At the beginning of 2020, Belarus was in a different crisis. Then, it was about oil and President Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin.
During that crisis from January to March of this year, oil supplies to Belarus from Rosneft, one of the two giant Russian oil companies, were reduced to a trickle. Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin thought Russia was not getting enough for the heavily subsidised oil provided to Lukashenko.
Sechin is not just an oil oligarch. He is a leading figure in a circle close to Putin, the Siloviki, with roots in the former KGB. He is considered Russia’s second most powerful person.
After three months of negotiations, oil supplies were re-established. As Belarus approached the 9 August presidential election, Lukashenko posed as the man who defies Russia, an oft-repeated show by him.
However when he first took power in 1994, Lukashenko was very close to the oligarchs around then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He signed up to Yeltsin’s “Union State of Russia and Belarus” in 1996 — intended to merge the two states again after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Lukashenko hoped to be Yeltsin’s successor, and rule over a reunited Russia and Belarus. However Putin replaced Yeltsin in 1999, and Lukashenko took a Belarus-nationalist tack, trying to block the development of the “Union State” towards a common market and currency.
Elections in Belarus over the last 26 years have been increasingly obviously rigged — with candidates banned, intimidation, arrests of activists, Lukashenko using his media and “exit polls” to deter voters, and opaque arithmetic in the count.
Before 2020, the biggest protest around any of Lukashenko’s five re-elections was in 2010. Lukashenko had reneged on promises made in 2001 to allow sections of the Belarus state economy to be bought up by Russian oligarchs, and Putin was no longer prepared to subsidise social measures for Lukashenko to buy him popularity. Russian Finance Minister Kudrin claimed that over 15 years through oil subsidies Russia had given Lukashenko’s government £50 billion. No more!
Russia demanded that Lukashenko agree to a “Single Economic Space”, a de facto common market. Lukashenko said no.
Gazprom, Russia’s other hydrocarbon giant, paid for a documentary to be produced about Lukashenko. Titled The Nation’s [i.e. Belarus’s] Godfather, it accused Lukashenko of murdering a number of his opponents in 1999-2000, smuggling, and admiring Hitler.
Lukashenko retaliated by having Belarus state media publish an account of Putin’s corruption by former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemstov. Nemstov would be assassinated five years later.
Just nine days before the December 2010 presidential election, Russia’s gas and oil subsidies to Belarus were restored. Lukashenko’s agreement to the customs union and single market was not announced until January, after the election.
Yet on the night when the clearly fraudulent election results were announced, 30,000 demonstrated in Minsk. Cops assaulted demonstrators, inflicted semi-public beatings on prominent oppositionists, and raided oppositional centres.
The opposition was squashed, for the time being. But in 2010 it had lasted a few days. This year, it has continued for over three months since August.
In 2010 the opposition was mostly limited to students and “professionals” in Minsk. This year large sections of Belarus’s industrial workers, the MTZ and MATZ vehicle factories, the Grodno Azot chemical workers, the Belaruskali miners, have rebelled.
In none of those areas has the majority of workers yet been mobilised. A national strike committee was declared but never functioned. Leading militants were sacked and fled to exile.
Yet independent unions have grown dramatically in their reach, despite mostly having to work underground.
Many workers have made the connections between the corruption they see in the workplace, the lack of workers’ rights, the passivity of the state-controlled union leaders, and the corruption in government. They will have seen at least a hint of the solidarity possible.
The revolt in Belarus has stalled for now, partly because of the cold weather and because since early November Covid deaths have soared well above their previous peak in July. Arrests continue. But unlike in 2010, repression is likely to lead to fresh defiance.
Lukashenko, having closed his channels to the EU, is now totally dependent on Putin.
Putin has wanted a degree of pluralism in Belarus since 2010, in order to allow alternatives that are reliable for Russia’s interests to surface. He probably wants Lukashenko replaced, but that is not easy.
Some leading oppositionists lean towards Russia, like Babariko or Kalesnikava, but the street protesters and the workers who have struck will not allow them an easy pro-Putin ride.