THE BLOG
01/22/2016 04:10 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Belarus's anti-Kremlin Tilt: Why Europe's Last Dictatorship is Drifting Away from Russia

On January 1, 2016, Ukraine acceded to the trade-related provisions of its association agreement with the European Union, ratified by President Petro Poroshenko in June 2014. Ukraine's entry into Europe's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) was met with scathing opposition from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin signed a decree suspending Russia's free trade agreement with Ukraine effective January 1, claiming that Kiev's EU trade pact leaves Russian markets unprotected and undercuts Russia's economic interests.

While Russia's retaliatory response to the Ukraine-EU free trade agreement was predictable, its closest ally Belarus surprisingly announced that it would uphold its own free trade agreement with Ukraine. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka's decision is the latest in a string of anti-Kremlin policies emanating from Minsk. Belarus has strengthened diplomatic relations and economic ties with Middle Eastern countries opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, actively courted Chinese investment, and thawed relations with the West in exchange for sanctions relief.

Belarus's anti-Kremlin tilt fits closely with historical trends, as it reflects Lukashenka's focus on maintaining a stable authoritarian regime at home. Lukashenka has historically depended on economic growth as the basis of his legitimacy and popularity, so the diversification of Belarus's economic linkages at a time when Russia is crippled with sanctions is an effective strategy. Lukashenka is also attempting to increase domestic perceptions of Belarus's international status by making Belarus a mediator in the Ukraine and Syrian crises, a move which, if successful, will foster pro-regime nationalism.

The Economic Foundations of Belarus's Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

For most of the post-Communist period, Belarus's foreign policy has leaned towards Russia. But extent of Belarus's alignment with Russia has vacillated markedly over time, in tandem with Lukashenka's shifting domestic agenda. After his 1994 election victory, Lukashenka strengthened ties with Russia, as Russia provided subsidies worth 20% of Belarus's GDP that could be used to fund popular social programs. But Belarus has been cautious to ensure that Russia does not infringe too deeply on its sovereignty. Lukashenka has clashed with Russia over gas prices and refused to endorse the Russian annexation of Crimea. This independent streak appeals to the nationalist undercurrent in Belarusian society, which supports alignment but not complete integration with Moscow.

On the surface, Belarus's most recent anti-Kremlin pivot appears to contradict public opinion. Only 18.7% of Belarusians would support armed resistance in the event of a Russian military intervention in Belarus and 62% back the Russian annexation of Crimea. However, Lukashenka's defiance of current public opinion is the product of long-term strategic thinking, as his legitimacy is predicated on the success of his state-led economic model.

With Belarus's economic growth projected at a mere 0.3%, in 2016, Lukashenka has acted decisively to pre-empt anti-regime discontent over the poor economic situation. As Russia is in recession due to the combined effect of sanctions and low oil prices, Belarus has been forced to diversify its trade linkages. In May 2015, Belarus effectively agreed to become the Western hub of Xi Jinping's Silk Road project by accepting $15.7 billion of Chinese investment in infrastructure and the potash industry. Belarus has also eased tensions with long-standing adversaries to expand its trade network. Over the past few months, Lukashenka has released six political prisoners in accordance with EU demands and re-established diplomatic relations with Kyrgyzstan that were suspended after the 2010 coup.

Belarus's free trade pact with Ukraine is the latest phase of its multi-vector strategy. The agreement builds on Lukashenka's November 2011 establishment of a pro-Belarusian lobby in Kiev to consolidate ties with Ukrainian oligarchs who have ownership stakes in the food, construction and electricity industries. Kremlin critics of Lukashenka have also highlighted Belarus's assistance in modernizing Ukrainian military hardware and its exports of diesel to Ukraine, as proof that Belarus is no longer a reliable Russian ally.

Belarus's expansion of economic ties with democratic states and nations that have strained relations with the Kremlin demonstrates that Lukashenka's alliance-building efforts now prioritize financial benefits over normative solidarity. This shift can be traced back to the Arab Spring, when Belarus gradually reoriented its Middle East strategy away from anti-Western revolutionary regimes like Libya, towards pro-Western countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Lukashenka's staunch support for Gaddafi in early 2011 contrasted markedly with his cordial welcome of anti-Assad Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davotoglu a few months later. After this historic summit, Belarus deepened economic ties with Turkey. Turkish president Erdogan regards favorable relations with Minsk as the gateway to increased trade linkages with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Prominent Russian political analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky also recently accused Belarus of indirectly sponsoring terrorism through lucrative arms contracts with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Belarus's expanded ties with Turkey and the Gulf states reaffirm the potential existence of a moral hazard stemming from Russia's longstanding support for the Lukashenka regime. As Russia has a paucity of regional and international allies, it cannot afford to burn its bridges with Belarus, when Lukashenka defies Moscow's interests. As Lukashenka believes Putin is unlikely to abandon Russia's commitment to Minsk, he can diversify Belarus's trade linkages to improve public satisfaction with the economic situation with little risk of blowback.

Belarus's Role as a Mediator in International Crises

In addition to addressing concerns about deteriorating economic conditions, Lukashenka's stature amongst the Belarusian public benefits immensely from participating in diplomatic summits that increase Belarus's international status. Minsk hosted negotiations during the Ukraine conflict, because Lukashenka has effectively balanced relations between Poroshenko and Putin, without overtly antagonizing either side.

Belarus has also worked hard to counter the long-standing perception that it is a mere Russian proxy. After the annexation of Crimea, Lukashenka boldly warned Putin that any Russian foray onto Belarus's soil would be met with fierce resistance. He has also stalled Russia's planned construction of a Belarusian air base, thwarting Putin's strategy of diverting Russian defensive infrastructure away from hostile Ukraine and towards Belarus.

Belarus has built on its Ukraine mediation efforts, by increasing its diplomatic profile in the Middle East and asserting its independence from Moscow's Syria policy. The Russian state media fiercely criticized Belarus for its neutrality after Turkey downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jet that flew over its air space en route to Syria.

In the wake of the crisis, Lukashenka emphasized that Russia and Turkey should meet each other halfway to defuse tensions that were harmful for regional stability. Belarus Segodnya, the country's state media outlet, condemned Russian allegations that Erdogan was smuggling oil revenues in collaboration with ISIS. Belarus has also reached out diplomatically to pro-American leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, who have tense relations with the Kremlin. Many regard these overtures as a tacit criticism of Russia's resolute support for the Assad regime in Syria.

Despite Lukashenka's striking defiance of the Kremlin, Western policymakers should treat Belarus's pivot away from Russia with caution and skepticism. Belarus's authoritarian clampdowns and electoral fraud during the recent presidential elections demonstrate that its pro-Western diplomatic overtures are not motivated by a desire to integrate with European institutions. Instead, it is an instrumental switch in alignment aimed at making Lukashenka's regime more secure by improving Belarus's economic performance and bolstering its international status. Should the Russian economy recover, Putin will likely be able to reintegrate Belarus into its fold like Moscow did during the mid-1990s. But in the meantime, the Kremlin would be wise to take Minsk's expressions of solidarity with a grain of salt.