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The Peace of Europe depends on Belarus

It is a small country that is easily forgotten, in the shadow of Russia. Belarus is nostalgic of the Soviet Union era, caricatural in certain aspects. Yet a thorough knowledge of its history helps to appreciate the skill with which its leaders strive to preserve their sovereignty and the peace of Europe.


There are many jokes about Belarus, the "last Soviet theme park", as a country frozen at the time of Brezhnev. It is true that the country is a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (UEEA), which gathers the faithful to Moscow; Its ruler is openly nostalgic of the USSR, rules the country in a stalinian moustache style and the economy is still controlled by the state.
It is also true that Belarus, the flagship of post-war Soviet heavy industry,has been relatively untouched by the "capitalist" chaos that shook Russia at the fall of the USSR. In the referendum of March 1991, more than 80% of Belarusians wanted to stay in Soviet Union. Another referendum, in 1995, allowed the President to restore the former Soviet-era flag and to impose Russian as the official language of the country.
Minsk never authorized a perestroika, though. The few opponents, reduced to silence, discreetly eliminated sometimes, never convinced the street. In 2010 and 2017, important demonstrations nevertheless took place, protesting against President Lukashenko's election fraud or the growing economic difficulties. But the opposition was, again, easily muzzled. Belarus can be considered as a relic of the Soviet past, the Belarusians, free to leave the country without obstacles or surf the Internet, do not care.
The lack of reform of the Belarusian economy, precisely, allowed Belarus to survive rather well the chaos of the early post-Soviet years. The generous Russian big sister, grateful, gave to Belarus oil and gas at unbeatable prices. This energy, cleverly re-exported to Europeans, brought money to the economy. Thus, by 2015, refined petroleum products accounted for 26% of Belarus's exports, while the country is non-producing.
The Belarusian private sector (25% of GDP) is surprisingly fairly competitive; In particular information technology, thanks to the excellent scientific and technical level provided in universities during the Soviet period.
Nevertheless, the Minsk government has difficult cases to resolve. First, oil prices are falling, bringing less money to the state and Moscow now demands the repayment of Belarusian debt on gas.
The government could privatize its large state-owned enterprises to free its economy. But in addition to the potential loss of job security for thousands of Belarusians, with consequences for social peace, the buyers would probably be Russian. Belarus has a vital need to keep its distance from Moscow.
The Belarusian opinion is very much attached to Russia, considered as the most reliable partner to solve the economic problems of the country. But the leaders know that they must maintain a balanced relationship with their neighbors, including Russia.
The Belarusian armed forces, for example, were considered as a supplementary army of the Russian army, many Belarusian officers having been trained in Russia. Yet, the new military doctrine in 2016 underlined the strictly defensive nature of the Belarusian army. The document explicitly states that NATO, like Russia, represents major threats to the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus. For Moscow, the message is clear: Minsk is no longer a soviet military ally.
President Lukashenko, after the 2008 Georgian-Russian War, criticized the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Moscow as the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. He repeatedly refused to let Russians set up an air base in the west of his country. He must be cautious, the war in eastern Ukraine, Russian pressure on Armenia to prevent Yerevan from signing an agreement with the European Union, are clear warnings: Moscow will prevent its satellite states from evading its influence, by force if necessary.

Belarus is a strategic territory for Russia and NATO. The control of Belarus makes it possible to close the link between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO forces. If Russia and NATO clashed, Belarus would necessarily be their battlefield.
However, no country in Europe has suffered as much as Belarus in previous European wars. Due to its critical location, Belarus was one of the main routes of the German invasion in 1941 and of the Napoleonic invasion in 1812. It is understandable that Belarusians don't want to relive a slaughter. They, therefore, skilfully proceed to an ambiguous policy so as not to give any chance to either side to wage a war. We all have an interest in the fact that Belarus remains as it is.


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