Russia is working hard to maintain its influence in Belarus, and this has revealed itself in some surprising ways.
Since 9 August, there have been almost continuous mass protests in Belarus, triggered by President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in presidential elections that were widely condemned both internationally and domestically as rigged. Large crowds have repeatedly assembled and been dispersed violently by law enforcement officers, and allegations of torture following detentions in Minsk has been widely publicised online.
Speculation about Russia’s role in these unfolding developments has centred around concerns that Russia may attempt a territorial incursion along the lines of its actions in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but this is an unlikely scenario. Instead, Russia has other, and often more effective, means of influence. For example, recent changes within the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), and growing frictions in the relationship with its Russian Orthodox counterpart, reveal much about Russia’s likely response to the Belarus situation.
Metropolitan Pavel’s Resignation
Metropolitan Pavel had led the BOC – the largest religious group in Belarus, and part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) – since 2013. But on 25 August, amid the protests, he abruptly tendered his resignation. The Metropolitan was a powerful and influential figure, but his conduct since the protests began had seriously complicated the already challenging relationship between Moscow and Minsk.
At first, the Metropolitan appeared to congratulate Lukashenko on the election results, but rumours abounded that Metropolitan Pavel had subsequently withdrawn his congratulations, which the Minsk diocese felt obliged to officially refute, in a bid to avoid a crisis in relations between the churches. As police officers beat and detained protesters, the Metropolitan called for an end to police violence, appealing directly to Lukashenko, strongly implying that he was responsible. He had also – with the support of other religious leaders – officially denounced police violence, which was not well received by Lukashenko. Then on 17 August, Metropolitan Pavel visited several demonstrators who had been hospitalised by the riot police, and was photographed doing so. Repercussions were swift, and while the facts around his dismissal are unclear, it appears that Moscow called for his removal, and he was transferred to lead a diocese in the southern Russian region of Kuban.
The profile of his Moscow-appointed replacement, Bishop Veniamin, is revealing about Russia’s intentions towards Belarus. Bishop Veniamin is from Belarus – the first ethnic Belarusian to lead the BOC – and is strongly supportive of Lukashenko. The appointment of an ethnic Belarusian might appear to be a nod towards the BOC’s potential independence from the ROC. But it is has been made very clear that Bishop Veniamin is strongly against this, reaffirming his loyalty by pledging his allegiance to Patriarch Kirill – head of the ROC in Moscow – immediately after assuming office. The Bishop also appears to be stringently apolitical, and rarely wades into affairs that do not concern religious matters, a helpful character trait under the current circumstances.
Smoothing Over Relations
This suggests two things. First, that Moscow is eager to smooth over relations with Belarus at this contentious time. By removing troublesome figures that have spoken out against Lukashenko, even from their own church, Russia is signalling some moderate support for Lukashenko’s authority. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Moscow is emphasising its commitment to ensuring that the BOC does not attempt to seek autonomy from the ROC, as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church did in 2018, much to the ROC’s chagrin. Maintaining the very close relationship between the ROC and BOC is a way of ensuring a strong link with powerful structures in Belarus, even if there is a change in Belarus’s ultimate state leadership. This is a move that has been much more affirmative than any of the statements made by Russian officials in the past few weeks.
The relationship between the ROC and BOC has been difficult of late, chiefly due to the BOC’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Putin gave the ROC autonomy to impose lockdown measures on church territory if necessary in Russia, and after prevaricating for several weeks, the ROC eventually implemented social distancing measures, and criticised dioceses that refused to lock down. In Belarus, Metropolitan Pavel had agreed with this criticism, but had also allowed churches to be open during Easter with few restrictions, which prompted an uptick in virus cases there. Coronavirus laid bare the frictions between the ROC and BOC, with some churches in Belarus failing to isolate and denying the virus’s existence.
Despite these tensions, Russia has sent clear signals that the BOC and ROC must remain aligned. This is reflective of Russia’s overall approach to the unfolding events in Belarus, which has been focused on expending the minimum effort possible, but still building relationships with important agencies.
Deeds, Not Words
Although Russia did convene its Security Council in late August to discuss the situation in Belarus, Putin himself remained silent on the matter until 27 August, allowing his spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to offer empty comments in the media. Putin broke his silence to conduct a television interview, during which he appeared to echo narratives that Lukashenko has employed (with little success), such as casting blame on the West for the civil unrest.
But Putin made it abundantly clear that he considers the unfolding events to be a domestic Belarusian issue. This is a convenient stance for Putin to take here. Discussions over the past two years on deepening Russia’s relationship with Belarus as part of the Union State – a loose framework agreement brokered in the 1990s that Russia is keen to ratify – raised questions about Russia’s attempts to encroach upon Belarus’s ‘sovereignty’. Senior Russian officials appointed to spearhead this integration made it known that they considered Belarus to be little more than a Russian backwater – the Russian ambassador who voiced this was subsequently removed.
But here, Putin has shown that there is little political or economic benefit for Russia to embroil itself in Belarus’s messy domestic affairs. While Putin is wary of political changes taking place in a country militarily aligned with Russia, these protests have not taken on an anti-Russian slant, and Russia risks igniting the ire of demonstrators should it become involved. Much was made of a phone call between Putin and Lukashenko, during which Putin agreed to establish a group of law enforcement officers upon Lukashenko’s request, should the situation descend into violent looting. But this was a weak commitment, even if Lukashenko later inflated this to imply that Russia would stop at nothing to assist Belarus.
But it is more important to focus on Russia’s actions here, than its statements. Although it appears Russia has made its choice to back Lukashenko, removing Metropolitan Pavel was a low-level act of benevolence, and it revealed far more about Russia’s desire to maintain the relationship with important structures such as the BOC, than the actual importance that Russia accords Lukashenko with.
There are other important discussions taking place behind the scenes. At the end of August, Lukashenko claimed that Putin had agreed to refinance a $1 billion loan – likely an attempt to appease demonstrators who are angered by the Belarusian authorities’ response to coronavirus, and by its struggling economy. This could help to stabilise the economy and bolster the view of Russia as a stable investment partner. But it also signifies Russia’s ongoing willingness to invest in Belarus in the long term, even if it might not be investing in Lukashenko himself.
All of Russia’s actions so far suggest that it is keen to build and maintain important relationships with political, economic and religious groups, but nothing tangible yet suggests that Russia has entirely thrown its support behind Lukashenko. It is possible Russia has not yet made up its mind, but the commitment of funding and support for specific personnel is far more telling than words.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security