Azerbaijan and Belarus may help each other to survive
Due to mutual interests, in the near future, Belarus and Azerbaijan may confirm being in the de facto union, including in the military and political area.
Lukashenka's visit to Baku on November 28th-29th, 2016, confirmed the strategic partnership between Belarus and Azerbaijan based on the personal relationship between the leaders of the two states.
Baku is aiming to respond adequately to the deployment of the Iskander, Russian tactical missile complex, in Armenia. As an option, the Azerbaijani army may adopt heavy MLRS, such as the Belarusian Polonaise.
Minsk’s interest is to sign a long-term agreement on Azeri oil supply to Belarus. Amid the fight between oil producers for preserving their market share, penetration on the Belarusian (and later European) market could be of considerable interest to Azerbaijan. In addition, Minsk will gain an additional argument in negotiations with the EU, only this time not as a peacekeeper, but as an oil hub.
Azerbaijan is Turkey’s closest military and political ally and has a lobbying potential in Ankara. The Belarusian authorities regard Turkish foreign policy ambitions as a potential mechanism for balancing Russia in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus. In addition, Belarus is interested in a comprehensive cooperation with Ankara and Baku’s assistance may prove to be very handy.
In the near future, Belarus-Azeri cooperation may gain momentum. The ruling regimes in both countries are concerned about external security threats and because of distrust of the West, are interested to engage new external players in the regional context. However, the question remains, what would be Russia's response to such a game by Minsk and Baku? As regards Azerbaijan, the Kremlin has a free hand: Azerbaijan is not a member in the Russia-led integration associations, it is de facto in a state of war with Russia’s ally, Armenia, it is a rival on the oil market, and has no clear external security guarantees. Overall, potential cooperation between Minsk and Baku could only materialise if Russia turns the blind eye to it.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.