During his two decades in office, Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly proven to be a dependable Russian ally, but he seemingly said no on Tuesday to Russia's plans to build a military base in Belarus.
It wasn't the only uncharacteristic move this week for the longtime authoritarian ruler. His comments followed a street protest in Minsk on Sunday, when about 400 people came out to voice opposition to the Russian base. That Lukashenko allowed such a large protest to happen aroused some suspicion abroad.
Lukashenko, who has been president of Belarus since 1994, is up for re-election on Sunday. While there are no doubts that he'll win a fifth term, there is a lot still riding on the vote. More important than the election itself is what happens afterward.
"Everyone's going to be watching to see what happens with the election — not to see if there'll be an upset, but whether there will be popular protests and how the Lukashenko regime would respond to such protests," said David Kramer, a former US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
If all goes smoothly, Lukashenko could see the European Union lift sanctions against him and his regime. But if this Sunday's election and its aftermath bears any resemblance to past elections, the West will not be eager to improve relations with Belarus. After thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk in 2006 to denounce Lukashenko's landslide victory, activists were beaten and detained by security services, while political opponents were either jailed or threatened. It was a similar scene in 2010.
"I think with the protest over the Russian military base, Lukashenko may be deciding to pick his battles with protesters," said Kramer, now the senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC.
By siding with the public against the Russian military base, Lukashenko may be trying to temper or avoid any post-election protests, which would be far more threatening to his regime, he added. That said, Lukashenko has restricted media by leveling heavy fines against journalists and subjecting them to interrogations.
Following the 2006 and 2010 elections, Europe and the US either extended or imposed new sanctions on the country. Europe placed Lukashenko and a handful of other Belarusian officials under a travel ban. Now, in the run up to Sunday's election, Lukashenko has been making moves to curry favor with the West, and so far, it appears to be working.
In August, the president freed six political prisoners, a move welcomed by the EU and the United States. He has also played the role of broker in negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and the West, hosting peace talks in his country's capital.
The European Union is poised to lift some of its sanctions against the country at the end of the month as long as history doesn't repeat itself on Sunday, Reuters reported in September. The EU's sanctions list includes about 140 people and several Belarusian companies. An arms embargo is expected to stay in place.
It is against this backdrop that Lukashenko lashed out against Russia's plans to build a military base in his country.
"We don't need a base at the moment…. I hear shrieks from the opposition about the deployment of a Russian airbase. I don't know anything about it," he said Tuesday. "I feel surprised and, to some extent, angry and annoyed by that."
Russia already has a radar system and a navy communications facility in Belarus, and Moscow announced in September its plans to move ahead with the establishment of a military airbase in Belarus. In a statement, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he'd instructed his defense and foreign ministry officials to start talks with Belarus.
"It was no coincidence that Putin announced installing this base before the election," Kramer said. "Putin has been watching Lukashenko, with his efforts to reach out to the West — releasing political prisoners, the likelihood of sanctions being lifted — and he wanted to remind Lukashenko, and the West, that he's still a force to be reckoned with in Belarus."
While Belarus is inextricably tied to Russia economically and strategically, Lukashenko has always looked to maintain some level of independence for his country.
"Some of this, I think, is him standing up and saying, 'Wait a second, I'm the leader of an independent government,'" said Paul Stronski, who's worked on Russia and Central Asia in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The war in Ukraine has made Belarus and other countries that rely heavily on Russia uneasy, creating tension with Moscow. This is especially true of Belarus, whose second most important economic partner after Russia is Ukraine. Since the start of the war, trade with Ukraine has fallen by more than 40 percent. At the same time, thousands of Ukrainians have fled to Belarus for safety. At the protest in Minsk over the weekend, an opposition leader told the crowd that the base was clearly meant to threaten Ukraine.
"The possibility of an out-and-out break between Minsk and Moscow is very, very remote," said Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "However, Lukashenko does not want to be subsumed into Russia, and his overriding interest is to preserve Belarus as a viable, independent country that, of course, depends on Russia — but is distinct from it."
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