Every few years Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko has what seems to be an obligatory dispute with Russia, generally over energy prices. In both the 2004 and 2007 spats, the crisis was amicably solved in short order.
But during each disagreement, Lukashenko tended to purposely exaggerate the nature of the dispute in order to enhance his own personal prestige. It’s all a bit childish, as Russia and Belarus form a Union-State, making Russia and Belarus the two closest fraternal states of both the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eurasian Union.
In spite of this, Lukashenko has recently had another row with Russia. President Lukashenko has recently liberalised tourist visa requirements for EU and US passport holders. The visa row has been augmented by the almost habitual gas price dispute as well as rows over the import of banned foodstuffs from Belarus into Russia.
The visa issue in particular, is a clear problem for Russia who has its own open border with Belarus and freedom of movement for Belorussian citizens. If EU and US citizens who obviously do not have the free, automatic right to travel to Russia, could sneak in through Belarus, this could be a problem for Russia’s security and her fight against terrorism. Therefore, Russia took a moderate precautionary step and demarcated the border with signs, something which infuriated Lukashenko who is perhaps too used to having it both ways.
But now is certainly not the time for Lukashenko to play his customary cat and mouse games with his truest and oldest fraternal ally.
There have been whispers of Ukrainian and western agents planning a Maidan style uprising in Misnk, something which Lukashenko like any Belorussian would be deeply unhappy with.
On the 25th of March, new illegal protests (albeit generally small in number) broke out in Minsk. The proximate cause was due to a new tax on vagabonds that Lukashenko recently implemented. Western and liberal media are reporting the measure as a ‘tax on the unemployed’, but this seems to purposefully mis-characterise the situation in Belarus.
Belarus has some of the highest employment rates in the world and those seeking employment must perform public works in exchange for benefits. In any case, this is less than 1% of the population. The tax, whether right or wrong, was designed to encourage full-employment by ending the small problem of wanton layabouts in a country where full employment is considered a civic virtue.
The wider problem is that many, including some Ukrainian citizens and western backed agitators want to use this comparatively small issue to foment civil unrest in the country. It is no coincidence that the protests occurred on the 25th of March, the day when a minority of Belorussians celebrate the founding of the anti-Soviet Belorussian People’s Republic, a short-lived and little recognised entity formed when German forces occupied the region.
For years, many in the west have wanted to instigate a Maidan style regime change coup in Minsk. Thus far they have failed. Belarus is a generally content country that in the 1990s chose to pursue good relations with Russia while under Kravchuk and even Kuchma, Ukraine pretended to be some strange hybrid of Europe and Russia, augmenting a historic identity crisis.
In Belarus many consider themselves fully Russian and are happy to live in a fraternal Union State with the Russian Federation. The sovereign minded nature of Belarus has also helped avoid the many interlopers who made Kiev their playground, even before the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.
That being said, Lukashenko ought to remember who his friends are and not put his infamous egotism above the security of his people. At times, Lukashenko reminds me of Gaddafi (albeit less intelligent and philosophical).
When Gaddafi engaged in rapprochement with the west, part of him actually believed that western leaders were prepared to treat Libya as an equal. The truth came out in 2011, that the entire project was simply a game of economic imperialism. Gaddafi learned the lesson too late.
If Lukashenko thinks he can pursue relations with the EU and remain in a fraternal Union State with Russia or even remain in power, he had better think again. The EU has desired regime change in Belarus for decades. They occasionally use Lukashenko when he acts as a kind of mediator between Ukrainian fascists and Russia (as happened in the largely worthless Minsk Agreements), but in reality they would chew him up faster and more furiously than they did in respect of Gaddafi if they got their chance.
Lukashenko has a choice, he can stand by his countrymen and their only true ally or he can pull a Gaddafi and end up in a similar position. He could also choose to be a coward like Viktor Yanukovych and refuse to call upon his ally in a time of need, before running away in the night, but that would be bad for his ego now wouldn’t it?