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Are Minsk and Moscow headed for a divorce?

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Economic, security and political strains now plague Russia’s relations with Belarus, but Minsk has been trying to carve out a more independent path at least since Ukraine’s Maidan crisis in 2014.

The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko claims Ukraine is “fighting for independence.” Minsk supplies Ukraine with fuel, military trucks and textiles.

In 2015, he released several political prisoners. As a result, the West lifted sanctions against Belarus. Beginning in 2016, Minsk simplified its visa regime, allowing travel to Belarus for the citizens of 80 countries including the United States and all EU members.

Also in 2015, Belarus refused to develop a Russian military air base on its territory. The following year it did not pay Russian natural gas imports in full. More recently Lukashenko recently ignored the Kremlin-sponsored EAEC and CSTO summits and meetings with Putin.

As Moscow has sought to strengthen its ties with Russian-speakers abroad, Minsk has softly promoted the Belarusian language and the de facto legalization of national symbols.

The Kremlin Strikes Back

Moscow has answered by using hard and soft power to tighten pressure on Minsk. It reduced oil supplies and has squeezed Belarusian goods out of the Russian market. Russia also established a border zone with Belarus to control citizens of third states who could now enter Russia via Belarus (there previously had been no border controls between the two countries).

A key part of the Kremlin reaction, however, has been an information war offensive against Belarus— resembling its earlier offensive against Ukraine and designed to portray part of Belarusian society as an increasingly “fascist enemy.” Russian media claims extremism is on the rise due to Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy. Moscow claimed Minsk is “preparing to leave CSTO”—which could lead to Russian attempts to destabilize Belarus as it did Ukraine, thereby giving Moscow a pretext to militarily intervene.

Russian media also has tried to falsify Belarusian history. It calls national symbols like the White Red and White Flag and the Pahonia coat of arms fascist. Likewise, Moscow calls Kastuś Kalinoŭski—the 19th-century national hero of Belarus—Polish, and has compared him to the Ukrainian partisan leader Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Russian experts claim the Belarusian language was created by communists and refer to Belarus as an “inferior state.” They generally do not attack Lukashenko personally, but rather his increasingly pro-Western policies.

Since most Belarusians speak Russian in everyday life, the key media instruments in these attacks are Russian TV channels and online media. The Belarusian domestic TV network has nine free channels, most of them broadcasting in Russian. Four are officially Belarusian broadcasting companies, but they air Russian TV programs such as ONT (Nationwide TV”); “Russia-Belarus,” “NTV-Belarus,”Stolichnoye televideniye” (“Television of the Capital”) and TV for the CIS (“Mir”).

According to the Belarusian Analytical Workroom, the three combined Belarusian-Russian TV channels are much more popular than belarusian state channels 1, 2, 3 and 5. Their secret to popularity: mixing attractive Russian TV content with Belarusian TV productions. According to audience surveys, Belarusian viewers trust Russian media more than Belarusian and independent ones.

Internet sites are less restrained that the TV channels. According East Center’s analysis, the main disinformation providers are Regnum and EurAsia Daily. In December 2016, three writers at Regnum were arrested by Belarusian officials on charges of inciting ethnic hatred.

Although a Russian military intervention cannot be ruled out, for now Moscow seems content to use non-military tools to keep Lukashenko in check. The worst scenario is a coup d’état under the cover of military exercises that would establish full Russian control over Belarus. While the odds of such a dramatic move by Moscow are low (for now) the more that Minsk attempts to reorient itself Westward, the more likely it becomes that the Kremlin will endeavor to maintain its influence over the country. This makes the prospect of a divorce from Moscow exceptionally difficult to complete.

Photo: TASS/Valery Sharifulin