Asked whether he and Russian president Vladimir Putin were “on the same political team,” Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko was unequivocal.
“They pushed us tightly into one team, for the rest of our life,” he told Russia’s state television channel, in a comment broadcast on Tuesday that underscored his desire to portray both the strength of their relations and the role that the rest of the world had played in cementing them.
Yet Mr Lukashenko has some work to do, to restore relations between Moscow and Minsk that cooled significantly during 2020.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has faced massive street protests and unprecedented public anger since he claimed victory in last August’s presidential election, a vote that western countries said was falsified.
His regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters and political opponents prompted the US, EU and UK to impose sanctions against Minsk and even sparked anger in the Kremlin, which blamed its longtime ally for failing to mollify public demands and misjudging the country’s febrile mood.
Moscow was already losing patience with Mr Lukashenko early last year for dragging his heels on integration projects, and relations hit a nadir after Belarusian security services arrested 33 Russian mercenaries in July and accused them of being part of a plot to destabilise the country ahead of the poll.
But a series of agreements struck in recent days suggest a change in attitude from Russia, whose leverage over Belarus has only grown as western countries turned their back on Minsk, amid continued efforts from Mr Putin’s administration to closely bind the country with Russia.
“The events of July and similar irritants noted earlier in bilateral relations should not be disregarded, but it would be a serious mistake to overestimate them,” said Nikolai Mezhevich, head of the Centre for Belarusian Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Russia’s readiness to accept economic and political benefits [regarding Belarus] is absolutely obvious.”
“Both the collective west and Russia see political problems in Belarus,” he added. “[But] the Republic of Belarus occupies not only a special, but a unique place in the system of Russian foreign policy and foreign economic priorities,” he added.
Kremlin-controlled gas producer Gazprom announced on December 24 that it had agreed a new gas supply contract with the Belarusian government, and five days later Minsk said it had struck a deal for oil supplies — ending a stand-off that predated Mr Lukashenko’s alleged fraudulent election and the ongoing crisis.
This week Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexander Novak said that Russia was exploring ways to help Belarus export oil products, and circumvent ports in the Baltic states that have imposed sanctions against Minsk and have been some of the fiercest critics of Mr Lukashenko. The countries are also discussing to restart some cross-border travel suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The oil and gas deals end months of uncertainty for Minsk, which relies on Russian gas for its energy needs and props up its budget by importing cheap Russian oil and selling on petroleum products to Europe.
The agreements also come as the anti-Lukashenko rallies in Minsk and other cities show signs of fatigue and the impact of sustained police violence against protesters has lowered the number of participants.
From a precarious position a few months ago, Mr Lukashenko now looks more stable, even if he is more reliant on Moscow than ever before.
“The protests have lost steam of late, another reason why Moscow doesn’t need to play such ‘hardball’ with Lukashenko to show its displeasure with how he’s handling the situation,” said Chris Tooke, associate director at GPW, a political risk consultancy.
“What Moscow is currently trying to work out is an exit strategy for Lukashenko. It wants to help orchestrate a managed transition of power to a new leader who would be amenable to Russian interests,” he added. “Support for Lukashenko would risk him getting toppled in the exact people’s revolution-style scenario that Putin wants to avoid . . . so I don’t think abandoning Lukashenko was ever really on the cards, the threat was more for leverage.”
Mr Putin offered Mr Lukashenko both moral and financial support in a crisis meeting in September, as the protests were reaching their peak. But the Russian president’s attitude towards Mr Lukashenko still appears to be a little strained: Mr Lukashenko held a telephone call this week not with the president but with Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s predecessor and current deputy on the country’s security council.
“Despite all the difficulties of the outgoing year, the joint efforts of Russia and Belarus have managed to achieve significant results in various areas,” Mr Putin said in a New Year’s Eve telegram to Mr Lukashenko. He also “expressed hope for the continuation of work in the coming year to build up mutually beneficial bilateral ties”.
Mr Lukashenko has hinted that he could step down if Belarus agrees on a new constitution, but has not laid out a timetable for such a step. And while the scale has decreased since the autumn, protests against him continue. On Tuesday, while visiting the headquarters of a white goods manufacturer, he said: “I am not an enemy to my own people.”
“There’s no doubt that he still needs Russian support,” said Mr Tooke. “At any moment the protests could gather momentum again, especially once spring approaches.”