The past few weeks have seen hundreds protesting in the capital of Belarus, Minsk. Protestors have been organizing in response to news reports that a series of meetings between the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, would result in the presidents signing documents that integrate Belarus with Russia. News explicitly claimed that the agreements would result in the establishment of a “common parliament and government” between the two states. While that may seem like a radical act, the relationship between Belarus and Russia is a long-standing and complicated one that makes integration seem like an option that isn’t too far off. In 1996, Russia and Belarus founded the Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia. The Union State of Russia and Belarus was formalized and signed in 1997, which further strengthened political integration. Finally, in 1999, The Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus was signed. The treaty didn’t explicitly make one state. Instead, it committed to close economic, financial, and military ties. Six years prior, Russia and Belarus had both been part of the Soviet Union, and so the agreement appeased citizens from both countries who yearned for the days of the Soviet Union to return. Additionally, at the time, Belarus was struggling economically, and many saw the deal as the necessary boost to bring the Belarusian economy into a new period of growth.
Nowadays, however, the political climate is radically different. While many in Belarus still believe in the promise of complete re-integration with Russia, the recent protests highlight how some in Belarus view integration both as a threat to their cultural freedom, and freedom writ large. Conflicting reports have the protestors numbering several thousand, whereas others report somewhere around 1500 demonstrators taking to the streets in Minsk. All of them came out in response to the threat of more Russian control of Belarus. Some, because of their political beliefs, were arrested. According to Viasna, the police have summoned nearly 40 people for their involvement in the protests, and on top of that, at least two coordinators of the protests have been jailed, as per a report from Belsat.
While the initial reports that the meetings would result in what would be a new government were false, the protestors were still concerned about increased Russian presence within Belarusian society. Their fear isn’t baseless, as Russia historically has engaged in military intervention to support their expansionist motivations, as evidenced by Ukraine and Georgia. The very fact that Russia has embraced military action as part of their arsenal to gain influence in the region highlights how dangerous their foreign policy can be for citizens in affected countries. The content of the meetings has somewhat validated the protestors’ fears. Within the two sessions, Putin attempted to leverage lower energy prices for Belarus to make them capitulate on other areas like Belarus’ participation in the Eurasian Economic Union.
The Russian media misrepresenting the protests in Belarus only fuels further suspicions from protestors. Euroradio reports that Russian media sites have claimed Ukrainian agents are the primary forces involved in the protests in Belarus. The very fact that the coordinators of the protests, who are Belarusian, were jailed, disproves the claim Ukrainians are leading the protests. All evidence runs contrary to the claim Ukraine is even slightly involved in driving recent protests in Belarus. But, this media has a genuine impact on both protestors and regular Belarusian civilians. Russian propaganda that paints protests in such a negative, misleading light makes it harder for the average Belarusian to accurately discern which political agenda they should support. The propaganda radically undermines effective democratic participation in Belarus, which comes at the expense of making informed foreign policy decisions regarding Russia.
The protests and propaganda put the ball in Belarus’ court. If Belarus fails to act, it is ignoring the demands of the public, and could potentially be allowing for a more malicious form of Russian interference than seen in the past.
In response, Belarus should take specific steps to assure the public they are not conceding to Russian demands. The first step Belarus has already done, which is not capitulating to Russian calls for integration in the last meeting between the two heads of state. The next steps are much more politically contentious. Belarus must condition any further integration, financial or political, on Russia cracking down on misinformation regarding politics in Belarus. Misinformation is an essential tool in Russia’s arsenal to erode central democratic norms of states like civic engagement and ensure they can further their influence, as highlighted by interference in the 2016 U.S. election. While it is unlikely that Russia will agree initially, continued pressure from Belarus could eventually make Russia capitulate given that it’s not a central issue to the relationship like economic or political integration. This strategy could be especially effective, given that Belarus is an essential military and security ally for Russia. So linkages between their military alliance with Russia and stopping disinformation campaigns could be a powerful strategy in the otherwise limited assortment of Belarus’ diplomatic tools. Finally, Belarus should assure the right to protest peacefully without police interference or jailing of leaders, and this will bolster political participation and ensure a functioning Republic.