The popular notion that the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union may not be entirely true, going by the simmering conflict that continues to this day between Russia on the one side and the West on the other, represented by the European Union and the United States.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the long turmoil within Georgia and later Ukraine which have been caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West for over a decade. The latest country to get caught in this battle of attrition is Belarus, another former Soviet republic.
In the last few days, Belarus is in ferment over an election that brought back to power incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko who has been re-elected six times since 1994 with a reputation for ruthless authoritarianism. His main opponent is Svetlana Tikhanovsky, the wife of the main opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky who was jailed in May for his political activism. Following his detention, Svetlana contested in his place.
Large sections of people, in their thousands, ranging from the middle-class to sections of workers across the country have protested across the country demanding that the re-elected president step down. The protesters allege that the elections were rigged. The West has thrown itself on the side of the protesters while Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly backing the besieged Lukashenko, a Moscow ally.
The situation is similar to the Rose and Orange revolutions that saw Russia-backed presidents replaced by pro-Western governments in Georgia in 2004 and Ukraine in 2005 after rigged elections were annulled and a re-run ordered.
The West exulted in the victories of the candidates and political parties backed by it. But, Russia, traumatised as it was by the break up of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, saw the events in Georgia and Ukraine as an elaborate plan by the West to snatch the two countries away from its sphere of influence.
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When the Soviet Union was in the process of breaking up, there were sections within Russia that supported it as they were hopeful that it would lead to an open political society, and that the West would help it reach there. However, when the disintegration actually occurred, it was marked by disillusionment as the very same sections realised that the West was not interested in a genuinely democratic refurbished Soviet Union but was only trying to gain political control over it.
The initial euphoria within Russia turned into distrust and since then a great opportunity to turn the ex-Soviet Union into a genuine democracy was lost, with many blaming the West for the fiasco.
A decade after the breakup, Russia under Putin turned aggressive and decided not to politically let go of its former provinces as it impinged on Moscow’s security. In an act of self-preservation and keen to maintain a buffer zone between itself and the West, Russia actively intervened to retain control by backing governments friendly to it.
Once a decision was made, it was not difficult to emerge as a force in its former republics as the Russian diaspora was large and enmeshed locally in a variety of ways across administrative, political, and business strata.
The so-called “Rose” revolution in Georgia brought in the pro-West government of Mikhail Saakashvili who immediately initiated widespread reforms. An irritated Moscow used dissension in the rebel provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia, and went to war with the country in their support in 2008. Both the provinces today are controlled by Russian-backed forces.
Similarly, in the case of Ukraine, following the Euromaidan protests in 2013-14 demanding that the country integrates into the European Union, Moscow intervened. Russian forces occupied eastern Ukraine followed by the annexation of Crimea. The belligerent response of the Putin government in Ukraine made it clear that any more attempts to go closer to the EU would cut no slack with Moscow.
Belarus, where protests are ongoing against a pro-Moscow president, is the third country that has descended into turmoil in attempts to shift allegiance away from Russia towards the West. The protests have again brought into focus Russia’s proposal for a common united market with Belarus under the umbrella of the newly formed Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) that was discussed in December last year.
The opposition in Belarus fears that if the proposal fructifies it would be the end of Belarus’s sovereignty. But Putin appears prepared to walk the talk and has reportedly said Russian troops would go to the help of President Lukashenka, who won the elections. It is obvious that the signs from Moscow mean that Russia will not stand by and watch its ally there step down.
Another possibility is that in the event of the protests not winding down, Lukashenko may step down and would be replaced by another Moscow-friendly candidate acceptable to sections of the Belarus opposition, even if it means holding another election.
It is clear that Russia will not allow any more of its former republics to go with the West, unchallenged. Earlier, countries like Lithuania were able to join the western military grouping NATO as Russia was still coping with the initial trauma of the Soviet breakup.
But that situation has long passed. Russia made its re-entry into world politics after its political hibernation during the popular uprising in Georgia, followed it up by intervening in the Syrian civil war in support of its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and then asserted itself in Ukraine when that country attempted to move closer to the West.
Putin’s Russia is now far more alert to its own security and will not allow Belarus or any of its other neighbours to move away from it politically. Belarus is showing itself up as the latest evidence of that assertion.