Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation has limitations
Thanks to close defence cooperation with Moscow, Minsk ensured freedom in foreign policy manoeuvre and a large-scale financial and economic support from Russia. However, this scheme is coming to an end, thereby boosting conflicts in bilateral relations and prompting the Belarusian authorities to improve transparency in communication with all their neighbours, including Russia.
Recently, the Russian Defence Ministry published plans of military rail transportation to Belarus and back, which could be an indirect evidence of the unprecedented scale of the Russo-Belarusian military exercise West-2017, unless there was an error (or an intended provocation). The Ministry is planning to send 4,000 railway cars to Belarus, which could transport at least one Russian division to the Belarusian landfills.
Amid Russia’s confrontation with the West, Minsk manages to secure some financial support from Russia due to periodic loyalty demonstrations to Moscow on the international arena, participation in the Russia-led integration projects and expansion (including demonstrative) of the Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation. This trend could not last indefinitely. Firstly, it already threatens Belarus with engaging into the confrontation with the West on the Kremlin’s side. Secondly, it alarms Ukraine, Belarus’ second most important trade and economic partner. Thirdly, the West regards it as a sign of Minsk’s critical dependence on Moscow, which weakens Belarusian positions in a dialogue with the West.
That said, Russia aims to use defence cooperation in order to establish her total domination over Belarus. The Kremlin puts forward new initiatives, which could call into question Belarus’ ability to control the national military capacity.
As economic recession deepens in Russia, she is less capable of supporting Belarus. In addition, Minsk’s desire to avoid being drawn into Russia’s confrontation with the West and Ukraine makes the Kremlin less eager to finance the Belarusian authorities. From a certain point, "payment" with military cooperation for the Russian financial and economic support may become unacceptable for Minsk: Moscow is likely to want to get more for less. For Minsk, preserving independence in foreign policy and continuing the dialogue with the West and cooperation with Ukraine is critically important. Russo-Belarusian military cooperation is nearing its "glass ceiling". Therefore, large-scale conflicts in bilateral relations are becoming virtually inevitable.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.