Belarus: plus ça change or maybe yes, this time round


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

When President Lukashenko took Belarus to the polls last August 9 few foreign observers doubted the outcome. Lukashenko is a serial election rigger and resorted to this tactic even when he was still popular with his core blue-collar worker base. He has ruled Belarus since 1994 and, given the inevitable wear and tear of political leadership, could hardly have hoped to be freely re-elected to a sixth presidential term in an open and fair vote.

So, this time round Lukashenko had to employ the full suite of instruments to achieve his 80% score in the national vote. Journalists were arrested, the internet periodically switched off, factory workers bribed or intimidated and political opponents and critics beaten up and jailed or pushed into exile over the border in Lithuania and Poland. On polling day election officials were told to sign blank voting record forms, put opposition votes directly into the President’s basket and, where the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was clearly ahead simply switch her tally with that of Lukashenko. Yet notwithstanding the mounting evidence of fraud, the Central Election Commission and the Belarus Supreme Court have refused to rerun the vote and admitted only to some minor procedural mistakes. So once the usual hue and cry dies down, both at home and abroad, can we look forward to yet more years of Belarus as the last Soviet dictatorship in Europe?

Certainly it is too soon to write Lukashenko off and to see Belarus as the next post-Soviet state headed towards a popular ‘colour revolution’. He maintains control of a sizeable military and police security force which still seems willing to rough arm demonstrators on his behalf. State-owned enterprises, like the important potash company Belaruskali, have not gone on strike despite some small-scale worker protests, and Russia has made clear its support for Belarus by offering to send paramilitary forces over the border to help Lukashenko if needed.

There is no love lost between Putin and Lukashenko, particularly after the latter opposed Putin’s attempt to use the Russia-Belarus state union treaty to create a new joint presidency that would enable him to stay in power constitutionally. Yet, personal relations aside, Russia would not want to see a key economic and military ally like Belarus become a viable democracy on its doorstep or gravitate away from its sphere of strategic influence. The aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO and the West are already a big enough headache to deal with, and Belarus is crucial to enable Russia to hold NATO militarily in check in Eastern Europe by deploying its forces forward on the frontiers of Poland and the Baltic states. So, as long as Lukashenko stays aligned with Moscow, Putin is likely to once more bail out the ailing Belarus economy with cheap oil and gas and exports.

Can the EU go beyond words of condemnation and the usual targeted sanctions?

Yet this time round it does feel different. The extreme lengths that Lukashenko had to go to in order to rig the election conveys a sense of weakness. The President’s zigzag course since the vote, imposing severe repression one minute but easing it the next, suggests that he is unsure how to deal with the mass protests, fearing that too much use of force could be as bad as too little. Relying on Putin as the saviour would also tarnish his image as the strong leader and make it impossible for him to continue to play his bidding war between the EU and Moscow designed to make him indispensable as a partner, and to obtain maximum economic concessions from both sides. The opposition for its part seems much larger but also better organised and more determined. Although it lacks a recognisable set of charismatic leaders, it has formed a coordination council and says that it will not give up until Lukashenko ends the repression and agrees to negotiate with it.

As we saw in Eastern Europe during the last days of the Warsaw Pact in the early 1990s, once people power senses that regimes are weak and change is possible it acquires a dynamic all of its own, particularly if the opposition can persuade the trade unions and elements of the security forces to come over to its side. The more the demonstrations continue, the more Lukashenko will crack down and the more condemnation, isolation and the inevitable sanctions this will generate. This will make Lukashenko, the former independent dictator, a declining asset in both Brussels and Moscow.

So the key question now is: can the EU and NATO help to bring Lukashenko’s dictatorship to an end in a way that does not provoke a Russian military intervention, and the kind of permanent low-intensity conflict (I prefer this term to ‘frozen conflict’) that we have witnessed in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova?  Is it possible to create a pluralist Belarus with a vibrant civil society and a mixed economy trading equally with the EU and Russia but as a Russia-friendly state that Moscow does not perceive as a Western Trojan Horse?  Can the EU go beyond words of condemnation and the usual targeted sanctions to actually shape such an outcome, and prove itself a real geostrategic actor in the process? A strategy in four parts could secure this outcome.

In first place the EU and its member states need to formulate clear but limited objectives and stick to them. This is not the time to speculate on future EU or NATO membership for a future, democratic Belarus. The promise of ultimate NATO membership has been given to Ukraine and Georgia and must be honoured but there is no obligation nor need to extend it to other former Soviet states. The opposition in Belarus has shown the way in this respect by conspicuously waving the flag of the short-lived Belarus republic of 1918, and not the gold starred flag of the EU, in contrast to the demonstrators on the Maidan in Kyiv in 2014.

Tikhanovskaya has even suggested mediation by Russia. They have limited their demands to internal rather than foreign policy objectives. The West should do the same, insisting on an early date for the rerun of the elections under OSCE supervision, the release of political prisoners, lifting media restrictions and the convening of a roundtable between the regime and the opposition Coordination Council to map out a post-Lukashenko constitution.  It should make clear that beyond insisting on the respect of OSCE commonly agreed principles, it has no intention to interfere and expects Moscow to do the same.

Belarus could be the place where the EU demonstrates that it is becoming finally a strategic actor

In second place, the EU and NATO need to vigorously rebut the Belarus and Russian narrative that the protests in Minsk have all been instigated by the West to undermine their security. There have been no build-ups of NATO forces along the Polish border and no Polish territorial claims on Belarus territory around Grodno. Lukashenko must not be allowed to switch the narrative. His problems are entirely of his own making.

Third, the EU needs to be ready soon to launch an escalating series of sanctions against Belarus. The Baltic states have already gone ahead with their own sanctions package, particularly targeting individuals linked to the election rigging and repressive activities. Yet it makes more sense for the EU to act in lockstep rather than in differentiated groups.  Whether to target Lukashenko himself early on or reserve this measure to a later stage is one area of disagreement that will need to be resolved. Lukashenko likes to boast that the EU needs Belarus as a transit route for trade with Russia, for business in Lithuanian ports and for its IT services, potash and refined petroleum products. Yet in reality Belarus will suffer from being shut out of EU markets and EU sanctions against Belarus may prove less controversial in EU circles than sanctions against Russia.

Fourth and finally the EU should prepare a package of economic sweeteners to help Belarus if the democratic reform process moves forward and Lukashenko accepts to leave power within a certain timeframe. Again, as with the sanctions, incentives such as market access, soft loans and technology transfers need to be scalable and quickly reversible and strictly tied to concrete actions by Minsk rather than vague declarations of intent. While he is still in power, Lukashenko must no longer be rewarded simply because he stands up to Putin or makes minor concessions on human rights and diplomatic conventions. This has to be the real thing with effective monitoring by the OSCE.

Two other factors could just conceivably produce a more positive outcome. The United States seems willing to work with the EU on Belarus and has taken a firm stand on the fraudulent elections and subsequent repression. The US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegum, was recently in Lithuania and met with Tikhanovskaya. So, there is an opportunity here for the EU to work together with Washington, just as it is now doing on Kosovo.  Also Putin, with his growing economic problems at home and unrest in Khabarovsk has no interest in a failing state on his doorstep which like the Donbas, Crimea and the Russian-occupied parts of Georgia will need large injections of Russian money to stay afloat. Moreover, with the risk that Belarus could lead over time to further sanctions against Russia too. So, Putin may also see in the medium term an interest in easing Lukashenko out and having more power sharing in Minsk provided that Belarus remains within Russia’s geopolitical orbit and military relations are upheld.

None of this is guaranteed to work and it is not an ideal outcome from the viewpoint of the EU’s core values. Yet it is at least worth a try. Belarus could be the place where the EU demonstrates that it is becoming finally a strategic actor and it could be the template for a re-invigorated and more effective policy towards the EU’s eastern neighbourhood as a whole.

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