Wagner Group, Belarus and balance between democracy and stability

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies
In the Republic of Belarus, presidential elections are to take place on 9 August 2020. The elections will take place in a rather tense atmosphere. The developments in Belarus over the past years are a consequence of not just internal political relations in the country, but also significant foreign influence, which has been particularly prominent in the election year.  

Although the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is in the focus of current happenings, they are a result of much deeper and more complex developments than it may seem at a first glance. Particularly if one is looking at the developments in the country through the prism of relations between President Lukashenko and the opposition and the opposition presidential candidates. 

Minsk peace agreement

President Lukashenko has predominantly strived to balance his policy between the West and his eastern neighbor, the Russian Federation. In different periods his policy tilted towards the first or the latter, and sometimes even towards a third party. Lukashenko’s pragmatic policy played an important role in the signing of the peace agreement in Minsk on the basis of which the fighting in Ukraine was stopped. 

The agreement was brokered by a Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which included representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.  The agreement on ending the war in the Donbass region in Ukraine was signed on 5 September 2014 by representatives of Ukraine, Russian Federation, Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The peace agreement, which was achieved after multiple previous attempts to end the conflicts in the Donbass region, established temporary ceasefire. However, as it did not succeed in stopping the fighting in the Donbass region, a new package of measures followed. It was dubbed Minsk II and was agreed on 12 February 2015.  Although the new measures also did not completely end the fighting, the Minsk agreements remains the basis for any future resolution of the conflict, as agreed at a meeting of the Normandy Contact Group (Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France).

Most of the US and EU sanctions imposed on Belarus because of its treatment of political opponents were withdrawn after the release of political prisoners and its contribution to the signing of the peace agreement for Ukraine. 

The EU lifted the sanctions against Belarus in February 2016. Although EU foreign ministers had decided to lift majority of sanctions against Belarus as a sign of recognition of its democratic progress, there are still concerns related to the human rights situation in the country. In fact, that is how the process of development of stronger relations between Belarus and the West, primarily the EU, begun. However, the weapons embargo has remained in place. A period of warming of relations between Belarus and the EU, that is US, followed. 

Its relations with Russia, Belarus’s traditional ally, were disturbed after Minsk had refused to recognize Russian annexation of the Crimea, Ukrainian peninsula, in 2014. 

Wagnerization of Belarus 

Wagner is actually a secret paramilitary unit of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which has been used in conflicts where deniability is called for (Donbass and Luhansk in Ukraine in 2014, civil war in Syria since 2015, Venezuela 2019, etc.). The Wagner Group first showed up in 2014 in the Luhansk region, Ukraine. Its members were recently identified and arrested on the territory of Belarus.  They are suspected of instigating unrests and destabilization of the country with respect to the upcoming presidential elections, that is with the aim of overthrowing the current government. 

Analysts believe that due to the increased presence of NATO on its western borders the Russian Federation had modified it modus operandi. Instead of directly confronting NATO, it now resorts to new forms of operations. Specifically, instigating instability in target countries and causing local conflicts. Causing an internal crisis in Belarus is an ideal opportunity for employment of the Wagner Group, which often uses the shock doctrine in its operations. 

Election between democracy and peace and stability

Remarks and criticisms about Belarus’s democracy have come from the West. However, the West has also criticized in a similar way the countries that are EU and NATO members, such as the Visegrad Group member states (V4).

Analysts believe that the developments in Belarus are a major test for the EU, as well as the impact and effectiveness of its policy. Namely, will it bring Belarus closer to the EU and intensify cooperation with it or will it leave Belarus at the mercy of Russia. That is why in Belarus the West is faced with two choices- will it support democracy or peace and stability? In this context, the experiences from the Western Balkans, in which the EU often did not have a “lucky hand”, will be very useful. 

Which country after Belarus?

The direct military presence and threat of NATO on Russian borders had forced Russia to take a different approach to the new geopolitical reality. Although Alexander Lukashenko is a favorite at the upcoming presidential elections in Belarus, his reelection will not mean also the end of the problems for the country. 

Analysts believe that intensive activities on destabilization of Belarus will continue. This leads to the following question- which country is next in line for destabilization using the “Wagnerization of Belarus” model. 

[1IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.

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