The loyalty of the Belarusian nomenklatura has always been one of the main buttresses of the Lukashenko regime. When that unity was shaken by mass protests against the falsification of election results in 2020, the Belarusian leader was able to suppress dissent thanks to Moscow’s intervention. But the Belarusian regime has never returned to its previous levels of solidarity.
Prior to the 2020 protests, Lukashenko’s control over the elites was built upon two closely interconnected strands: a pro-Russian stance and a monopoly on any contact with Moscow. On the one hand, he controlled the entire decisionmaking process within the country, as well as all personal links between representatives of the Belarusian nomenklatura and the Russian side. That allowed Lukashenko to become the main allocator of rents flowing in from Russia for the elite. On the other hand, for the Belarusian nomenklatura, Moscow remained a political and ideological linchpin for the region, which automatically translated into support for Lukashenko as the sole pro-Russian politician in Belarus.
The protests in 2020 broke this closed loop. Moscow’s salvatory intervention weakened Lukashenko’s monopoly, both on decisionmaking within the country and on contact with Russia. The loss of legitimacy in the eyes of society and the West deprived the Belarusian leader both of the ability to present himself as a guarantor of independence and to strike a balance on the foreign political stage. A new course had to be built upon the foundations of repression and Russian support.
The fact that the Belarusian leader required help from Moscow in order to survive damaged the shield that had isolated the Belarusian state apparatus from its Russian counterpart. Formal and informal links began actively developing below the presidential level. In particular, they flourished between the security services, with Russia’s FSB and Belarus’s KGB holding joint operations on Russian territory, while on orders from Moscow the Belarusian security services tracked down draft-dodging Russians who had fled to Belarus.
All of this has led to relations in the Lukashenko-Russia-Belarusian nomenklatura triangle being established anew. For the Belarusian elite, the Kremlin has effectively become an alternative to Lukashenko, with entirely new access points to the Russian authorities and their resources opening up. The broadening of direct working contacts has created an opportunity to strengthen relationships of trust, and meetings between the head of the Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev are now as frequent as meetings between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The total break with the West that followed Lukashenko supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened the discontent in the ranks of the Belarusian nomenklatura. Western sanctions have deprived the regime of economic independence. Due to the loss of the Ukrainian and European markets, the premium vectors for Belarusian exports have been closed off, as well as the main transit routes.
As a result of sanctions, this year alone the Belarusian economy risks missing out on $14 billion in export revenues. The strengthening of security at the borders with EU countries is also hitting Lukashenko’s oligarchs, who had been the chief beneficiaries of smuggling into Europe.
The loss of its own income establishes a direct economic dependence between the Belarusian nomenklatura and Moscow. Economics has become the main instrument in Russian policy in Belarus, with emphasis being placed on the broadening of direct links between the economic elites.
Belarusian enterprises have been forced to look for options on the Russian market that sideline the country’s leadership, even in issues of transit. Now, instead of Belarusian bureaucrats, delegations made up of representatives of business circles and major companies are traveling to Russia.
Russia is prepared to compensate for losses of income, but on new terms. Instead of indirect subsidizing of the Belarusian economy, there is now direct, targeted support, such as an import substitution program being implemented without Lukashenko acting as an intermediary.
Something else that has changed is the function of the Russian ambassador to Belarus. Boris Gryzlov now makes regular working visits to the regions and key enterprises, while as recently as in 2019, similar activities undertaken by one of his predecessors, Mikhail Babich, so infuriated Lukashenko that he managed to have him recalled.
Now, such meetings have even been combined with an autonomous foreign policy agenda, including Gryzlov’s participation in a visit by the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, to the Belarusian city of Brest this summer.
The growing independence of the Belarusian nomenklatura unavoidably raises the issue of a redistribution of power in the country. In the eyes of the elite, Lukashenko no longer guarantees stability, nor does he solve their problems. On the contrary, he is himself increasingly a cause of problems that have to be dealt with by the nomenklatura. For example, Lukashenko’s recent demand that price hikes be reversed led to discontent and even open objections from ministers and Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko.
At the same time, Lukashenko himself is clearly not ready to take into account the growing ambitions of the elites. The constitutional reform that was supposed to redistribute power in the country as a reward for the elites’ loyalty has proved to be hollow. Lukashenko is refusing to make even the smallest of cosmetic changes, such as the transformation of the Belaya Rus association into a political party.
As a result, internal elite infighting is picking up pace. Since the beginning of the war, the Belarusian security services have carried out mass arrests of senior managers at the biggest banks and state enterprises. At Gazprom Transgaz Belarus alone, about one hundred former and current employees were arrested. Lukashenko has had to get personally involved in order to resolve conflicts and return people to their posts.
The schism in the Belarusian elites that many expected in 2020 is now becoming more likely due to the war. Lukashenko is no longer capable of guaranteeing their former benefits, nor can he keep them in check now that Russia is replacing him in his role as the guarantor of their future.
In addition, Lukashenko’s toxicity and helplessness in resolving both internal and external crises make it all the more pressing to explore ways out of the current dead end: both for Moscow and the elites. Uncertainty about the future and being drawn further into the war could take the crisis in Belarus to a new level, in which the nomenklatura’s position will be far less clear-cut than it was in 2020.
- Ryhor Nizhnikau