swallowed by Russia.

Crimean crisis offers Minsk some advantages

Russia’s occupation of Crimea gives Minsk more of a say in talks with Moscow on the terms of its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEC) to be launched by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia in 2015, some observers say. Since Ukraine no longer competes for Russian subsidies, the Belarusian leader can ask for more preferential treatment, they argue.

Karbalevich says that Lukashenka is likely to rise in opinion polls as a steady hand amid Ukraine’s turmoil.

Dependence on Russia growing

But the advantages are few and far between. Belarus is growing more reliant on Russia for subsidies and energy (Belarus’ nuclear power plant is being built by Russia) and sees Russian military presence expand in the country.

Lukashenka is struggling to limit the Kremlin’s influence on Belarus’ politics and economy, says Karbalevich.

Back in 2002, he vehemently rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal that Belarus join Russia as six regions. He has resisted efforts by Russian businesses to buy up lucrative assets in Belarus by asking a high price or offering unattractive terms.

But his powers to resist are waning, while Putin is not in a hurry to make concessions that could keep Belarus’ economy afloat.

The cash-strapped Lukashenka government cannot afford large-scale industrial modernization and has delayed crucial structural reform for fear of social tensions.

"Belarus’ welfare-state model is a factor that makes its dependence on Russia even worse. If the model were changed, the country would be able to distance itself from Moscow," Karbalevich says.

The Crimean crisis may help Minsk find the right path, says Melyantsow. It would take political, economic and other strategies and at least limited reform to reduce Belarus’ dependence, he adds. Minsk would find it very difficult to sever military ties with Moscow, he told The Viewer, noting that the countries share a regional group of forces and an integrated air defense system.

Belarus, whose government worked hard to limit Western media penetration, has proven extremely vulnerable to Russian propaganda. If the government blocks Russian broadcasts, Moscow may raise a fury over alleged encroachment on the rights of Russian speakers.

Good luck can help Belarus break out of Russian embrace

Both Melyantsow and Karbalevich cautioned against provoking Russia into Ukrainian-style intervention.

Karbalevich says that Belarus should follow the path of Finland – seek closer ties with the EU but stay away from NATO.

However, the option is not available now that ties between Minsk and the EU remain frozen.

"The West may soften its stance on Belarus as Russia’s current policies encourage the EU and the United States to give priority to geopolitical considerations over values," Karbalevich says.

Melyantsow says that Belarus should wait for a crisis or a decline in Russia to reduce its dependence and build closer ties with the EU.

So, there is almost no escape for Belarus with its dependence on Russia. The country needs quite a bit of good luck to be able to reduce Russian influence. This is a result of two decades of Lukashenka’s policy aimed at "brotherly integration" with the neighbor that has an imperialistic background and great-power ambitions. Belarus is in the trap.