Rising Costs of Defiance: Number of Political Prisoners in Belarus Reaches Record High
As Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, reactions in the former Soviet Union (FSU) ranged from anxiety to terror. FSU countries again feel exposed to the Russian imperial powers that repressed them in the 20th century, via histories of dependency, geographical proximity to Russia or the presence of Russian-speaking minorities.
The Baltic states were lucky enough to escape Russia’s grip in the early 1990s. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of the EU and NATO. Therefore, they have more reason to feel protected. Countries embroiled in territorial disputes with Russian-backed proxies, such as Moldova and Georgia, have rushed to make their own bids for EU membership, fearing the potential for a direct, wider conflict. with Russia.
With the notable exception of Belarus, FSU countries have worked unanimously to distance themselves from Russia, aware of their economic and energy vulnerabilities.
A UN resolution demanding that Russia “withdraw all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” was adopted on March 2, 2022 by 141 votes in favor and 5 votes against, among which Russia and Belarus. Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic States and Georgia voted in favor of the resolution. Other post-Soviet states avoided any clear position. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained, while Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were absent.
Along with overwhelming global condemnation of Russia’s aggression, the vote revealed the dilemmas facing countries of the former USSR. Various factors, such as economic and energy dependence, participation in Russian-led regional economic and military alliances, geographical proximity to Russia, the presence of ethnically Russian minorities and the influence of Russian media, reduce the space of diplomatic maneuvering for the FSU, non – EU member countries.
The Belarusian regime has long relied on Russian loans, grants and other forms of support to stay in power. In 2020, during mass protests against rigged presidential elections and police brutality, Russia fully backed longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Now is the time for the Lukashenka regime to pay off its debt. So far, the regime has tried to avoid direct Belarusian involvement in the Russian invasion. But Moscow continues to pressure Minsk to join the war.
In response to Russian actions, Belarusian volunteers created the Kastus Kalinouski battalion, which fights the Russian army in Ukraine. The battalion is said to have around 200 active soldiers, along with several hundred more in military training.
Kazakhstan is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Just over two months ago, events in Kazakhstan made international headlines as protests erupted across the country. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev received Russian military aid to quell the unrest and ultimately keep his regime in power. A few weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. In response, Kazakhstan cautiously backed away from the invasion.
Kazakhstan’s attempts at neutrality look like a balancing act rather than sincere support for Ukraine. Fearing that sanctions would target not only Moscow but also its allies, Kazakh authorities let an anti-war rally go ahead on March 6. Hundreds of protesters with pro-Ukraine slogans attended the rally. Besides collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine, Kazakhstan also abstained in the United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan does not want to upset Moscow. For example, on March 18, he decided to use Russian rubles for customs fees in bilateral trade, since the use of foreign currencies had become impossible due to Western sanctions. And Kazakh authorities banned a second anti-war rally on March 19.
A few days earlier, two Kazakh bloggers, who have criticized Russian policies in the past and the recent invasion of Ukraine, were sentenced to heavy prison terms. According to BEROC economic analyst Leu Lvouski, in the future, Kazakhstan (along with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) may seek to circumvent Western sanctions and facilitate access to the Russian market, despite the growing toxicity of such connection.
Kyrgyzstan, another CSTO and EAEU member, reacted with concern to the economic impact of the sanctions. His authorities supported a “peaceful resolution” to the war in Ukraine. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev announced that his country was ready to serve as a negotiating platform if necessary.
Azerbaijan’s situation resembles that of Kazakhstan, as it has also recently benefited from Russian support. In 2020, open hostilities resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region with Azerbaijani territorial claims. Russia helped broker a ceasefire and deployed peacekeepers to the region. Now, Azerbaijan prefers to keep a low profile in its response to the war with Ukraine, especially as Russia supports Azerbaijan’s territorial claims in the region.
Following Ukraine’s application for EU membership on February 28, Moldova and Georgia rushed to file their own applications for EU candidate status on March 3. The chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, Irakli Kobakhidze, pointed out that Georgia’s EU candidacy could have been improved by the reforms planned for 2024, but “given the general political context and the new reality […]the political team of Georgian Dream has taken the political decision to immediately apply for EU membership.
Despite Georgia’s domestic political polarization and increased economic ties with Russia in recent years, the war in Ukraine reminded Georgians of the 2008 war, when Russia backed the self-declared republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. . Russia has used military force against an independent state for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, signaling a clear shift in its policy toward its neighbors.
Moldova has declared a 60-day emergency due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Moldovan Ministry of Defense has declared that the republic has no reason to participate in the armed conflict, taking care to reaffirm the neutral status of Moldova. With a heavy reliance on Russian gas and an unresolved situation in the breakaway region of Transnistria, Moldova is in a precarious situation. This situation is further aggravated by the close proximity of Moldova to ongoing military actions and an influx of refugees.
On March 16, in a gesture of solidarity with Moldova, the Council of Europe recognized Transnistria as “territory occupied by Russia”. This deviates from the earlier definition of the territory council as being “under the effective control of the Russian Federation”.
Looking to the future, the EU must develop new and effective approaches in its foreign affairs. Not only a new approach must be adopted vis-à-vis Russia, but also vis-à-vis the FSU states, whose reactions to the war in Ukraine show a high level of insecurity. FSU countries are aware of vulnerabilities, economic dependencies and unstable political systems, which make them easy targets for Russian imperial ambitions. Although evident as early as the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, these existential questions have been largely ignored by the EU and the rest of the world.
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