The Belarusian president announced on Tuesday that the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigojine, had arrived as part of a deal that ended his insurgency in Russia.
The latter confirms loud and clear since Saturday 24 June to have played the role of mediator in this affair. But Alexander Lukashenko, who agreed to the vassalization of his country for his maintenance in power, shaken by a wave of protests in the summer of 2020, can he oppose the Kremlin?
Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday June 27 that Yevgeny Prigojine, the head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, had arrived in Belarus. Under a deal that ended its armed insurgency in Russia last weekend, thousands of the group’s mercenaries are to join their leader in that country. Did the Belarusian autocrat really, as he suggests, influence the outcome of this crisis? Is he able to resist the Kremlin’s dictates while his regime is subservient to Russia?
The question remains, since Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has over the years totally linked his fate with the fate of Russian power and accepted his neighbor’s vassalization of his country.
Especially since his re-election in August 2020, condemned as fraudulent by the opposition and not recognized by the Western countries, which has provoked an unprecedented protest movement, to threaten the very survival of his regime.
Despite weeks of mobilization and demonstrations, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to silence the protest through relentless repression. Mass arrests, police violence, opaque trials, imprisonment or forced exile of the protagonists of the protest movement, but also of political opponents, media officials and NGOs, make his regime veer even more openly into authoritarianism.
To cope with Western pressure and the many European sanctions that followed the suppression and interception in May 2021 of a passenger plane flying over Belarusian territory – the authorities then arrested the opposition journalist Roman Protassevich and his companion Sofia Sapega, who was on board – Alexander Lukashenko has more than ever turned to Russia.
Russian chokehold on a president in the corner
Unsurprisingly, Moscow has offered its support to a weakened and embattled president – who has long cultivated a certain distance from Vladimir Putin – promising in particular to send Russian forces if the protest turns violent.
Decisive support for Alexander Lukashenko, who until then had never really ruled out the idea of rapprochement with the EU. Even if at the same time he tried to negotiate economic concessions from Russia. The idea of such a rapprochement became obsolete after a new episode of tension, in November 2021, when Minsk was accused of orchestrating a migration crisis at the gates of the EU, in retaliation for European sanctions.
This new crisis has ended up placing Belarus – whose economic and energy dependence on its powerful neighbor has been reinforced by Western sanctions – completely under the influence of a Russian government occupying Ukraine.
Multiplying the signs of loyalty to Moscow, Belarus became a player in the conflict by allowing its territory to become a rear base for the Russian army – thousands of soldiers were stationed there on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24 2022.
Russia does not hesitate to use its neighbor’s territory to launch its tanks at Kiev, a hundred kilometers from the border, at the beginning of the invasion. In retaliation, new US and European sanctions are being imposed on Minsk and Alexander Lukashenko, described as an “accomplice” to the Russian invasion by Emmanuel Macron.
An “accomplice” who ended up ratifying the annexation of Crimea, after resisting Russian pressure for a long time, and by agreeing to welcome part of the Russian nuclear arsenal, after having his country’s constitution changed after request from Moscow.
The move marks a loss of sovereignty and a permanent Russian military presence in this former Soviet republic that ultimately remained a satellite of Russia. And as therefore with the Prigojine affair became the new base camp for Wagner’s mercenaries.