On February 27, as the war was raging in neighbouring Ukraine, Belarus held a referendum on constitutional changes. Belarusians were supposed to vote on new provisions, which would strengthen President Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on the country.
Later that day, the central elections commission announced that the majority of people voted in favour of the amendments, effectively validating them. But while Lukashenko pushes to consolidate power in Belarus, the events in Ukraine are showing he is only growing weaker.
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Struggling with a weakened economy and having no choice but to support the Russian invasion of his neighbour, the Belarusian president is well on his way of becoming a de facto puppet of the Kremlin, with devastating consequences for Belarus.
Increasing dependence on Russia
Since the fraught elections in August 2020 and the post-election violence unleashed on popular protests in the following months, Lukashenko’s legitimacy has collapsed. His approval rating has plummeted to about 25 percent and he has had to depend on the Kremlin’s political and economic backing to survive.
Over the 20 months, the Belarusian president has met with Putin regularly, to report to him on the state of affairs in Belarus. In November, he signed an ambitious programme of economic integration under the “union state” agreement, first introduced in the 1990s, which could see the establishment of a confederation between the two states.
One of the main problems his regime faces is the faltering Belarusian economy, which is currently burdened with unsustainable public foreign debt. Although it amounts to only about 30 percent of the Belarusian gross domestic product (GDP), it is almost entirely denominated in US dollars. The Western sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the election violence have barred Belarus from raising money on international markets. This year Belarus has to repay in excess of $3.3bn in foreign debt, and it had hoped for a Russian loan to do that.
Earlier this month, the Russia-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development refused a $3.5bn loan to Belarus, although the Kremlin promised to consider refinancing $1bn in Belarusian debt to Moscow.
The unprecedented sanctions being imposed by the West on Russia amid the war in Ukraine may further cripple the Russian capacity to do so. Belarus’s gold and foreign currency reserves of $8.5bn may provide a cushion for the short term, but not in the longer run.
Meanwhile, the effect of the post-election Western sanctions against Belarus has become more profound in recent months, as Lithuania and Ukraine banned the transit through their ports of Belarusian potash, a fertiliser ingredient and a key Belarusian export. Although Russia promised help, its seaports lack the extra capacity to handle Belarusian fertilisers. If Belarus does not find alternative logistics to ship potash, it may lose more than $1bn a year in revenues.
Trade is extremely important for the Belarusian export-oriented economy. Ukraine is the second largest trading partner for Belarus, with exports to its southern neighbour totalling $4.5bn last year. Belarus will likely lose some if not all of these exports. The imminent new sanctions in response to the military aggression against Ukraine will only make things worse for the Lukashenko regime.
Belarus dragged into war
The Russian assault on Ukraine from Belarus has highlighted that Lukashenko is de facto no longer commander-in-chief in the country. He may not have even been aware of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine until the night before.
In the weeks preceding the war, there were some attempts of the Belarusian government to manoeuvre away from the Russian position. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei pledged that all Russian troops would leave Belarus after the Russia-Belarus military exercises “Union Resolve” concluded.
Russian troops not only remained in place, but also used Belarusian territory as a launching pad for the invasion of Ukraine. Russian military aircraft and helicopters attacking Ukrainian targets have continued flying to and from Belarusian airports and there have been several incidents of missiles fired from Belarus.
Although for the time being there have been no confirmed reports of Belarusian armed forces fighting alongside Russian ones, Lukashenko recently stated that: “Our troops are not [in Ukraine] but if it becomes necessary, if Belarus and Russia need them, they will be there.”
The Belarusian president has also threatened that Russian troops and weapons stationed in Belarus would remain in response to the likely reinforcement of NATO forces in Eastern Europe.
A puppet of the Kremlin
Lukashenko is no longer trying to hide that decisions on Belarus’s defence are now taken without his involvement. The war in Ukraine has accelerated the morphing of his regime into a puppet of the Kremlin.
As Putin does not recognise the post-Soviet international order, there are many reasons to assume that he thinks Belarus, like Ukraine, has no legitimate right to exist. For the time being, it might be convenient for the Kremlin to keep Lukashenko on a tight leash within the official borders of Belarus, while controlling its defence and domestic politics. Yet the outcome of the war in Ukraine may have grave consequences for Belarus.
Putin is likely to push forward for political integration under the union state between Belarus and Russia, which would effectively downgrade the Belarusian government and state institutions.
He may also decide to annex Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic to the union state, along with Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and later do the same for Moldova’s Transnistria. If this happens, Belarus’s status would fall to the level of these unrecognised statelets.
Becoming Putin’s marionette is hardly the political finale that Lukashenko had been hoping for during his nearly three decades in power. Only a small minority of Belarusians would welcome such a union.
And already, there is growing frustration within the Belarusian public with the pressure of the sanctions and forced support for the invasion of Ukraine, which goes against the traditional Belarusian mentality of neutrality.
Anger among ordinary Belarusians was quite palpable during the referendum, when chants of “No to war!” erupted among people gathered to vote. Although at the moment, it is unlikely that anyone within the Belarusian regime will speak out against Lukashenko, this may change, as Belarus starts to suffer from additional sanctions imposed as a result of its support for the invasion of Ukraine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.