Russia's latest shift on the Belarus crisis

It seems that Russia slowly, but steadily shifts towards supporting the serving President Lukashenko. In his interview to the state channel Rossiya (which is a notable fact itself) President Putin issued negative comments towards “the forces which would like to interfere into Belarusian affairs” and in many respects reiterated Lukashenko’s assessment of the protest movement as “infiltrated by radicals” and “manipulated”. It is also well-known that after most journalists from the Belarus state television decided to resign, a pool of Russian journalists and “political technologists” was dispatched to Minsk, disseminating messages in the very recognizable Russian style, with a mixture of jingoistic patriotism and cynicism. While most experts used to believe that Moscow would hardly aid the leader who in the recent years had been not that prone to obey Russian initiatives, risking instead of arousing hostility among many Belarusians, the bipolar logic of confronting the alleged Western conspiracy (and seeing it in whatever domestic disturbance arises) is now gaining ground. Even the logic of Orthodox-Catholic confrontation, hardly relevant in the overwhelmingly secular Belarus, has been taken from the back shelves of history and returned to the agenda. 

In fact, it is an interesting case to rethink Russian foreign policy in general. The rational interest approach would suggest – and indeed it seemed to be true in the first days after the protests broke out – that there is no sense for Moscow to support the hugely unpopular President resented by the great majority of Belarusians, and who has never been particularly malleable to Russian demands, always trying to preserve his distance from the Kremlin. Moreover, after Crimea Lukashenko has been flirting with pro-Western and nationalist circles in order to enlarge his power base and be able to channel a greater domestic support during yet another quarrel with Moscow. While the Kremlin now expresses its concern about “anti-Russian nationalists” who would like to erase the Russian language and replace it with Belarusian (which in Moscow is viewed as a second-rate local tongue), it is true that since 2014 Lukashenko’s government has taken a number of steps to bring back Belarusian into public life and even de-facto legalized the white-red-and-white banner, now famous as the protesters’ symbol, after its long-term ban. At the same time, the lack of strong anti-Russian sentiment in Belarus would mean that Moscow, unlike in Ukraine, can rely on a complimentary government, particularly should it support the current opposition against Lukashenko. Still, it chooses to rally with the last one despite the fact that he was trying to play out the Russian card before the election (he even spoke of "military mobilisation" in the Eastern regions of the country) and may be even more prone to use the foreign menace argument should he stay, much unpopular, in power.

What can explain this twist? Probably the "sociological" approach to foreign policy can be helpful. It is simply easier for Russian elite, mostly consisting of elderly people, often unfamiliar and fearful of new trends and new language, and harbouring deep-ingrained nostalgia for the Soviet times (Putin's lamentations over "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" have only got stronger) to deal with Lukashenko and his likes. The younger generation of politicians, relying on popular support and with already no shared personal experience and normative language with their Russian counterparts, are mistrusted simply for what they are and every statement of endorsement coming from Western countries serves to confirm this bias, however the opposition leaders themselves may declare their friendliness to Moscow and have even discernibly pro-Russian background. Moreover, the very fact that government in Belarus may be replaced out of popular pressure irritates Moscow, since in this case the country’s foreign policy will inevitably get more open and if the popular preferences regarding the strategic orientation shift with time, a highly legitimate pro-Western candidate may be elected some time in future. Finally, Russia, despite its rather successful experience in information subversion and propaganda, has never undertaken a long-term job of bringing up sympathetic elites, as the West likes to do (and which is invariably perceived in Moscow as “interference in domestic affairs”). That’s why, flirtations with soft power end whenever there is a chance to bet on an old, if not always loyal.