Belarus and Kazakhstan

31 March 2022

Belarus and Kazakhstan

Lessons from Ukraine for Russia’s other neighbours.

By Neil Tidmarsh

All eyes are focused on Ukraine and what’s happening there right now. But it might be informative (certainly if the war’s possible consequences for Russia in particular and for the region in general are being considered) to look north and east at the two countries bordering Russia on either side of Ukraine, and to look back at some recent headlines.

Belarus is Russia’s neighbour immediately to the north of Ukraine. It made front page news two years ago, of course, following the election which gave President Lukashenko another five years in power (he’s been in power since 1994, earning the title “Europe’s Last Dictator”). That blatantly corrupt election and its literally incredible result – 80% for Lukashenko – triggered massive protests and angry demonstrations throughout the country. The regime’s attempt at brutal repression only escalated the crisis into violent confrontation and for a while it looked like a fully-blown revolution was about to sweep the dictator aside. And then Putin sent the Russian security forces in and Lukashenko survived.

His continuing survival depends on Russian force to back up his repression; but for how much longer will he be able to depend on Moscow? Neighbouring Ukraine is showing up Russian force as anything but strong, and the war is making it weaker and weaker by the day. Even if Putin manages to salvage some sort of cosmetic victory from the disaster, or if he manages to avoid defeat by grinding the stalemate on indefinitely, it’s unlikely that he’ll have the resources to continue to assert Russian force in Belarus as well.

Lukashenko must be having sleepless nights. Putin’s war is not popular in Belarus. The realities of the war are more starkly obvious there than in Russia itself, and so harder to hide. The morgues in Mazyr and other Belarus towns along the border with Ukraine are reportedly full of the corpses of Russian soldiers. Belarusian soldiers are apparently refusing to serve in Ukraine.

The anti-Lukashenko, pro-democracy movement must still be alive in Belarus, albeit underground, and is certainly alive outside Belarus under the figurehead of exiled Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, who would have won that election if it hadn’t been rigged. Ms Tsikhanouskaya and her followers must be biding their time, encouraged by the example of their Ukrainian neighbours whose fight for freedom is proving that Russia is far from omnipotent. That potential revolution, nipped in the bud by Russian intervention, could merely be on hold until the moment when Russian intervention is no longer a credible threat.

So Putin’s insane gamble could inadvertently create another free, independent and democratic nation on his doorstep, or at least a destabilised neighbour where the position of his client/proxy is increasingly undermined and under threat by demands for freedom and democracy which become harder and harder to repress.

And Lukashenko himself, even if he isn’t overthrown, could become a threat to Putin. The relationship between the two men is not a smooth one. Belarus and Russia are, theoretically, equal partners in a ‘Union State’, and Putin and Lukashenko are rivals for its leadership. Lukashenko, wary of his country being swallowed by Russia, stymied Putin’s attempts to make himself ‘President of a Russian-Belarus Federation’ four years ago (Putin’s fall-back plan to retain power just in case he didn’t succeed in changing the Russian constitution to allow him unlimited terms as Russian president). Putin reportedly hasn’t forgiven Lukashenko for defying him, and Lukashenko is reportedly still worried about Russia absorbing Belarus whole. But it looks like the Ukrainian quagmire is tipping the scales in Lukashenko’s favour; he’s a ruthless and wily politician and is sure to make the most of this opportunity to establish some sort of ascendancy over Putin.

To the east of Ukraine, on the other side of the Caucasus, is Kazakhstan. Only two months ago, this massive country which stretches along Russia’s southern border created similar headlines. Mass protests against corruption, repression and poverty were ruthlessly and brutally suppressed by the regime, only to escalate into violent confrontation which was eventually put down by the intervention of Russian security forces. Hundreds of people were killed and 10,000 detained. But here, as in Belarus, the causes of discontent haven’t gone away. It looks like another revolution has simply been put on hold and could blow up again at any time now that Russia is occupied elsewhere in a conflict which is putting its might through the shredder.

A popular uprising isn’t the only danger threatening the Putin regime from Kazakhstan. This central Asian country is sandwiched between Russia and China, and its two neighbours have been competing for dominance there in recent years (see Kazakhstan: Russia v. China? 13 January 2022). Russia took advantage of the recent protests to neutralise Chinese influence in the country; but now China is sure to make the most of Russia’s problems in Ukraine to reassert and increase that influence and to freeze Moscow out of Kazakhstan’s corridors of power.

Russia launched this war in order to send its neighbours a frightening and discouraging message: “Russia is all-powerful and its influence is unavoidable and unassailable”. But Russia’s performance in the war has in fact sent out the opposite message; “Russia is weak and this war will leave its influence in tatters”. Far from being frightened and discouraged, its neighbours will be reassured and encouraged in their ambitions and efforts to determine their own destinies. And Russia, far from enforcing stability on its borders by terrifying its neighbours, will find the threats of freedom, independence, popular uprisings, political rivalry and geopolitical competition growing even more powerfully on its doorstep.

Cover page image: Professorsolo2015 / wikimedia / Creative Commons
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