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Will Belarus be the next Crimea?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are declining in ways similar to the beginning of his previous presidential term. Then, Putin artificially boosted his own personal ratings and those of his government by illegally annexing Crimea; now, Putin may attempt yet another geopolitical power-play in Belarus.

April 8, 2019 - Vitali Shkliarov - Articles and Commentary

Poster displayed on a street in Minsk. Мы, беларусы; "We Belarusians" is the unofficial title of the national anthem of Belarus and the first line of its lyrics. Photo: David Brewer (cc) flickr.com

These days, experts tend to draw parallels between Russia’s current situation and certain moments in its Soviet or even imperialist past. However what really comes closest to today’s goings-on is a much nearer time – that of the beginning of President Vladimir Putin’s previous term, specifically the events that transpired between 2012 and 2013. Then, as now, the Russian regime hit a wall, facing a substantial decline in popular support. The solution they found at that moment was the annexation of Crimea. There are reasons to believe that this time around Putin may pull an encore: Belarus.

Six years ago

Indeed, the situation in Russia in 2012–13 was very much like what we are seeing today. Let us recall some of the major events of that period. In March 2012 Putin won the election by a fairly good margin; however, no overarching electoral concept was offered either during the campaign or thereafter to explain why he was running. Putin was reasserting his presidential powers just for the heck of it. As a consequence, his electoral ratings that had been pushed up during the campaign began to slide immediately after the Election Day passed, and this downward trend essentially continued unchanged almost until early 2014. Thus, while Putin garnered 63 per cent of the votes, as early as in August of that year only 52 per cent of Russians claimed they supported their president, and by October 2013, the number of those ready and willing to vote for the president again went all the way down to 30 per cent. The same was true for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government and the parliament: their respective ratings were going down while their popular disapproval rose.

That was to be expected. From the moment the election took place in March 2012 through the time of the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian regime had demonstrated no discernible policy – neither progressive, nor reactionary. For all practical purposes the government’s only meaningful initiative – a large-scale privatisation announced in May 2012 – remained on paper. To be sure, the government took measures to respond to the protests of late 2011/early 2012 (the case of the Bolotnaya Square rally of May 6th 2012, the Pussy Riot affair, etc.), yet this reaction never amounted to a distinct policy. The state propaganda machine only kicked in later. Even though the regime’s relations with the West were gradually deteriorating, they remained positive overall.

The government and the society’s habit of remaining listless coincided with the supposedly unwarranted deterioration of the Russian economy. By the end of 2011 the country had overcome the adverse effects of the global financial crisis of 2008, which was confirmed by solid growth in its GDP: by 4.2 per cent in 2011 and by 3.8 per cent in 2012. However, in 2013 the economy hit the brakes hard, with the growth rate amounting to a mere 1.2 per cent at a time when oil prices were very high and there were no sanctions in effect.

Cumulatively, all of this had led to a situation where, by the end of 2013, the Russian establishment had become convinced that Putin was in his last term in office, and that the system in general needed a major overhaul for fear of becoming critically unacceptable for the populace. It was clear that inertia alone was not going to carry the regime along until 2018. Privately they were considering the possibility of an early election or, as a minimum, of naming a successor ahead of time, as Putin was rapidly losing popular support.

Up until the events in Crimea, the Kremlin had not been successful in formulating a single idea that could overcome the negative trends in the economy or in the public sentiment.

Now

Similarly enough, Putin won the March 2018 election just to preserve his personal power. Like six years ago, no explanations were offered as to why he needed another six years at the helm. Such goals as making the top five global economies or cutting in half the number of Russians living below the poverty line, which had been regularly postulated by the Russian authorities for over ten years, served no purpose for that particular reason and hit no nerve with the public.

Many, including quite a few among Putin’s supporters, expected some new blood to come into the government and hoped to see Prime Minister Medvedev replaced. However this never came to be. Furthermore the old “new” government announced a raise in the pension eligibility age, which, in all likelihood, holds the dubious distinction of being the most unpopular of all the possible Russian reforms – even more so than the privatisation program. Putin’s silence on the issue had dragged too long (the draft reform was prepared in mid-June, yet the president only opined on it in late August), which adversely affected both his personal rating and those of the state institutions.

As a result, according to public opinion polls, support for Putin among the public went down by 20 per cent, and even more as compared to that in March 2018 when he garnered 76 per cent of the vote. In particular this could be surmised from the outcome of the regional elections that took place in September: the governors of four regions (Vladimirskaya Region, Khakassia, and the Primorsky and Khabarovsky Krai), whom Putin had publicly endorsed, failed to win their elections.

The response from the regime indicates that it was neither ready for such regional losses, nor prepared to concede and, furthermore, no overall strategy as such could be discerned. The same goes for the economy. Growth rates remain extremely low – under 2 per cent a year. Moreover, a further decline is expected in 2019 – first and foremost due to the VAT rate hike from 18 to 20 per cent. Some economists see outright stagnation in the cards.

Possible future

What all of this means is that the decline in ratings will continue, albeit perhaps not as quickly as in the recent months. At the moment this decline, per se, gives Putin little reason for concern since there are no new elections immediately on the horizon: the parliamentary elections are three years away, and the president himself will only have to face the voters again in five and a half years. (While he is technically ineligible to run for the presidency again due to a constitutional regulation stipulating that the same person cannot hold the presidential position for more than two terms in a row, there is always the possibility of a change to this constitutional rule, or that Putin will merely seek some other office or position from which to exert power over Russia.)

There is, however, a different problem: the society’s unofficial “contract” with the government, and that government’s very ability to act, are based on the president’s high personal rating alone. It should also be noted that in recent years, most of Russia’s governmental institutions have delegated their real authority to the president as part of Putin’s favorite concept of total “hands-on management”. If the foundation of this “hands-on” management, i.e. public support for Putin, continues to deteriorate, then Russia’s government machine, not particularly strong to begin with, is in for some really serious – and growing –turbulence. A domino effect could be possible where some of the government’s unsuccessful actions and failures would trigger other, even more misguided decisions. To reiterate, this is hardly going to happen in the coming weeks. However if the trend continues the way it did in 2012–13, in a few months the regime may well feel backed into a corner again. Once again, it will become apparent that the credibility “advance” issued to Putin during the election is insufficient to keep the country on a steady course and turbulence-free through 2024.

This is what will make an attempt to resolve the issue the same way it was done in early 2014 likely. The regime as a whole, and Putin personally, is currently facing a dearth of ideas and, worse still, of tools at their disposal to see these ideas through. One should not expect any economic growth and, consequently, any resurging optimism among Russian consumers for at least another year or two. The likelihood of the country restoring its good relations with the United States and Europe over this period of time is infinitesimally small. Nor will any further tightening of the screws, unless it is supported by real measures to address the ideological, if not economic, aspirations of the loyal majority, do any good.

Therefore it looks like yet another “geopolitical” success may well remain the only solution available to Putin. But even that route offers him precious little choice. Annexing the eastern regions of Ukraine by force would be rife with a sharp increase in government expenditures against the backdrop of ever increasing sanctions, which could create unforeseeable risks for the economy. Yet another foreign war à la Syria will not make the public as gung-ho as it used to be. A direct conflict with the US and NATO (such as, say, in the event of an attempt to replay the “Crimean” scenario in one of the Baltic countries), even if it does not lead to military confrontation, is still dangerous while the “prize” is fairly insignificant since, unlike in the case of Crimea, most Russians do not consider Baltic countries “Russian lands”.

So, in all probability, Putin only has one ingress route left available: Belarus. There are quite a few factors in favor of this. First many Russians naturally deem Belarus to be part of the “Russian World”. Second, the international community is not likely to actively defend this country since it has long soured on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime and given up all hope. Third, Belarus’ economy is already heavily dependent on Russia, as it has been for quite some time. Provided that Russian authorities can pull it off without openly resorting to unlawful measures, such as secretly moving their troops into Belarus as they had done in Crimea, annexation of Belarus in one way or another would present a much bigger gain for Putin than it would a headache. Yet the crux of the matter here is not at all in the balance of gains and losses. The important thing is that this seems to be the only way to maintain the Russian regime’s stability and Putin’s rating at least until 2024.

Vitali Shkliarov is a Belarus-born political adviser, commentator and campaign manager working for liberal candidates in opposition to President Vladimir Putin. He had previously worked in American politics for Senator Bernie Sanders, on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, and for several other successful Democratic campaigns.

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