Is annexation of Belarus really imminent? Interview with Edward Lucas

Belarus is not a former Soviet republic, Edward Lucas, a reputed British writer and security policy expert, stated in an interview with Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa. He also reduced the likelihood of a dramatic scenario in Belarus-Russia relations and noted positive changes in our country.

Could you assess the situation in Belarus amid another conflict of Lukashenka and Putin? Although Minsk is in Russia’s trap, but it is making small steps toward the West. Is Belarus a threat to NATO, the Kremlin’s puppet or independent player?

First of all, I would not overdramatize this, because I have see this movie many times already. There constantly was friction between Lukashenka and Yeltsin, there has been constant friction between Lukashenka and Putin; they argue about money, about gas, there is the question of the Union State – this offer some kind of clever trick for Putin to stay in power. People were discussing these questions back in the nineties and all through the last decade, and they continue. I would be suprised if there was a dramatic development. I think Russia makes its threats, Lukashenka tries to flirt with the West – that doesn’t really change much.

What really is changing? The Belarusian society is changing.

We now have nearly thirty years of basic personal freedom … there might be repression of the Lukashenka regime which in some cases is substantial. But Belarusians <…> can travel abroad, choose careers, doing business, study what they want. This is a long period of calm due to which Belarusian society has changed quite fundamentally. I think it is not the ex-Soviet republic of Belarus the way it was – the mixture of the red-green identity, of the white-red-white identity. One day Lukashenka will go. I think we all will be surprised to see this country emerging under a new leader perhaps in quite a different direction. I think we overpersonalise Lukashenka. We do not look at deep changes in society which are very slow and gradual but I think are also very important.

Why is so much talking about the possible annexation of Belarus? Ukrainians do take it seriously. They are apprehensive about that even more than Belarusians. However, in view of Medvedev’s ultimatum, it seems that Russia opted for a ‘legal’ way and the Union Treaty. Is it just information warfare or a real threat?

I think there is lot of ignorance about this. The less you know about Belarus, the easier it is to form an opinion. Real experts are very cautious about making any dramatic pronouncements. For Ukraine, it is worrying: if there were Russian troops then they would have tomorrow northern frontier as in eastern frontier. It is good strategic caution by them to worry about this. I think what we really see is political theatre.

Russia is trying to threaten Belarus; they are talking about making Union State a reality. The inevitable question is who pays. If Russians really have the resources to bail out Belarus with all the different internal debts and problems, they would have to pay subsidies.

It is not like annexing Belarus is an easy free ride and we have seen it in Crimea. They get it by annexation and end in paying a lot of money; they also have a big diplomatic price to pay. I think the end of the year will look pretty much like the start of the year in terms of the relationship – there will be a lot of angry meetings and threats and maybe some cut of the gas supplies for some point; maybe in the end Russia will get an extra military base. Or Lukashenka will have to accept something he does not like. But I would be surprised if we saw such dramatic change. As a journalist, I like east, I like to write about it. But for an analyst, it is more important to be correct than exciting. Correct means ‘accurate’.

Kamil Klysinski, an expert on Belarus at the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, in an interview told me that he was serious about the dramatic scenario. He believes that playing for time is in progress. In his opinion, greater Russia-Ukraine tension or Belarus-Russian military exercises ‘Shield of the Union’ may rescue Belarus from the annexation. Do you agree?

Kamil is very serious analyst. I have not talked him about this, but I read his analysis. I have seen the movie already – we were talking about Zapad-2017 – Russian troops coming to Belarus and they would not leave.

If you go back to the history of the last nearly 20 years of relationship between Putin and Lukashenka, there has been constant threats, ultimatives, arguments about money, energy, security. I may be wrong I do not see connotatively different tone this time. It is exciting to watch – both sides have room for maneuver. Lukashenka may back or beat Russians, or they my get everything they are asking for. And I am sceptical about the idea of Putin’s rokirovka.

You mean the so-called year 2024 problem?

Why not just change the constitution? People are looking for things to say about Belarus, it is a hot topic. This is not risk for the Russians and oddly, Belarus and Russia are quite close the expertise on Belarus in Russia is quite limited. They know more about Poland or particularly Germany or Britain, America. The idea they will be able just to take over Belarus and run it… who knows, maybe Putin will wake up one morning and say ‘I wanna do this!’, but I would assess the chances for the dramatic development in the course of this year at about 20 per cent, not higher.

Interview was part of Belsat TV program Prasviet (World and Us):