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Lukashenko goes to Russia: What the meeting of 'brothers' could mean for Belarus' future

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, greets Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, greets Russian President Vladimir Putin.   -   Copyright  Tatyana Zenkovich/Associated Press
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The writing may be on the wall for Belarusian opposition activists when the country's embattled president Alexander Lukashenko meets with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart who he recently referred to as his "elder brother", in Sochi on Monday.

Riven by protests since the contentious presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed a dubious landslide victory after nearly 30 years in power, the Eastern European country is facing an uncertain future.

Lukashenko's attempts to suppress protests and strikes in the wake of the election have so far only served to bolster opposition to his regime, forcing his hand to look to the Kremlin for support.

Could the meeting between these cautious allies help cement his grip on power in Belarus and finally take the wind out of the sails of those pushing for what opposition figurehead Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called a "democratic revolution"?

Pivot to the East

Traditionally, Lukashenko has navigated a tight course between the East and West, adjusting his heading tactically to sail closer to one or the other in order to leverage their support for his own benefit.

In the 23 years since he signed an agreement with Russia to integrate Belarus into a fiscal, political and economic union with its larger neighbour, Lukashenko has resisted attempts to fully acquiesce to Russian influence.

With instability rocking the current Belarusian regime to its foundations, Putin could finally have his chance to force Lukashenko to commit to the terms of the 1997 agreement and bring the country fully into Russia's orbit.

"This does present Putin with his best opportunity to pressure Lukashenko, as the latter is weak domestically and has also lost support from the West, so he cannot manoeuvre as he used to," Katia Glod, a Belarusian analyst and non-resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), told Euronews.

Sergei Grits/Associated Press
A man waves a Russian national flag as supporters of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko rally in a square in Minsk, Belarus.Sergei Grits/Associated Press

"At the same time, I don't think that he (Lukashenko would be pushed into signing any significant treaties at this moment.

"The pressure from the Kremlin would be too obvious, whilst the Kremlin would like to play its cards quietly.

"This would trigger bigger protests in Belarus as the Kremlin's goal is to suppress them, and as Lukashenko is viewed as illegitimate domestically and in the West, his signature on any agreement would be questionable."

Putin, buoyed by a muted international response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, has become more confident in his foreign policy endeavours, including supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donbas region and intervening in the Syrian war.

"I don't think that the Kremlin will make a direct intervention, akin to the one in Crimea," says Glod. "It looks like a soft, creeping intervention that is already taking place, with the aim fo eventually controlling Lukashenka and the Belarusian government politically and economically but leaving the borders officially intact."

Belarus as a satellite state

If Lukashenko secures assurances from Putin and Russian support to quash opposition to his rule, it would be significant in shaping Belarus' future, not least by keeping him in power for the foreseeable future.

"If Lukashenko stays in power, the country may become, in the longer term, similar to Transnistria or Abkhazia - fully dependent economically or politically on Russia," says Glod. "The people of Belarus would not like this of course, and would be protesting, but here we are in unchartered territory."

Having broken away from Moldova and Georgia respectively, the two former Soviet entities Glod mentioned are nominally independent (albeit not recognised by the international community) but operate in Russia's military, political and economic spheres as de facto satellite states.

Even amongst Lukashenko's supporters, surrendering Belarus' independence in this way would be an unpalatable development. As Glod contends, there may still be a way forward that recognises Belarus' links to both East and West, so long as the opposition is successful in ousting Lukashenko's regime and avoiding a Russian puppet government.

"If the new government was chosen by the people of Belarus — in contrast to the Kremlin's engineered transition, whereby it will likely put someone very controllable by and amenable to Russia — it would keep the economic ties with Russia (40 per cent of Belarusian exports go to Russia), but would also try to expand the economic and political cooperation with the West," Glod says.

Economic bonds hard to break

"If the new government were democratic, the relations with the West would improve tremendously, with the loans and investment flowing in too. The new government would likely try to strike a balance between the two powers, but, compared with the current very low base of cooperation with the West, it would be a very tangible improvement of ties."

Given its shared history as a Soviet republic and continuing reliance on Russia economically as the largest market for its export goods, any future government will need to follow Lukashenko's lead and strike a balance between East and West for the country to prosper. In effect, Russian influence is unlikely to fade in the near future if the spectre of Lukashenko's rule is finally exercised.

"The new government would, however, be very cautious about joining NATO not to upset Russia — so militarily Belarus would probably still keep its ties with Russia," says Glod.

"Economically, as Belarus is part of Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, it would not be able to have a DFTA (free trade agreement) with the EU now or in the near future, but that should not be ruled out in a more distant future."

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story we wrote that the meeting will take place in Moscow, which was incorrect. It is in fact taking place at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. We apologise for our error.