Lukashenko boxes Putin into a show of support in face of harsh EU sanctions over forced landing of Ryanair flight

Lukashenko boxes Putin into a show of support in face of harsh EU sanctions over forced landing of Ryanair flight
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 28 as Belarus is facing down a wave of harsh new sanctions by the EU, which is incensed by the force landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk. / WIKI
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 31, 2021

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has boxed Russian President Vladimir Putin into showing the pariah-ed president support in the face of harsh sanctions in the wake of Ryanair flight affair.

The two presidents put on a show of bonhomie on Putin’s yacht in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 28 and the Kremlin announced it would release a second $500mn tranche of a $1bn loan announced earlier this year, although no new money was promised for the beleaguered Belarusian economy. Minsk has already effectively been cut off from the international capital markets. It has $18.3bn of external public debt that needs to be refinanced, but is now entirely dependent on Russia’s capital markets as the only source of financing.

The meeting was jovial and Putin was unusually jolly, giving Lukashenko a bro-hug as he stepped on to the president’s yacht. However, the whole meeting smacked of political theatre as the Kremlin has little choice other than to back Lukashenko as it plays for time to find an acceptable end to the worst political crisis the country has faced in 26 years.

It is noteworthy that Putin offered Lukashenko no new aid whatsoever. “Putin’s conversation with Lukashenko lasted over five hours and, in keeping with tradition, the details were kept secret. But there is little doubt Lukashenko asked Putin for economic support when the EU imposes new sanctions,” The Russian language news service The Bell said in a comment.

Even the bans on entering Russian airspace if they avoided Belarusian airspace were temporary and blamed on bureaucracy. A French plane was refused entry on these grounds, but by the end of the week an Austrian plane had been allowed to land despite also avoiding flying over Belarus. The ban seems to have been a gesture in support of Belarus, but Moscow understands an outright ban would drag it into the same conflict as Minsk with Brussels, and is not prepared to go there for Lukashenko’s sake.

"Aviation authorities will give the necessary explanations, but these are technical reasons," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The Belarus strongman arrived in Sochi with a briefcase and said he wanted to show Putin "some documents" related to the Ryanair incident that he hinted would explain everything.

The EU was incensed when Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG fighter jet that forced a commercial Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk while it was crossing Belarusian airspace and only minutes before it would have crossed into Latvian airspace.

The plan was carrying over 120 passengers, most of them EU citizens, and the former editor-in-chief of the Nexta Telegram channel Roman Protasevich was arrested on arrival.

The EU immediately followed up with a recommendation that EU flights avoid Belarusian airspace and several countries banned the state-owned carrier Belavia from crossing EU airspace or landing. A flight from Minsk to Barcelona, which continued to permit Belavia to operate, was turned back at the Belarusian border after France refused permission for the carrier to cross French airspace.

Brussels promises to follow up with sanctions on some of Belarus’s biggest exports to the EU, including potash, which will cause a great deal of pain for the Belarusian budget, which is already in deep deficit following the start of mass protests following last year's disputed presidential elections on August 9.

Privately the Kremlin is also extremely angry, according to Chris Weafer, the CEO of Macro Adisory, a bne IntelliNews columnist and veteran Russia-watcher who has been head of research at most of Russia’s leading investment banks over the last 30 years.

“Expletives were used,” says Weafer, who lives in Moscow and maintains contacts within the Kremlin circles. “I think this has significantly shortened Lukashenko’s time in office,” said Weafer, adding that he doubts Lukashenko will survive another two years, as he has become a liability.

As bne IntelliNews has been reporting, the Kremlin is engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance to create a conducive atmosphere ahead of a one-on-one summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden on July 16 in Geneva – the best opportunity in years to start to walk back the tensions that have built up between Russia and the West. Both presidents have said they need to deal with huge problems on their domestic agendas and the international sparring is a distraction they would like to dispense with. In addition, both leaders have said clearly they want to revive some of the Cold War arms control treaties and need to co-operate on international issues such as climate change, but also conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iran and other hotspots.

Lukashenko’s antics threaten to put a spanner in the works of that effort, for the sake of his downing a commercial carrier in order to slake his thirst for revenge on a 26-year-old blogger. The reaction by Brussels was entirely predictable, as it is very reminiscent of the downing of the MH17 Malaysian commercial jet by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine in July 2014.

However, the more serious consequence of Protasevich's arrest is that Lukashenko has made the point that even if Belarusians flee into exile, they are not safe from his security forces. Tikhanovskaya made the point in a tweet at the weekend: “No one is safe. Not even in the EU.”

Yet publically Putin has been boxed into a very public display of support for Lukashenko.

At the end of the first month of protests last year Lukashenko came very close to being ousted, notably at a speech he gave to the workers of the MZKT, which makes military trucks, when they heckled the embattled president at a rally on August 17, in what some are calling his “Ceausescu moment.” Clearly flustered by the open defiance of the blue collar workers, traditionally his core supporters, Lukashenko beat a hasty retreat and subsequently said he was open to a power sharing deal.

Until that point the Kremlin had remained on the sidelines in the dispute, saying little, but as it became clear the situation was about to turn into a “colour revolution” and Lukashenko would be forcibly ejected, the Kremlin stepped in and Putin offered to send military support to Minsk “if necessary.” With the open backing of Russia, the security forces rallied behind Lukashenko assuring his position and the incumbent retook the initiative.

Since then Lukashenko has been cracking down on the opposition. Factory directors singled out activists, who have been sacked or jailed. All the opposition press have been closed, including most recently, which was the bastion of opposition reporting, and security forces are raiding and arresting online activists in their homes on a daily basis. Lukashenko is now running a full-on repressive regime reminiscent of the worst of the Soviet-era regime.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin has put itself in a position where it cannot withdraw its support from Lukashenko or it runs the danger of his regime collapsing. The Kremlin is in the process of a managed transition where it remains in control of the process and is working to install some sort of government that will be compliant to Russia’s interests.

The focus has been on changing the constitution, which Lukashenko himself has been proposing for several years as a sop to the opposition. That process has been accelerated and a new Kremlin-approved constitution is expected to significantly weaken the president’s powers. Lukashenko could also be removed outright, but leaving him as a figurehead and allowing him a dignified retirement in several years time is also a likely possibility.

Lukashenko has been dragging his heels on the change. He promised to present a draft at the All –Belarusian People’s Assembly in February, but failed to produce it and now says the draft will be presented at the end of this year and a referendum will be held next year.

In the meantime, as bne IntelliNews reported, the Kremlin has been working to set up pro-Russian parties that could enter Parliament and represent the Kremlin’s interests since the end of last year.

Putin’s problem is that he cannot simply carry out a coup and replace Lukashenko by fiat. As Russia’s own domestic politics show, the Kremlin needs to win a genuinely large number of voters to support its candidates or it will face continued mass protests. Over the last three decades it has developed the “political technology” to delivery on this goal fairly effectively, but it takes time. In the meantime, Putin is forced to publically back Lukashenko, as he also cannot afford to undermine Lukashenko’s standing with the local elite and security forces, which is currently the only thing keeping him in office.

That leaves Putin in the embarrassing position of marrying himself to an obvious tyrant that will only complicate the upcoming talks with Biden. However, it could also become common ground, as some Western commentators have begun to admit that the West has no leverage over Lukashenko. The recent threats to sanction Belarus’ potash exports will certainly be painful, but they will not be more than an inconvenience. If the West wants to make progress on loosening Lukashenko’s grip the only effective way of doing that is with Russian help.

However, given the length of the shopping list on the table in Geneva at the Putin-Biden meeting, it is highly unlikely they will be able to get into such a specific and delicate discussion at their first meeting.

Opposition revived

Tikhanovskaya has hoped to capitalise on the furore to reignite the protest movement and rally international support for the Belarusian opposition cause after it fell off the front pages during the long winter break.

On May 29, the first anniversary of her husband’s arrest that sparked the first round of popular protests in Belarus, Tikhanovskaya called for a Global Picket to show solidarity with Belarus.

Meetings and demonstrations were held in capitals across Europe. Most were relatively small, numbering a few hundred people, but in some capitals such as Vilnius, Riga and Warsaw, several thousand turned out.

It will be hard to restart the mass rallies of last summer in Belarus itself, as the increased repression by Lukashenko has meant the crowd sizes have become small enough for the security forces to be used effectively against the demonstrators. Last year, with between 100,000 and 200,000 people joining the rallies, the OMON and police were overwhelmed and rendered helpless by the sheer number of protesters. Now when the crowds number a few hundred or even thousand the police can arrest and beat the demonstrators, raising the risks of participation to the point where fewer Belarusians are willing to protest.

The follow-on repressions and arrests of journalists and activists also add to the pressure and keep the number of active participants down.

The ground has shifted and the ability of protests to oust Lukashenko has faded. As the new editor-in-chief of Nexta Tadeusz Giczan told bne IntelliNews last week in a podcast, the best chance of getting rid of Lukashenko is to make Russia’s support of Lukashenko more expensive than the Kremlin is willing to pay.

It was significant that Putin announced no new financial aid for Belarus at the Sochi meeting other than the $500mn loan that had already been agreed.

The Belarusian budget has a deficit of some 30% of GDP after years of surplus and the government is getting into serious financial difficulties. EU sanctions on exports of things like potash, and maybe oil products later, will only add to those problems.

Giczan estimates so far Lukashenko is costing the Kremlin $2-3bn a year, but as the country becomes even more isolated following the Ryanair incident that figure could rise to $10bn if the Kremlin is to prevent the economy collapsing and that will cause Putin to think twice about continuing his support, or at least accelerate the process of replacing Lukashenko with someone that is more conducive to both the Kremlin and the crowds.

Despite his stranglehold over the population and his repressive antics, the clock is running out for Lukashenko. As there is no prospect of making amends with the population and the slowly sinking economy, pundits believe that his days are numbered. Ironically Lukashenko’s biggest enemy now is the Kremlin as its policy of rapprochement with the US runs counter to that of Lukashenko’s of hanging on to power at the Kremlin’s expense by any means available to him.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on May 28 warned Lukashenko that "it is time to change course", saying: "No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime."

Von der Leyen repeated a promise that the EU has a €3bn package of aid and investment ready and waiting should Lukashenko go and be replaced by a democratically elected leadership.