Thursday, 3 August 2017

Notes on Belarus 2017

Belarus rarely gets much attention in the Western media, other than when there is a disputed election and protests. Venezuela under Maduro gets fare more attention in Britain, partly as it's a major oil producer and Belarus is not. It was also regarded as a model '21st Century Socialism' until Chavez's death in 2013 by some on the left.

On reflection, this is bizarre when it is considered that Belarus is just to the east of Poland's border and that Poland was, until 2015, thought to be a fully integrated EU member, stable liberal democracy and staunchly Atlanticist power in Central-Eastern Europe, with migrant workers living across Europe.

Belarus, by contrast, remains relatively unknown and ignored. The left simply wasn't interested in an anti-Western republic which harks back to a forgotten and drab period of the Cold War. It lacks the exotic appeal of Venezuela and the idealistic appeal of its model. It's citizens are white and Slavonic, a cold land frozen out of the rest of Europe.

One reason, apart from the lack of oil, is Belarus doesn't have much history as an independent nation-state, being variously depicted as a land labouring under 'Europe's last dictatorship', a territory carved out of the collapse USSR that's remained largely indistinct as a separate and independent entity or 'The Last Soviet Republic'.

This interesting analysis below draws attention to Belarus' status as a geopolitical buffer state between Russia and the EU, one that under Lukashenko has tried to survive by playing of rival suitors vying for influence over this strategically located state, one that has resisted being drawn into the EU and NATO or Putin's neo-Tsarist state.

With the tug of war battle over Ukraine's destiny to the south leading to a major crisis in 2013-2014 and a civil war continuing growling away in the eastern provinces, Belarus has remained largely quiescent, though there are stirrings of protest given the deteriorating economy and fear of external political intervention.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Poland shifts towards a more authoritarian system under the PiS party. Under its new regime, Poland has sought to reconstitute itself as a rival Central-Eastern power bloc within the EU as counterweight both to a Franco-German dominated Europe to the west and Russia to the east.

Poland would hardly seek to promote liberal democracy quite as before over the border when it's not committed to it at home. Kaczynski is openly lauding the Turkish model of President Erdogan. Across a broad swathe of territory in what Mackinder called the 'rimlands' surrounding the Eurasian 'heartland', neo-authoritarianism is in.

One of the strange ironies of history could be that far from Belarus moving towards liberal democracy, as was once believed inevitable in every post-Soviet state in the 1990s and 2000s, it offers a model of neo-authoritarianism based on capitalism, a dominant party-state monopower and a minimal social security net.

This new 'model' would be touted as offering 'stability' through security from the 'disorder' of Western liberal freedoms, the threat of 'terrorism' and those hostile alien elements within supported by external powers to disintegrate society and cede control to sinister transnational interests that are conspiring to demoralise the nation.

Even so, this might not preclude both Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Russia, vying for geopolitical influence within Belarus, just as they have over Ukraine, out of nationalist competition and using the plight of ethnic minorities as a pretext for external concern. As this article shows, Russia sees it as a vital buffer state.

In that sense, Belarus is the European western end of the Eurasian landmass just as North Korea is the eastern Asian land tip at the other end. While Timothy Garton Ash refers to Belarus as 'Europe's North Korea', Belarus is hardly a nightmarish totalitarian state threatening its own citizens and the region as Pyongyang does.

Even so, it could be argued that Belarus was were the post-1989-1991 era of democracy rolling east from Europe first 'stopped' after a brief experiment. Lukashenko preceded Putin as an authoritarian strongman after a short and traumatic experiment in a neoliberal market democracy. His regime is a precursor of what was to come later.

Antonia Colibasanu sets out the strategic scene and dilemmas of Belarus' position in 2017 in Geopolitical Futures in Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22.

'Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow will “do its best” to prevent any destabilization that could cause a color revolution in Russia and its buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Putin’s remarks come after the media reported that Russian nationals were arrested in Belarus for taking part in anti-government protests in Minsk on March 25-26.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko used the arrests to send a message to Putin prior to their meeting on April 3. Lukashenko wanted to make clear that he is still in control of his country, despite recent protests and economic problems. And Moscow needs to keep Minsk on its side.

Russia’s essential strategic problem is its vulnerability on its western border. It is susceptible to invasions through the North European Plain and needs access to global trading routes via the Baltic and the Black seas.

Therefore, Russia needs to push its frontier or sphere of influence as far west as possible, creating a buffer zone between Western Europe and its borders. Ideally, the Russian buffer zone would comprise the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltics have integrated into the Western alliance system since the end of the Cold War.

After losing Ukraine, keeping Belarus in its sphere of influence became even more important for Russia. Belarus is a key part of Russia’s security strategy because the two countries share a joint air defense system. They also have held joint military exercises every four years since 2009, and Russia hopes to strengthen its military presence in Belarus.

To maintain its influence over the country, Russia needs both a friendly government in Minsk and a stable Belarus. But to keep the government friendly, Russia relies on measures that can fuel destabilization. The poor state of the Belarusian economy has sparked anti-government demonstrations, which have continued for months.

The recent protests against the “social parasite” tax on the unemployed are some examples. After hundreds of protesters were arrested and 150 were jailed, fear has kept people from returning to the streets. But the economic problems remain. Belarus’ economy has been in recession for more than two years.

 Russia’s increasing economic problems since the fall in oil prices have had a negative impact on Belarus, which is heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Russia’s ability to support Belarus financially has declined. This has caused socio-economic problems in Belarus and and forced Minsk to seek solutions elsewhere.

...keeping Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence is more important than Russian internal politics. Lukashenko doesn’t face a powerful or united opposition. Most of the businesses in Belarus are tied to, if not dependent on, Russian money, either through direct funding or the Russian market.

If Russian support is reduced, Belarus will look to the West, which could lead to a change in government that would not be in Russia’s favor. Therefore, this is a Catch-22 for Russia: It can’t afford to continue spending money on Belarus while it faces problems at home, but it also can’t afford to stop supporting Belarus since another government in the West might instead.

Bibliography and Further Sources on Belarus.

Belarus Digest.
Geopolitical Review.
New East Network, the Guardian,

Books

A Wilson, Europe's Last Dictatorship ( 2011 )
B Bennett, Europe's Last Dictatorship: Belarus under Lukashenko ( 2011 )
I A Zaprudnik, Belarus : At a Crossroads in History ( 1993)
G Joffe, Understanding Belarus. How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark ( 2014 )
L Bazan, A History of Belarus. ( 2014)
D Marples, Belarus: A Denationalised Nation ( 1999 )
A Applebaum, Between East and West ( 1994 )
N Davies, Vanished Kingdoms ( 2012 )
N Davies, Europe at War: No Simple Victory 1939-1945 ( 2007 )
T Snyder, Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. ( 2011 )
T Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus ( 2009 ).

2011-Present.

A Wilson, Europe Keep an Eye on Minsk, Politico, March 17, 2017
A Sannikov, 'We are not slaves', Guardian, March 2017.
A Colibasanu, Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22, Geopolitical Futures, April, 2017.
A Fedirka, Belarus: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Geopolitical Futures, December, 2016.
R Astapenia, Belarus is no longer 'Europe's last dictatorship', Guardian, September 2014.
J Steele, Lukashenko's Way, LRB, September 2012.


2010 Election and Protests.

J Laughland, The Technique of a Coup d'├ętat, Lew Rockwell, December 2010.
T Garton Ash, We have to confront Europe's Mugabe , Guardian, December 2010.
C Reilly, Belarus-Image is All, Open Democracy, January 2009.
P Hitchens, The Comb-over Soviet-style Tyrant, Daily Mail, July 2008.

2006 Election and Protests..

M Almond, Less Bizarre than it Seems, Guardian, 21 March 2006
J  Laughland, The Prague Racket, Guardian, November 22 2002.
A Mazhukhou, The Will of the People was heard in Belarus's Election , April 2006.
T Garton Ash, Don't defend the dregs of Soviet Socialism, April 2006.
T Garton Ash, What's real in Belarus ? April, 2006
T Garton Ash, Belarus Needs You, March 2006
J Steele, Europe and the US decide the winner before the vote, March 2006.

 


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