The latest gamble of president Lukashenko

By Nina Bachkatov

The vagaries of present international relations were highlighted on 24 May, when the agenda of the EU summit was highjacked by the forced landing of a Ryanair flight bound from Athens to Vilnius, at Minsk airport, to arrest an anti-Lukashenko’s blogger. EU leaders were expected to discuss EU relations with “aggressive” Russia and “post-Brexit” United Kingdom during the opening dinner; then, the following day, to move to key issues affecting European lives, such as climate changes and fighting the Covid epidemy. The manoeuvre of President Lukashenko cannot have been left without response, but it provided EU with the unexpected opportunity to demonstrate its decisiveness and unity, at very short notice.

It all started with the usual verbal inflation. “Unacceptable”, “shocking”, “scandalous”, “state terrorism” “frontal attack against international order”, from leaders and heads of EU institutions competing for attention. The president of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen tried to outflank the president of the Council Charles Michel by calling Minsk episode nothing less than “a threat to European security”.

New sanctions

But this time, the European Council members decided to take measures against Belarus state, not individuals, with sanctions that can be implemented quickly, even if they will hit European air companies too. In the same time, they backed down from their first impulse to blame the Kremlin as the backer, or even the organiser, of the operation. Those after-thoughts came quickly, as additional factual information emerged from reliable sources and an enlarged pool of expertise. Analysts who had been quick to assert the responsibility of president Putin were contradicted by others, who insisted on the complexity of relations between Minsk-Moscow relations.

It is indeed difficult to guess what would have been Putin’s interests in such an adventure. Not for the first time, the Russian president found himself trapped by Lukashenko – and will make him pay dearly for the pressure he put on Moscow by launching such a foolish operation. He probably has informed the Kremlin on the last minute, when this operation was already under way.

This explains the fluctuating reactions of Moscow, which needed a few hours to decide how to deal with the consequences of Lukashenko’s gamble. It finally used the example of Lukashenko, who finally will have to come at the end of the week to ask for Russia’s support, to demonstrate the limits of the “multi-vectorial diplomacy” developed by many former Soviet states as an attempt to balance Russian influence. Another benefit was the opportunity to emphasise Putin’s resolution to prevent another Maidan in Minsk, or elsewhere.

Missed opportunities

The West had convinced itself that Belarus and Russia were going hand in hand thank to a personal link between two ‘autocratic’ presidents. In fact, their mutual dislike has been obvious almost from the early Putin’s presidency. Before him, Boris Yeltsin has treated Lukashenko with the contempt of a big brother to a small sibling with limited intellect, a paternalistic approach Lukashenko always resented.

There was even a time, long forgotten, when Putin was ready to support another presidential candidate coming from Lukashenko inner-circle. The West overplayed its cards, wanted to go alone, and lost. The enlargements of NATO and EU, and the following ‘new cold war’, provided Lukashenko with an unexpected leverage on the Kremlin.

For years now, EU has been indulging in claims to be an active member of the ‘international community’, which is in fact limited to the Western countries, united in defending the same values but not the same national interests. Considering the latest episode, it ought to have been on EU radars that, while Europeans were congratulating each other’s for their leadership in dealing with Lukashenko, Russian and American top officials were meeting in Geneva, and finding an agreement for a one-on-one summit between presidents Putin and Biden in June. In a joint statement on 24 May, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Russia’s security council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, had announced that “The sides agreed that a normalisation of U.S.-Russian relations would be in the interest of both countries and contribute to global predictability and stability”.

Conflicting interests

It will not prevent the American administration to support Belarus’s opposition, nor to back EU request for an international report on Minsk’s airport incident, nor to denounce the exhibition of Roman Protasevich, the young blogger clearly under psychological pressure, to confess his role in the organisation of mass protests. As it did not prevent Russians to seize the opportunity to denounce Western “hypocrisy” by drawing a parallel between Minsk’s forced landing and that of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in 2013, when U.S. authorities thought Edward Snowden was on board, and of a Belarusian passenger jet in 2016 shortly after take-off from Kiev, so Ukraine could arrest a passenger.

But both Washington and Moscow, for their own and contradictory reasons, have no interests in EU getting too “geopolitical” on its own, and like to remember Europeans the limits of the geopolitical commission wished by its president von der Leyen. The three of them can still found a humanitarian good common cause in obtaining the liberation of Roman Protasevich, and his companion Sofia Sapega (who is a Russian citizen), albeit with the risk of a further split in Belarus opposition.

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