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Date: 23 February 2021
Lukashenko, Putin Change Their Strategies As Both Meet in Sochi
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko for six-hour talks on Monday, February 22, 2021, in Russia’s ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi. After greeting the Belarusian visitor, Vladimir Putin invited him to go skiing. They later held an hours-long talk, mainly on some solutions on how to integrate Belarus and Russia. It is certain and now Lukashenko is just bargaining the price. His negotiating position this time was stronger than the last time both leaders met in Sochi in September 2020.
Russia and Belarus have “six-seven integration roadmaps left to fine-tune out of 33”, Lukashenko said during the meeting. “All others are ready to be signed,” he noted. Surprisingly, there are “33” of them. In December, both states agreed to work on 30 integration roadmaps after having dropped the 31st controversial area for integration envisaging the common currency and state agencies. The latest meeting brought two extra roadmaps that no one had ever heard of. Most of the Putin-Lukashenko arrangements must be a top secret then. This is something that should deeply concern Belarusians as it is not known whether the president is trading their sovereignty for the power in the country.
This shows a change in Lukashenko’s stance; before he had long posed to stop the integration and stand for the Belarusian sovereignty against Moscow’s actual pressure to merge with Belarus. “They treat the idea of integration as the incorporation of Belarus. It is not integration! It is incorporation!” Who said that? Naturally, this was Lukashenko almost a year ago (February 14, 2020). However, mass-scale protests that erupted in Belarus after the election last year scared him so much that he quit his policy of maneuvering and openly bet on Russia. Possibly he hopes that by agreeing on a more intense integration and cementing economic ties with Russia, thus becoming more reliant on Moscow, he will solidify his grip on power and the Kremlin will no longer seek to replace him with a more “democratic” candidate. On the other hand, it seems that Vladimir Putin does not want to remove the compromised Lukashenko from power – as the Russian rhetorics no longer contains the demand of “constitutional reform” in Belarus, an argument that appeared at the previous meeting in Sochi. Putin himself felt so threatened by the recent turmoil over Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia that he will not take any risk in Belarus. This is not the right moment to introduce a controlled liberalization or try to form a pro-Russian and anti-Lukashenko opposition whose members could in the future take power in Belarus.
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What both leaders have in common is their fear of losing power and a firm grip on their respective domestic policies. They both want to count one on another, and both came under fire from Western nations. New Western sanctions on Russia are beneficial for Lukashenko. It is not by coincidence that he has repeatedly tried to prove that both he and Putin are on the same side of the barricade and have a common enemy in the West, while the recent rallies in Russia are the continuation of those in Belarus. Another thing is economy. At the beginning of the meeting, Lukashenko said he was grateful for the Russian assistance while Putin added that his country remained the biggest investor in Belarus. Many signs are that in Krasnaya Polyana, the two leaders discussed the deepening of economic ties so possibly Lukashenko will need to “privatize” some state-run businesses – or just hand them to Putin’s oligarchs – in return for loans and cheap oil and gas. It is known that Minsk hopes to get another loan from Russia, this time of $3 billion. One thing is clear: at the latest meeting, unlike in September 2020, Lukashenko was no longer that weak while Putin was not as strong as last year. Why? With tough repression and some help from Russia, Lukashenko has in fact unleashed a crackdown on anti-government protests that brought the situation under control. Putin has in turn the problem with Navalny while his political ratings in the country have lowered over the past six months. Also, Lukashenko has survived the top ordeal, or the presidential election, while Putin is waiting for September’s Duma elections. Furthermore, unlike his Belarusian counterpart, the Russian leader has to cope with the situation on his own, with no help from the outside.
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