What Russia Has To Do With the Protests in Belarus

Mar 27, 2017 | 18:04 GMT

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What Russia Has To Do With the Protests in Belarus

The Belarusian economy has been stuck in a recession for more than two years, thanks in large part to its close ties to Russia's own foundering economy. When oil prices plunged in 2014, not long after the West slapped sanctions on Russia for its role in the eastern Ukraine conflict, the Russian economy entered a downward slide that it has yet to reverse. Because Belarus relies on Russia for much of its trade, investment and energy imports, its economy was dragged down with Russia's, and in 2015, Belarus' gross domestic product contracted by 3.9 percent before shrinking again by an estimated 3 percent in 2016.

Belarus' heavy dependence on its struggling foreign partner forced it to adjust its strategy abroad. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, fearing the West might seek to replicate the 2014 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine by inciting similar protests within Belarus' borders, began to thaw his country's relations with the United States and Europe. And in many ways, his efforts paid off: The European Union suspended most of its sanctions against Belarus in 2015, and Minsk began to forge closer trade ties with Western countries to supplement its fading relationship with the struggling Russian economy. Belarus even managed to secure a position mediating between East and West as the Ukraine conflict dragged on.

Though this strategy eased the political pressure building on Belarus from the West, it also worsened tension between Belarus and Russia. Despite their long-standing alliance, Belarus and Russia have a relationship prone to diplomatic spats over economic and energy issues, and in 2016 those grievances flared once again. The two countries became embroiled in a dispute about natural gas prices and transit fees that has taken a toll on the Belarusian economy in the months since. So far, Russia has refused to budge on its price hike, and Belarus' budding ties with the West are still too new to provide it with any sort of meaningful relief.

Now, the question is the Kremlin's position on — or perhaps involvement in — the protests over the Belarus' controversial "social parasite tax"? Despite Lukashenko's attempts to both placate and intimidate protesters, the demonstrations show no sign of abating. Meanwhile, Russia's repeated clashes with Lukashenko have certainly frustrated Moscow, even leading it to reinstate border controls after Belarus relaxed its visa policies toward Western countries in January. For all of their problems, though, the two countries remain strategically aligned and have stepped up their cooperation on security matters in recent months. Though Russia could no doubt put pressure on Lukashenko by meddling in the protests, the last thing Moscow wants is a Belarusian uprising that calls into question the country's stability and foreign policy. Belarus' current predicament, then, seems to be a mostly domestic one — at least for now.