Prigozhin in Belarus: a success that Alexander Lukashenko may regret

The Belarusian president multiplies the declarations to take credit for the peaceful solution found to the crisis in Russia by Evguéni Prigojine, the head of the Wagner group. He hopes to prove his worth in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, but may pay a high price.

The big winner of the crisis in Russia? This is how Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is presented by some Western media such as the New York Times.

The one nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” by American diplomacy seems to be seizing the moment. He continues to speak out to keep the world informed of the fallout from Yevgeny Prigojine’s aborted rebellion against Russian army headquarters.

Loukachenko trots

Alexander Lukashenko thus confirmed the arrival in Belarus on Tuesday 27 June of Putin’s ex-chef. And clarified that a decommissioned military base could be used by mercenaries who have decided to follow their leader.

The Minsk strongman had previously recounted with detail, surprising for such a sensitive matter, the negotiations that would have enabled him to convince Yevgeny Prigojine to end his “march for justice” in Moscow in exchange for a base in Belarus.

Listening to Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin, bewildered at being ignored by a Yevgeni Prigojine who refused to answer the phone, would have called for help from his Belarusian ally.

The latter would then have succeeded where the master of the Kremlin failed. A story to be taken in context, which values ​​the President of Belarus at the expense of Vladimir Putin. “The most surprising thing is that the Kremlin allowed Alexander Lukashenko to unfold this version of the facts,” notes Natalya Chernyshova, a specialist on Belarus at Queen Mary University of London.

“We are witnessing the spectacle of a very opportunistic Alexander Lukashenko and are happy to show that he still knows how to be useful to Vladimir Putin,” notes Ryhor Nizhnikau, a specialist in the history of Eastern European countries at the Finnish International Institute. Affairs.

Since the 2020 protests sparked by the disputed re-election of the Belarusian president, relations between the Minsk strongman and Moscow have increasingly favored the latter. Alexander Lukashenko is almost 100% dependent on the support of Vladimir Putin, strongly suspected of helping him suppress the opposition.

The crisis with Yevgeny Prigozhine allowed Alexander Lukashenko to demonstrate that he was not just a puppet that Vladimir Putin might one day tire of, but that he “can occasionally step in to get the Russian president out of a bad situation step”, sums up Ryhor Nizhnikau.

This intervention served not only to restore his image with the Kremlin. “It also improves his prestige in the eyes of the Belarusian elite,” says Natalya Chernyshova.

Lukashenko relieved

But above all, by flying to Vladimir Putin’s aid, he may have also saved himself. “It was probably an even more explosive and dangerous situation for him,” Natalya Chernyshova said. Indeed, “Alexander Lukashenko is totally dependent on Vladimir Putin, and if the latter is too weakened or even replaced, it is a safe bet that a reshuffled Russian power will decide to sacrifice the Belarusian leader, who is perceived by many in Moscow as a burden what an asset,” said Ryhor Nizhnikau.

Not to mention a possible awakening of the Belarusian opposition. At the moment, the main opponents are in exile, but “they could have started to organize to act if the Russian president had been too busy dealing with an internal crisis to help Alexander Lukashenko”, analyzes Natalya Chernyshova.

On Saturday, as Yevgeny Prigojine still appeared determined to march on Moscow, the Kastous-Kalinowski Battalion – Belarusian soldiers fighting alongside the Ukrainians – urged Belarusians to “stand ready” and seize the opportunity to get rid of Alexander Lukashenko.

With the flip-flop of “mutiny” in charge, is all’s well that ends wonderfully for Alexander Lukashenko? Not so fast. “The problem is that he probably did not expect the mercenaries of the Wagner group in addition to Evguéni Prigojine on his territory”, notes Ryhor Nizhnikau.

The Belarusian president had only offered his hospitality to the leader of the mercenaries. It was Moscow that then added that fighters who wanted to follow Wagner’s boss to Belarus could do so. “I think that Alexander Lukashenko was surprised by this announcement,” assumes Ryhor Nizhnikau.

The proof: the very hesitant communication around the reception structures for these mercenaries. First there was talk of specific training camps, then of integrating them directly into the Belarusian army, then of nothing at all. And finally to offer them a decommissioned military base. We are far from the very well-rehearsed story of how the Belarusian leader prevented Russia from descending into chaos…

But Lukashenko weakened

It must be said that Alexander Lukashenko was never very comfortable with these mercenaries. “In 2020, shortly before the presidential election, he had organized a press conference to announce the arrest of 33 members of a contingent of 200 Wagner mercenaries in Belarus, whom he had accused of planning a coup d’état”, recalls Ryhor Nizhnikau.

If 200 fighters already worried the “strong” man in Minsk, what will happen if thousands follow Yevgeny Prigojine? Especially since the Wagner group today has nothing to do with before the war. Most of the most disciplined, seasoned and loyal elements have perished on the front lines in Ukraine. “The current ranks are partly made up of ex-convicts and criminals who are not loyal to anyone. These are not the kind of elements you are happy to have on your territory,” says Natalya Chernishova.

The arrival of these mercenaries in Belarus – so far unconfirmed – will also not improve the Lukashenko regime’s image in Europe. “If Yevgeny Prigojine deploys his Wagner serial killers in Belarus, it will have a destabilizing effect on all neighboring countries,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said. “In terms of tensions with Europe, this case is likely to have an even more damaging effect on relations with Belarus than the migration crisis in 2021,” Ryhor Nizhnikau said. Poland has already asked NATO to strengthen its military presence on the border with Belarus.

Finally, Alexander Lukashenko can smile for now, but probably not for long. “In the long term, the presence of Wagner and Evguéni Prigojine in Belarus will destabilize the regime,” says Ryhor Nizhnikau. The crisis in Russia has also “proved that the only ally of the Belarusian president is not as solid as it seems”, adds Natalya Chernyshova. Enough to convince the Belarusian opposition to stay on the lookout.

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