By Dr. Matthew Frear
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has often been justified in terms of defending the interests of ethnic Russians. According to the 2009 national census, almost 800,000 Russians live in Belarus – 8.3% of the population. As the titular nationality, Belarusians are actually in quite a strong position – ethnic Belarusians make up a larger proportion of the population of Belarus than Ukrainians do in Ukraine or Russians do in the Russian Federation.
There are less Russians in Belarus than Ukraine as a proportion of population, but more Russian speakers. Based on the 2009 census again, Russian is the mother tongue of 41.5% of the population, but the language of convenience commonly used at home for 70% of the population. Russian is already an official language alongside Belarusian however, and it would be difficult to claim that rights of Russian speakers are being suppressed.
Unlike Ukraine there is no particular concentration of ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in one part of the country. Instead these communities are fairly evenly spread across the entire country so there is no realistic secessionist movement which could be nurtured by Moscow.
Moscow has also invoked the idea of correcting the historical mistakes of the past which granted Russian lands, such as Crimea, to Ukraine by mistake. During the interwar years Belarusian territory was partitioned between Poland and the USSR, which opted to create a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic as a buffer republic rather than incorporate the whole of eastern Belarus into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Conceivably the Kremlin might try to make the case that Belarus as a whole was an artificial Soviet construct which should never have existed.
If Russia sought to imitate a Crimean ‘reunification’ scenario in Belarus, it would probably have to be an all or nothing affair, from the perspective of either the land or the people. Would any of the Belarusian population welcome it though?
The will of the Crimean people as reflected by plebiscite has been touted as driver for the peninsula’s incorporation into the Russian Federation. The latest independent IISEPS opinion polling in Belarus shows an increase in public support for hypothetical reunification with the Russian Federation in the aftermath of events in Ukraine. In March 2014, 29% of respondents polled said they would vote yes in a referendum on reunification with Russia.
Belarus is a much smaller country than Ukraine so regional differences are far less emphatic and politicians in the regions are far weaker in Lukashenka’s highly centralised system. There is little in the form of a regional constituency to appeal to, and oblast governors are appointed by the centre. If Russia were to somehow make them an offer they could not refuse, it could not be ruled out that both local politicians and indeed citizens might be wooed by Moscow to oppose Minsk.
Neither the elites not the public are voraciously anti-Russian, but nor are they clamouring for unification with Russia either. Lukashenka has encouraged patriotism towards an independent state and has increasingly portrayed himself as a defender of Belarusian sovereignty, against threats from both Russia and the West. The ethno-cultural nationalism espoused by elements of the opposition is still denigrated by the regime however, usually invoking the ever-popular spectre of fascism or western-back fifth columnists.
The circumstances in Belarus are very different to the situation faced by Ukraine over recent months. Belarus remains firmly within Russia’s self-proclaimed sphere of privileged interest. There is no interest in NATO membership and closer integration with the EU is precluded by the lack of progress on democratisation in Belarus under Lukashenka. The country already participates in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and is a founding member of the Customs Union and Single Economic Space in the latest wave of Eurasian integration. It would appear that Moscow would have no need for a repeat of the Ukraine scenario in Belarus to secure its interests and influence there.
Nevertheless, Putin’s adventure in Ukraine has worried many in Minsk. Belarus may at first glance appear to be a loyal, reliable ally of Moscow, but there have been a number of oil and gas disputes, trade wars and periods of personal animosity during the past decade which means that is not impossible that there could come a point when Russia might decide it needs to tighten the screws on a recalcitrant Minsk in order to reinforce its leverage in the country.
Under what circumstances might Moscow take a more aggressive stance towards Belarus? One scenario might be if Russia were to continue down the path of dismembering Ukraine. If at some point in the future eastern and southern Ukraine, and possibly Transnistria as well, had been incorporated into the Russian Federation, there might be a momentum to unite all the perceived Russian lands – including Belarus. Alternatively, the threat of potential action might become a tool in the forthcoming presidential elections in Belarus, scheduled for 2015. Support for a hypothetical pro-Western candidate could be tempered for fear of a Russian response. The Kremlin might make it known that it supports a particular candidate to rival Lukashenka, who has always been a troublesome ally. Finally, Moscow might step in to take advantage of any power vacuum. This could be the sudden illness or death of Lukashenka, or an unexpected popular revolt by the people along the lines of the Euromaidan.
In the short term, the treatment of the Russian and Russian speaking population, the historic borders of Belarus, and the geopolitical orientation of Minsk are unlikely to incite an aggressive response from Moscow. Belarus is a less fertile ground for nurturing grievances than Ukraine. Nevertheless the potential threat Russia could pose is still likely to hang over domestic politics in the coming months leading up to the 2015 elections in Belarus and Lukashenka will be warily observing Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
This is an edited version of a longer piece available here on the author’s Belarusianist blog.