Ukraine's Turmoil Is Helping Belarus Strongman Lukashenko

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Summit of Eurasian Economic Union on Oct. 10, 2014 in Minsk, Belarus Photograph by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The people of Belarus have plenty of reasons to be unhappy with President Alexander Lukashenko. The close economic ties he forged with Moscow are inflicting severe pain on Belarus as Russia’s economy stumbles. The Kremlin’s actions in neighboring Ukraine are a reminder that good relations with President Vladimir Putin can quickly turn bad. Even before the Ukraine crisis, Belarus suffered from a feeble economy and widespread human-rights violations under Lukashenko’s leadership.

Surprisingly, though, the recent turmoil appears to have shored up support for the authoritarian president and for his policy of heavy economic dependence on Russia. A recent poll shows that more than 55 percent of Belarusians say they trust Lukashenko, up from less than 40 percent last year. An increasing number of Belarusians say they believe their country is “on the right track,” according to the poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic & Political Studies in Minsk.

Nearly half of respondents in the poll said that if given the choice, they would choose economic integration with Russia over membership in the European Union. In a poll a year ago, the situation was reversed, with nearly half favoring EU membership.

How to explain this, when the Belarusian economy has slowed to a crawl, inflation is in double digits, and fast-falling oil prices are threatening the country’s main source of cash, the refining and reselling of Russian oil?

Lukashenko has benefited from the Ukraine showdown for at least three reasons:

• He has deftly played both sides. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he appeared to side with the government in Kiev, saying that he favored a “single and unified Ukraine.” At a press conference last month, however, he accused the Ukrainian government of provoking Russia’s action by “banning the Russian language” and “threatening [the[ lives of these people” in Crimea. Lukashenko also hosted peace talks in Minsk, burnishing his image with countrymen as a statesman. He has even proposed sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine as “peacekeepers.”

• Most Belarusians get their news from Russian media outlets, which overwhelmingly portray the annexation of Crimea in a positive light and blame the fighting in Ukraine on the government in Kiev and its Western allies. The fear of similar mayhem in Belarus has created “a real demand for stability, a firm hand,” Valery Karbavelich, a Belarusian political analyst, says in a recent interview with Transitions Online, a newsletter that covers the region. “The economy was a crucial factor in shaping public attitudes toward the government until recently, but now it doesn’t play as big a role,” he said.

• The situation has effectively neutralized Lukashenko’s political opponents, “even those who were calling, a few years ago, for a quick overthrow,” says Yaraslau Kryvoi of the Ostrogorski Center, a London research group on Belarus. They fear that if the authoritarian president were weakened or even ousted, Belarus could become the next Crimea. “Many people are saying, `Let’s just stick with Lukashenko. We’ll deal with democracy later,’” Kryvoi says.

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