17 September 2020
Belarus and Hong Kong
A dilemma for Moscow and Beijing.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Moscow and Beijing face the same dilemma. What to do about the widespread pro-democracy protests in the satellite political entity (of ambiguous status) on your very doorstep? Inaction risks the spread of unwelcome ideas and unpalatable demands across the border into your home territory, and even perhaps the establishment of a firm base for them right next door. Action, however, risks a punitive reaction from the rest of the world.
Beijing’s imposition of the new national security law on Hong Kong suggests that it’s chosen the latter option. Political activism is being repressed and the island’s political and judicial differences are being undermined. “One country, two systems” is on the way out; “one country, one system” appears to be on the way in.
The reaction of the rest of the world, while still tempered by the usual commercial considerations, is now also emboldened by questions about the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, about the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, about the isolation of Taiwan and about Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese state. Last month’s tour of EU states by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was a diplomatic disaster for Beijing, culminating in Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas calling for the withdrawal of the national security law, the preservation of “one country, two systems”, the swift reinstatement of the postponed elections to the Hong Kong parliament and free access for independent UN observers to the Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang. At the same time, the speaker of the Czech senate, Milos Vystrcil, visited Taiwan at the head of a delegation of Czech politicians and praised the self-governing island’s democracy in direct defiance of Beijing. This week the CEO of the German multinational Siemens was outspoken in Die Zeit, saying “We are watching the developments in Hong Kong, but also in the province of Xinjiang carefully and with concern. We categorically reject any form of oppression, forced labour and involvement in human rights violations. We would neither tolerate all of this in our companies nor accept it without consequences from our partners.” The claims that Disney’s current would-be blockbuster, the live action movie of Mulan, was partly filmed in Xinjiang in sight of ‘re-education’ camps, coupled with the star’s apparent support of police tactics in Hong Kong, may well be box-office death for it in the West. Hong Kong activist and exile Joshua Wong has called for a boycott of the film, saying that viewers would be “complicit in the mass incarceration of the Uighurs”. Beijing must be worried – it has ordered media silence about anything to do with the film.
Russia and Belarus don’t share a ‘one country, two systems’ principle, but together they do form a Union State with freedom of movement, residency, work and study across their border. The Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia was founded in 1996 – and replaced by the Union of Belarus and Russia five years later – back in the days of President Yeltsin. Apparently, President Lukashenko of Belarus (yes, the same guy – he has indeed been in power that long) didn’t object to shackling his political and economic dwarf to the Russian giant because he thought he could easily out-manouevre Boris Yeltsin for the all-powerful position of president of the Belarus-Russian federation which the union would inevitably become. The rise of Valdimir Putin put an end to that plan, however, and instead Lukashenko has had his hands full trying to stop union from morphing into unification and the disappearance of Belarus into the vastness of Russia. Indeed, Putin tried to turn the tables on him last year by going for that “President of a Russia-Belarus Federation” position himself – it was his preferred method of maintaining power if term-limits forced him out of the presidency of Russia. But his efforts to beef up the constitution of the union and create an all-powerful supra-national presidential position were stymied by a wary Lukashenko, so instead Putin had to resort to the blunt weapon of changing the Russian constitution to allow him further terms as the Russian president.
Lukashenko may well regret that lack of co-operation, now that he’s looking to Putin to rescue him from the outrage triggered by the recent presidential election in Belarus. Putin may well feel that he doesn’t owe him any favours; the Kremlin may well be tempted to throw him to the wolves. But that’s unlikely to happen. Moscow is even more aware than Beijing of the dangers of letting democratic protests thrive under its very nose, let alone the dangers of letting a Western-style democracy take root in its own back-yard. It’s an anxious time for the Kremlin: Putin’s popularity is on the slide; Alexei Navalny has made a true hero’s return from the dead, and two of his activist colleagues triumphed in this week’s regional elections by taking city council positions in Tomsk, where he was campaigning against local corruption before he was struck down. President Lukashenko has been playing on that anxiety. “If Belarus collapses today, Russia comes next” he told Russians last week, and no doubt did his best to convince the Kremlin when he visited Russia this week that the protests are being driven by foreign agents determined to encircle Russia with hostile states.
So will Moscow impose its own Beijing-style national security law on its Union partner? Will it see this crisis as an opportunity to absorb Belarus once and for all, as Beijing seems to be attempting with Hong Kong? The Kremlin has apparently set up a security force which could be sent to Belarus if the protests “start to get out of control”; Lukashenko has said that the two countries have agreed to combine their armies if necessary; Russian paratroopers were sent to Belarus this week for joint military exercises in the spirit of “Slavic Brotherhood”; and Putin has offered Lukashenko $1.5 billion in aid.
But it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will go any further. At least, not yet. Putin’s comment “If people take to the street, everyone should take this into account, hear them and respond” can’t have been intended to reassure Lukashenko (did it perhaps contain a hint that the Kremlin is prepared to play one side off against the other?). The deployment of “little green men” in the Crimea, and of Wagner mercenaries elsewhere, has cost Russia dear in terms of sanctions and condemnation from the West. The Kremlin is more likely to play a waiting game. It’ll be able to extract a high price for what little help it might give Lukashenko, while effectively leaving him to do his own dirty work and hoping that the protests will be crushed or simply exhaust themselves (the two sides might even destroy each other). Then Russia would be able to call in its debts and pick up the pieces in Belarus with no risk to itself. Boris isn’t the only leader in today’s world who likes the idea of having his cake and eating it.