Lukashenko makes an unlikely comeback

Belarus leader’s statesmanship had been derided before he brokered a truce in Russia and offered a haven to Prigozhin

Rumours of the demise of Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko, were swirling just over a month ago, when he cut short an appearance in Moscow and was reportedly rushed to hospital.

His statesmanship had been roundly derided since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year – in which Belarus served as a launch pad – and after he was forced to appeal to Vladimir Putin in 2020 to help his crackdown on protests challenging his fraudulent re-election.

The 68-year-old made an unlikely comeback last weekend, however, when he brokered a truce in Russia and offered a haven to the warlord marching on Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“Nobody would have put Lukashenko’s name on a list of people who could be the broker in a Russian conflict – that’s just unbelievable,” said Maryna Rakhlei, a Belarusian analyst at the German Marshall Fund think-tank.


“Lukashenko is now able to portray himself as an independent actor who can settle problems on a regional level but the fact is that he has become so completely dependent on Russia that I can only think that Putin asked him for this favour and wanted him to be the white dove of peace.”

Many western analysts dispute the Kremlin’s narrative about what convinced Prigozhin to stop the mutiny. Still, the Wagner leader did ultimately agree to fly to Minsk on his own private jet.

The Kremlin has also played up Lukashenko’s proactive role, suggesting that his mediation was facilitated by a two-decade-long friendship with Prigozhin.

In a lengthy speech on Tuesday, Lukashenko described Zhenya – a diminutive for Yevgeny – as being “very impulsive” and rude. He allegedly agreed to stand down after being told by Lukashenko that Putin would crush him “like a bug” and never surrender his generals, Lukashenko said.

The Belarus leader also depicted Putin as impulsive and willing to kill Prigozhin without even speaking to him. “I suggested that Putin should not rush to do it. I suggested that I talk to Prigozhin, his commanders.” At one point, in what sounded like an attempt to soothe the Russian president, Lukashenko picked up on his positive depiction of the war effort in Ukraine: “You see, it is not all that bad,” he said he told Putin.

Lukashenko seems to have appreciated Prigozhin in his pre-Wagner stage when he was known as “Putin’s chef” because of his lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin.

“He is a good restaurateur. He understands these things,” Lukashenko said in an interview in 2020, which was why he felt “very sad” that someone who could find “the best bottle of wine” instead got entangled with paramilitaries.

Wagner mercenaries are accused of committing rape, torture and other atrocities in many places where they have fought, from Ukraine to Africa. A UN report recently implicated Wagner troops in the massacre of hundreds of villagers in Moura, Mali.

Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stressed that Lukashenko had given sanctuary to “not just another politician – he is a war criminal” who could further destabilise Belarus and pose security risks to the wider region.

By helping Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko consolidated both his allegiance to Russia and his status as a western pariah. The response last year was a new package of sanctions designed to weaken his regime but that also increased Russia’s role as the Belarus leader’s main trade partner and financier. Lukashenko recently also offered to host Putin’s tactical nuclear missiles.

The West has struggled to handle Lukashenko ever since the EU first put sanctions on Belarus in protest over his amendments to the constitution in 1996 – two years after he was elected president – which strengthened his grip on power.

In 2020, Putin helped Lukashenko crush pro-democracy demonstrations, while the United States and European Union responded with further sanctions, which were reinforced a year later after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land in Belarus to detain an anti-Lukashenko activist on board. A few months later, the EU accused Belarus of orchestrating a hybrid war by luring African and Middle Eastern migrants to its border with Poland and helping them cross over.

Lukashenko’s unexpected moment in the limelight, however, does not signify that he feels comfortable after last weekend’s turmoil in Russia, according to analysts.

He could show off as a savvy mediator but he also told his generals that “there are no heroes in this story”. Such words were “not what I’ve come to expect from Lukashenko, who is always very enthusiastic about himself, his skills and his intuition”, said Kamil Klysinski, a Belarus expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

If anything, Lukashenko might feel “scared because he understands that the Russian elites are divided, that Putin is not as strong as even a few months ago” and he knows “he needs a stable Russia to survive”.

Lukashenko himself backed a botched coup attempt against the liberalising 1991 Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, siding with the communist hardliners who also promoted the planned economy model that he follows. After serving in the Soviet border troops in the 1970s, Lukashenko had a spell running a collective farm.

As leader, he first locked Belarus into a “union state” with Russia in 1999 and often talks about their common fatherland, while he also claims to protect the country’s sovereignty.

Described in one of the US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks as “bizarre”, Lukashenko acknowledged his own electoral fraud in 2006, when he claimed to have lowered his result to make his landslide victory appear more credible. Instead of using lockdowns to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, he advised citizens to avoid the virus by drinking vodka, taking saunas and working in open fields. “The tractor will heal everyone,” he said.

Ruthless against his opponents, Lukashenko has jailed about 1,500 political prisoners. One of them, human rights campaigner Ales Bialiatski, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. “In my homeland, the entirety of Belarus is in prison,” Bialiatski said in a speech that was delivered on his behalf by his wife in Oslo.

Analysts are doubtful that Prigozhin will stay in Belarus for long.

“Lukashenko isn’t naive. He’s always been very cautious and effective in terms of knowing how to keep his power,” said analyst Klysinski. “The better option for him is to provide accommodation for a little while but then send [him] much further, perhaps to Africa.”

“Belarus is too small for two alpha males.” – The Financial Times