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Anti-government protesters have rallied in Minsk and other cities for more than a week — but they haven't been waving EU flags. Experts point out that Belarus is a pro-Russia country, even without President Lukashenko.
A glance at a map shows the unique geographical situation of Belarus. To the west, the country borders on NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. To the south is neighbor Ukraine, and to the east is Russia.
But Belarus is far from being a "buffer state," said Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank. Belarus isn't "neutral" like Switzerland, Sweden or Finland," he said — it's part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a six-country military alliance dominated by Russia.
Created in 2002, the alliance — which isn't as close-knit as NATO — includes Armenia and three Central Asian republics, alongside Russia and Belarus. This past weekend after talks with the Kremlin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko referred to the alliance when he said Russia would stand by its Belarusian ally within the framework of the treaty.
Lukashenko made the comment after accusing NATO of building up troops on Belarus' western border, a claim the alliance has rejected.
"We remain vigilant, strictly defensive and ready to deter any aggression against NATO allies," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday.
In response, Lukashenko ordered Belarusian military exercises near the borders of Lithuania and Poland — an attempt to create an external threat to encourage a Russian military intervention, said Gressel. "But Putin has no intention of doing that. As long as Belarus doesn't cross any red lines — as long as it sticks to the treaties on state union, economic and military cooperation, Russia will not intervene," he said.
According to Gressel and other experts, Russia isn't pinning its hopes on the weakened autocrat, but on the fact that Belarus is and remains a pro-Russia country. They believe the Kremlin wouldn't mind a change in government, as long as it doesn't involve an abrupt turn toward the West, the EU or NATO.
That doesn't appear to be the aim of this protest movement. The opposition hasn't suggested that Belarus join the EU, for instance, making the sanctions that the EU now wants to impose on officials responsible for the post-election crackdown rather counterproductive, Belarus opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova told Germany's Welt am Sonntag paper. She said it was "too soon" for sanctions, adding that they would only burden talks between the government and the opposition.
For days, diplomats in Brussels have been warning against giving Russia any excuse to claim the EU is interfering in Belarusian affairs. "The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader," tweeted European Council President Charles Michel on Monday.
Speaking by telephone on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly agreed that there should be "no external interference."
Gressel told DW that the situation in Belarus isn't the same as in Ukraine, where Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country took a sudden pro-Western stance, igniting the ongoing conflict along its eastern border. Belarusians tend to be pro-Russia, said Gressel, and both countries are part of the CSTO, so why invade?
He believes Lukashenko's fluctuating course is much more problematic. Just days before the election on August 9, the president accused 32 Russians of being mercenaries out to destabilize his country and had them arrested.
Lukashenko has never assented to Russia's wish for a major Russian military base in Belarus — he has always wanted his independence. He even forged tentative ties with NATO, taking part in various programs and even pondering joint military exercises. The EU reciprocated his overtures in 2016 by lifting sanctions against senior government leaders.
In the event of a new election, some commentators suspect the Kremlin would count on voters to back a modern, pro-Russian successor to Lukashenko. Viktor Babariko, jailed in May on money-laundering and tax-evasion charges that he called politically motivated, would fit that description. Babariko, who heads a Belarusian subsidiary of Russia's Gazprom, has advocated independence from the West and from Russia.
Ukraine isn't a good comparison — but what about Armenia, where the pro-Russia head of government was replaced by a presumably more Western-oriented politician in the 2018 Velvet Revolution? Back then, the Kremlin watched and waited.
Today, Armenia is no closer to withdrawing from the economic union or the military treaty with Russia. And Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, once the leader of the protest movement, is seen as one of Putin's close allies.