Just recently, Belarus found itself in diplomatic turmoil. The hijacking of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius has shown the extent to which Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko will go to maintain power.

Democracy only in name

The lack of democracy in both countries is alarming. In Russia, challengers to President Putin are often arrested, with Alexei Navalny being the latest opponent to be imprisoned for three and a half years on alleged charges of embezzlement.

In Belarus, opposition to Putin came in the shape of Siarhei Tsikhanouski — also arrested. However, things didn’t go quite according to plan. His wife, Sviatlana Tskihanouskaya, became the new opposition leader and challenger of Lukashenko.

Growing demand for free and fair elections in Belarus is arguably one reason why Putin feels the need to prop up the dictatorship in Belarus. Any pro-democracy movements could in turn influence Russia’s citizens who are increasingly dismissive of Putin and his tight grip over the country. Just recently, Putin made it legally possible to serve another 8-year term. Lukashenka has been in power since 1994, six years longer than Putin; so the natural question arising is how far will the two men go to maintain their respective grips? The arrest of blogger and dissident, Raman Pratasevich, is some indication that Lukashenko is prepared to go very far.

It has been claimed that Lukashenka has been rigging and fiddling with elections long before Putin came to power in 2000. But the pro-democracy movements in both countries are changing everything, placing a strain on the two presidents working relationship and the status quo.

Economic interests

According to an article in the Atlantic Council, the Kremlin’s main concern is whether a post-Lukashenko government will effectively maintain Belarus’ membership of a Russian-led Eurasian customs union. There is also the issue of refining Russian oil that is bound for European markets, and the ongoing project that is Nord Stream 2.

Importance of neighbouring countries

Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych is exactly what Russia doesn’t want happening in Moscow or indeed Belarus. This is likely one reason why Putin is being friendly towards Minsk, Belarus’ capital city.

Previous clashes

According to POLITICO, the two presidents have had a volatile relationship since 2017. It has been claimed that Putin has never forgiven Lukashenko for not recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. A request for closer military cooperation was also turned down by Belarus. But in 2021 everything changed. Since the questionable 2020 presidential election, Russia has been providing as much military assistance as possible to prop up a failing dictator. This despite Lukashenko’s 2017 marathon speech denouncing Russia, and claiming that the Kremlin had Belarus ‘by the throat’ over concerns about the country’s wish to establish closer ties with the EU and the rest of the Western world.

All in the name of power?

Everything comes down to power and money. Though Lukashenka may have enjoyed better relations with former Russian leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin, he has undoubtedly benefitted from Russia’s financial, military and economic input under President Putin. Add to this a few facts. As of April 2021, Putin has a 65 per cent approval rating among Russian citizens — the highest of any world leader. In contrast, Lukashenko’s rating hovers somewhere around 3-24 per cent, with no exact figure available. Lukashenko needs Putin’s support now more than ever, and guess what, Putin is more than happy to provide it if it means stability for himself and Russia.

Since the hijacking, Belarus has been isolated from all the major western states and in need of a strong ally. The country’s closest neighbour both geographically and ideologically just happens to be Russia. Since 2000, President Putin has been propping up pro-Russian regimes in the region to solidify his own position and that of Russia. In many ways, the events in Belarus play into his larger plan of increasing Russia’s dominance.

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