Russia and Bielorrusia: different strategies in face of Coronavirus, with relative impact in politics

Por Lila Roldán Vázquez, 30 de junio de 2020

Neighbors, partners, sharers of a common history, culture and language, the Russian Federation and Bielorussia (the "white Russia") are frequently seen as countries with identical identities and political culture. Tough, we can perceive some nuances, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which both countries were a part of.

Given the substantial differences in territory, population, economic scale and geopolitical situation between both countries, it is hard to compare them. Nevertheless, the community (and on the other end, the discrepancy) of interests among Russia and Bielorussia, allow us to advance some observations that could, eventually, have an impact on a broader geopolitical framework.

Though Bielorussia is considered as the Russian Federation's most faithful partner, bearing a significant energetic and commercial dependence, some tensions have recently spurred, due to Bielorussia's resistance to a complete annexation by its big neighbor. In the energetic field, Bielorussia is exploring alternatives to Russian oil, through the Baltic and Ukrainian roads. In the political field, it resists Russia's initiative to conform a "confederation" that would include the present Russian Federation and Bielorussia.

With regard to the political path that both countries followed after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bielorussia has sustained to this day an authoritarian regime embodied in a single person: Alexander Lukashenko, who was elected President only three years after the Soviet debacle and is ready to compete for a sixth mandate. During the 2000s Lukashenko was known as "the last dictator in Europe", which costed him sanctions and international isolation, particularly from the European Union. In Russia, there has been a greater political alternation in Government's leadership, while maintaining the same elite in power.

In a new coincidence between the two countries, the Covid-19 pandemia surprised both of them in domestic policy situations marked by electoral calendars: general elections scheduled for August 9 in Bielorussia and, in Russia, a constitutional referendum (originally scheduled for April 22 and postponed to July 1) to define constitutional changes that could eventually allow President Vladimir Putin to be eligible to one, or two, new mandates.

Yet another coincidence: both Presidents decided major changes in their teams in the months preceding the respective elections; in Russia, Mikhail Mishustin took oath as the new Prime Minister on January 6, 2020, while in Bielorussia, Lukashenko announced the dismissal of his whole cabinet on June 3.

According to data provided by Johns Hopkins University, 619.936 cases of Coronavirus were registered in Russia by June 25 (over 144,5 million inhabitants), while 60.713 cases were accounted for in Bielorussia (over 9,48 million inhabitants) by the same date.

Both Presidents had different reactions to the Coronavirus: in Russia a lock down was established -tough with some delay-, along with the suspension of all activities that imply popular concentrations, including the celebration of the constitutional referendum and the commemoration of a very important date for the Russian people - Victory Day (on May 9).

On the other hand, no isolation measures were taken in Bielorussia. Lukashenko under-estimated the pandemic's importance and authorized football matches, popular concerts and all kind of public activities.  It was the only country in Europe that did not close its borders or limited any activities. In the President's view, the virus could be defeated "by having a sauna bath or by consuming lots of vodka".

In Russia and during the pandemic, President Putin attained the lowest popularity index since the year 2000: just the 59% of the population would support  him being reelected. This could be explained not only by the eventual dissatisfaction of citizens with his poor management of the crisis in its initial stages (Putin was practically absent), but also by an economic decline, aggravated by oil's low prices, as well as by aspirations of change in a big part of society.

Nevertheless, that decline in the polls does not necessarily imply that the results of the referendum will be significantly altered, for a number of reasons: it doesn't exist a well organized opposition that could modify in a decisive way the consultation's results; the changes proposed in the referendum, in addition to modifications of presidential terms and government structure, include popular measures such as minimum wages and retirement mobility; and, lastly, the evaluation of electoral results in Russia does not always correspond to western standards.

In Bielorussia, even if some opposition candidates have emerged -including representatives of the governing or entrepreneurial elite, as is the case of Viktor Babaryko or Valery Tsapkalo-, and if President Lukashenko's approval indexes have consistently lowered, a rigid control of opposition and a doubtful electoral machinery traditional in the country, make difficult to predict a substantial change of government in the short period: the main rival for Lukashenko, Viktor Babaryko, has been accused of embezzlement and arrested on June 18th, less than 60 days prior to the elections, even if he has been authorized to participate.

Writer Svetlana Alekseievich, the Literature Nobel Prize, describes her adoptive country, Bielorussia, as a "sleeping society": "Society is not trained for independence, or for criticism…civil society is just an embryo".

We could thus confirm, in these two cases, the phenomenon observed in the international scene at large: the Covid-19 pandemic will not fundamentally alter History's course, but it will just reveal, and in some cases emphasize, the already existing tendencies and socio-political conflicts.

Lila Roldán Vázquez, Embajadora, Master en Integración Europea por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Ex-Subsecretaria de Asuntos de América Latina y el Caribe en la Cancillería argentina Miembro Consejero del C.A.R.I., Directora del Grupo de Estudios Contemporáneos del Espacio Eurasiático del C.A.R.I.