Lukashenko’s strategy and the big brother’s designs
The incumbent president running for his fifth term heavily leans on his narrative of being the sole guarantor of Belarus’ independence. Yet the Russian plans for an air base in his country may harm his carefully crafted pre-election image.
Master of PR
Alexander Lukashenko is considered a master of manoeuvring. He has been utilising this skill in a particularly virtuoso manner since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.
On the one hand, he is criticising the annexation of Crimea by Russia and blaming Ukraine for military softness. On the other – he plays the part of a loyal ally who showes a full understanding for the Russian “brother nation’s” strategic interests.
Hosting the peace talks in Minsk has clearly been a PR coup for Lukashenko: he had the opportunity to present himself as a prudent statesman, equally respected in Berlin and Paris as well as in Moscow, and a leader safely guiding his country through troubled times. It is the image he cultivates, especially in view of the presidential elections on 11 October.
Since Russia took posession of Crimea and wrought havoc on Donbass, Belarus’ independence is again an internal political issue. Thus, Lukashenko, who has been ruling the country since 1994, came up with a new slogan at the beginning of the run-up to the elections: “For the future of independent Belarus!” In times of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and declining real wages he would have indeed been ill-advised to reactivate the slogan used in the last three presidential elections: “For a strong and flourishing Belarus!"
New slogan, new voters?
An election campaign that aims to maintain the status quo comes in handy for the incumbent, who cannot promote himself with short-term increases in salaries and sociopolitical promises unlike prior to past elections.
Vote for me, otherwise Belarus will share Ukraine’s fate – that is his sometimes more, sometimes less explicit message to his voters. Experts argue that this shift in emphasis is an offer to those voters who otherwise have a critical attitude towards the regime.
“There is no objection whatsoever against an indepedent Belarus – neither in the political sphere nor in the population“, Valeri Karbalevich, who has written a political portrait of Lukashenko’s, told the news portal naviny.by. “On the other hand“, Karbalevich continues, “this problem [the question of independence] has become more relevant with regard to the occurences in Ukraine.” He further notes that the opposition is constantly pointing out that Russia threatens Belarusian independence, and now the president has embraced the topic likewise. Lukashenko is presenting himself not only as guarantor of order and independence, but he downright equates himself with the country, the expert argues: “The ideological construct of the state is continuing that line and identifies the future of Belarus, the independence of the country with the picture of Lukashenko. From a PR standpoint, all this is logical”.
The own protecting power as a potential threat?
When Lukashenko is evoking a “Ukrainian scenario” as a fearsome counterpart to his rule, he considers, above all, a Russian invasion to be a threat to his country. At least, this picture is evoked by the frequent teasing towards the Kremlin he took the liberty of in the past months. On the one hand, there were political gestures: the law on the state of war has been amended in Febuary and now includes regulations in case of an invasion of irregular troops, the ribbon of Saint George has been nationwide replaced with an equivalent in Belarus’ national colours red and green, and the flirt with the European Union has been continued.
On the other hand, Lukashenko once and again launches rhetorical spears towards the east. In January, he announced at a press conference in Minsk that Belarus is not part of the “Russian world” (Russian: russkii mir) that Russia has proclaimed. It is his job to defend the territorial integrity of his country, the Belarussian president stressed.
In early August, he once more critisised the concept of the “Russian world” in front of journalists, stating that it was only a dumb propagandistic idea, and called the Russian media’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine
Trouble from Moscow
These kinds of rhetorical forays on part of the Belarusian president even caused Russian media to assume that Lukashenko has turned his back on Russia. That opinion is certainly exaggerated. However, Lukashenko obviously wants to demonstrate that he is on a par with Russia. Putin’s government had not been protesting much against this behaviour so far, keeping in view that Lukashenko’s regime is still the most loyal of Moscow’s few allies.
Yet on 2 September, Russia’s prime minister Medvedev announced the decision to establish a Russian air base on Belarusian territory, provided that Belarus approves that proposal. That way the common borderline of the Russian-Belarusian Union State could be protected better, Medvedev told his cabinet.
Similar plans have circulated in the media for years, most recently in August – but their official announcement in the run-up to the presidential elections is extremely inconvenient for Lukashenko. The topic of Russian military presence causes discomfort among the society – and it had been only in early August that the president downplayed the importance of the two Russian military bases which already exist in Belarus. “There is no Russian aircraft in Belarus”, said the head of state.
Does Russia thus purposefully interfere with Lukashenko’s election campaign to put him in his place? Or does it push the relocation of combat aircraft to Belarus – most likely to Bobruysk, a town southeast to Minsk – as a reaction to NATO’s increased activity in its Eastern European member states? Both versions have their supporters among experts. While Belarusian analyst Andrey Fyodorov told naviny.by that Russia’s proposal is directed solely at NATO, military expert Alexander Alesin holds the opinion that Moscow wants to show Lukashenko that “his degree of independence is limited”. In the end, Alesin argues, everything will run according to the well-known model of “discounts and subsidies in exchange for strategic concessions”.
A bitter pill to swallow
Lukashenko’s regime will continue to depend on such discounts and subsidies. Just the savings that Belarus boasts about, gained through a “special price” on energy, annually add up to 15 percent of the country’s GDP. Thus, Lukashenko will hardly be able to refuse the “big brother’s” wish to set up the airbase quickly. Particularly, as Russia has next to its financial power yet another ace up its sleeve: if the Kremlin raises doubts about the election procedure, Lukashenko will be facing tough times. But for the time being, the president probably has to revise his election strategy. Opposition candidate Tatiana Karatkevich has already picked up the hot topic. She told the news agency BelaPAN that Russian military bases “present a threat to national security”.
Even though Lukashenko will win the election anyhow, it is going to be interesting to watch how he will manoeuvre himself out of this latest dilemma.