Why Belarus Can't Afford to Be the New Ukraine

Vladimir Putin with Aleksandr Lukashenko. Kremlin.ru

Is it too late for Lukashenko to defy Russia?

At this point, it is almost impossible to predict how Lukashenko can politically survive without Moscow’s support. Belarus is often compared to Ukraine, which successfully conned Russia into believing that it participated in post-Soviet integration for years and, eventually, broke with Russia in a violent way. That comparison is valuable to the degree that it helps to understand the major differences between the two countries. First, Lukashenko has been known to the West for decades, and is known as “the Last Dictator of Europe” for a reason. He can hardly pretend to be born-again democrat, and accepting him might be very toxic for European politicians. Second, those Belarusian intellectuals in favor of turning from Russia to the West have mostly left the country and have no popular support domestically. Third, there is no popular anti-Russian movement inside Belarus. If anything, culturally and economically, the Belarusian people may be more interested in integrating with Russia than Lukashenko. Fourth, and most importantly, the Belarusian president is in a drastic need of outside support, especially cash for the struggling Belarusian economy. He needs hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. There is just no source of that kind of money in the West. With everything the Trump administration has on its plate and the growing EU crisis, Lukashenko has no choice but to follow an integration scenario led by Moscow.

It is of no doubt that Belarus is important to this integration. Its educated workforce and big market are already making the Eurasian Economic Union stronger. However, considering the time pressure on Lukashenko, the Kremlin can wait until the growing economic problems make the Belarusian president more cooperative. Also notable is that the time when Russia could pretend that integration in the post-Soviet space was successful, and spend billions of dollars on declarations of friendship and festive summits, is in the past. For practical decisionmakers in Moscow, the Belarus-Russia integration, done in the right way, is seen as a means of forging economic and foreign political gains, rather than an act of charity based on nostalgia. Now, post-Soviet leaders need to choose whether or not to participate in that integration. Aleksandr Lukashenko may end up being the one with the fewest alternative options.

Nikolay Pakhomov is President of The New York Consulting Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter @nik_pakhomov.

Image: Vladimir Putin with Aleksandr Lukashenko. Kremlin.ru