As the Wagner mercenary leader takes refuge in Belarus, Duncan Bowie reviews a timely study of a nation that took the Putin road
Belarus has been in the Western news as a result of President Lukashenko’s intervention in the dispute between Putin and the mercenary army known as the Wagner Group. Given Putin has propped up Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime for the last 20 years, Lukashenko clearly owed Putin a favour, but is perhaps difficult to understand how he had the authority to persuade Prigozhin to halt his march on Moscow and ‘save Russia from civil war’, as is claimed. Putin has been weakened by the incident, and there is now a risk of increasing competition for power between different mercenary groups within Russia; but it is also perhaps necessary to reassess the role of Lukashenko and the complex relationship between Belarus and Russia.
Most of Hanbury’s book was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it is perhaps disappointing that in a book subtitled From Domestic Unrest to the Russia-Ukraine War that the impact of the war and Belarus’s role within it is limited to a 20-page coda or epilogue. This is not insignificant as Russia has a military alliance with Belarus and has used Belarus as a basis from which to attack Ukraine, especially for the assault on Kyiv in the early months of the war. Moreover, Belarus has been subject to economic sanctions, as has Russia, and now shares Russia’s status as a pariah state – at least from the perspective of Western powers, though not necessarily from the perspective of China, India or South Africa.
The early chapters of Hansbury’s book give a potted history of Belorussia, a country which, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, had had only a few months of nominal independence – under German overlordship – in 1918-1919. There are, in fact, many parallels with Ukrainian history – occupation by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, by Poland, by Russia and by Germany (twice). As Slav republics within the Soviet Union, it was the Belarusian and Ukrainian communist leaders who allied with Yeltsin to collapse the Soviet state, in a meeting in a hunting lodge near the Belarusian capital of Minsk. It was also at Minsk, in 2014, that Russia and Ukraine reached a form of settlement after the Russian occupation of the Crimea. Putin, in his belief in re-establishing a Greater Slavic Russia, has never accepted the right of Belarus or Ukraine to be independent sovereign states.
Lukashenko has had to balance a Belarusian nationalism with his country’s dependence on Russia, which has subsidised Belarus throughout its 30-year existence and has blatantly used its control over energy supplies to stop any temptation Lukashenko might show to dally with the West. Belarus was forced to pull out of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. Much of the book focuses on the development of Lukashenko’s dictatorship, a subject studied by previous western writers including Brian Bennett and Andrew Wilson. There is a detailed analysis of the different groups and individuals within the Belarus opposition, which brings the earlier studies (almost) up to date, the author having worked with NGOs and political analysts within the country.
As with the case of Russia, most Belarus dissidents are either dead, in prison or in exile. The opposition can mount demonstrations and even organise sabotage, but as yet there is no indication that there will be a popular ‘colour’ revolution to bring down Lukashenko’s regime, given the strength of the Belarus military and the presence of Russian military within the country. The new addition of the Wagner mercenaries within Belarus will, however, add to the volatility, given mercenaries, by their very nature, can serve on any side of a conflict – they could either support Lukashenko or seek to replace him. Lukashenko’s fortune is, however, tied to that of Putin, and if Putin falls, it is difficult to see how Lukashenko and his regime can survive – although perhaps Lukashenko will try to jump off Putin’s train before it crashes. It will, however, probably be too late for Belarus to abandon its eastwards, pro-Russian orientation and seek to rebuild a relationship with the West. In the case of Russia, the fall of Putin could lead to an even more nationalist autocratic leadership. We should not, therefore, assume that Lukashenko will necessarily be succeeded by a more liberal western-orientated regime, though the prospect is perhaps more positive than in the case of its larger neighbour. Whether an independent Belarus would be a viable state, in economic, political or geospatial terms, is a different matter.