Belarusian society remains very reluctant to move closer to Russia - SAB

  • 2024-02-20
  • LETA/TBT Staff

RIGA - Despite the support of the Belarusian regime and political elite for Russia, the Belarusian public remains very reluctant to Belarus-Russia rapprochement, especially in the field of security and defense, the Constitutional Protection Bureau (SAB) noted in its annual activity report for last year.

Last year, Belarus continued its hybrid operations against Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, instrumentalizing migrants from third countries and facilitating illegal border crossings, the SAB said. The Belarusian regime and its propaganda media were also increasingly active in their attempts to portray Latvia, Lithuania and Poland negatively through information campaigns.

According to the SAB, there are currently no signs that this trend is likely to abate in the foreseeable future and Belarus, alongside Russia, will continue to pose a threat to Latvia through various forms of hybrid warfare.

However, despite the support of the Belarusian regime and political elite for Russia, the Belarusian public remains very reluctant to bring the two countries closer together.

Alexander Lukashenko and his government are actively trying to create the impression that, thanks to the regime's policies, Belarus has managed to avoid direct involvement in Russia's war against Ukraine.

This is important for the Belarusian regime, as the general public is negative towards Russia's war in Ukraine and particularly critical of the idea of any direct Belarusian involvement in the war, the SAB notes.

The SAB has concluded that the Belarusian public has an overwhelmingly negative perception of both the relocation of the Wagner mercenary group to Belarus and the decision to deploy Russian tactical weapons on Belarusian territory.

The year 2023 marked a new trend in Belarusian politics, with a much greater focus on defense and strengthening the Belarusian armed forces. Belarus' defense budget spending increased by more than 50 percent last year, the most significant increase in recent years, resulting in an increase of around 1.4-1.6 percent of GDP. However, despite this significant increase in defense spending, the budget for internal security continues to have a higher share in total budget spending, according to the SAB.

Belarus' cooperation with Russia plays an important role in the so-called united state project, which provides funding for various programs in a number of policy areas. This opens up opportunities for Russia to invest in Belarus' military infrastructure for its own purposes, thus further strengthening its presence and influence on Belarusian territory, the SAB stresses.

Despite the clear challenges, the Belarusian government is reportedly actively seeking to build a more optimistic view of its future economic growth. However, the SAB's assessment is that the Belarusian government's projections are not in line with reality. Belarus' economic development and budget projections for 2024 are considered to be overly optimistic, assuming smooth economic development and the possibility to continue borrowing on external financial markets despite all external factors, including the impact of EU and US sanctions

The economic and financial situation in Belarus is already showing the opposite trend, the SAB stresses. Although Belarus sees China as one of its most important economic partners, the EU and US sanctions against Belarus have considerably weakened its attractiveness. As a result, China has become more cautious both in terms of financial lending and the potential development of joint projects of regional importance.

Similarly, while Russia's economic cooperation with Belarus is seen as very close, Russia has also become much more cautious, given the need to focus more on stabilizing its economy and financial system. These factors have forced Belarus to look more actively for new foreign partners and potential markets for its goods.

An important event in 2024 is the parliamentary elections to be held in Belarus. The Belarusian regime will do its utmost to ensure the highest possible public support and participation in the electoral process, so it can be expected that the government will be willing to increase budget spending on the development of certain local infrastructure projects and social programs in order to increase public satisfaction, the SAB has noted.

This is important both to strengthen the legitimacy of the Lukashenko regime and to reduce the potential for internal instability and protest ahead of the forthcoming elections. At the same time, while the Belarusian government is aware of the need for broader structural reforms to ensure competitive public sector pay and the ability to deliver quality public services, at least to date efforts in this area have been unsuccessful.

Over the past year, there has been no significant change in the Belarusian public's perception of what is happening in the country, says the SAB. Public discontent with the political situation is generally high, but widespread repression of the political opposition, the media, NGOs and civil society has significantly reduced the likelihood of any broader protests.

For this reason, to a large extent, all civil society and political opposition activities inside Belarus have publicly died down and gone underground. Since the illegitimate Belarusian presidential elections in 2020 and the widespread public protests that followed, the level of repression by the Belarusian authorities remains very high, the SAB stresses.

The total number of political prisoners in Belarus exceeds 1,500, but the scale of repression is even greater.

In parallel, the Belarusian government continues to actively target Belarusians abroad who are actively opposed to the Lukashenko regime. For example, in 2023 Belarus introduced a change in legislation to prevent Belarusian citizens from being able to obtain the necessary documents at embassies to deal with real estate in Belarus or to obtain new identity documents.

This is seen as a clear stepping up of the crackdown on the Belarusian democratic movement outside its borders and a maximum restriction of the activities and activities of democratically minded Belarusians, the SAB said.