This summer has witnessed a dramatic struggle to topple the man known as ‘the last dictator in Europe’, President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. After close to thirty years in power, Lukashenko has faced considerable mass protests in opposition to his rule. Whether he chooses to partner with Putin’s Russia or the EU, remains to be seen.
Protestors have challenged election results as rigged and anti-democratic. Regardless of the outcome of the demonstrations, there will be change. Lukashenko now knows that there is a large group of Belarusians who will be willing to test his rule again and agitate for political reform. This uprising of sorts is a worrying sign for any authoritarian leader. It will likely influence his decision-making process in the period ahead.
Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenko has presided over a post-Soviet state that has struggled to shed its Soviet identity. The mass protests have revealed a desire to move Belarus away from the strongman rule that has defined its recent history and towards a more conciliatory and pragmatic politics in line with the West.
Build up to protests
The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic mismanagement by Lukashenko, and a burgeoning, pro-Western and youthful population are the major forces that have upset his political dominance. Belarus has had over 75,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 800 deaths, comparable to Poland and Eastern European states. Lukashenko refused to instate a nationwide lockdown and called the pandemic ‘psychosis’, despite apparently contracting COVID-19 in July. The World Bank predicts that Belarus’ economy will contract by 4% in 2020 – the largest decline in 25 years. Compared to other European nations, Belarus’ unemployment rate is likely to remain low and increase to 2.3% in 2020, before dropping to 1.8% in 2021. Lukashenko’s popularity has suffered from decreasing support from young voters, with roughly 75% of all young voters surveyed saying they distrust him.
This current struggle is likely to be a protracted and at times, bloody battle along the lines of Ukraine. Lukashenko is unlikely to give up without a fight. Should it be similarly handled by Russia as Ukraine, there is the risk of Belarus becoming embroiled in a frozen conflict or geopolitical standoff that halts any aspirations for EU or NATO membership. Belarus’ importance and identity as a European state, an ally of the EU, and a partner of Russia, are all at stake.
On the whole, however, there is not a sustained pro-Western populace that resides in one portion of the country and consistently votes for a political party that is pro-West. Neighbours Belarus and Ukraine differ on this front. Ukraine has a sustained pro-EU citizenry in its Western regions; they have voted in multiparty elections for leaders who support the integration of Europe. Belarus has never had multiparty, competitive elections, and lacks a clear regional divide between pro-Russian and pro-EU advocates. This factor is likely to remain a critical challenge for both the EU and Russia as they seek to influence Belarus’ geopolitical future.
Where Does Belarus Go from Here?
The likelihood of President Lukashenko voluntarily giving up power to the opposition is low. Absent a coordinated response and severe economic penalties from the EU and the U.S., there is unlikely to be any pressing desire by Lukashenko to modify his efforts. He does have strong relations with European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel given his role in facilitating the Minsk Accords to negotiate a settlement of the Ukraine conflict. The EU does not have much to lose from Belarus continuing to maintain close ties to Russia. This is because the country does not have a history of pro-democracy or pro-EU movements. While EU membership is likely an attractive prospect for Belarus’ opposition, it is not a guaranteed goal or even a likely critical component to its eventual democratic consolidation.
Poland and Hungary have shown that EU membership does not mean a nation is immune from threats to the rule of law, judicial independence, and attacks on political and media freedoms. Poland under the Law and Justice Party has been the target of rule and law inquiries from the EU and has been criticised by Brussels for lacking an independent judiciary. Hungary under Viktor Orban has pursued a similar approach, with academic and media freedoms infringed, and a state of emergency due to COVID-19 used by Orban to stifle the opposition in parliament.
Scope of EU sanctions?
The allure of the EU may not be enough for Belarus’ fledgeling pro-democracy movement, and that may be a bitter pill for leaders in Brussels to swallow. Moscow is likely to manipulate this tension. Putin will insist any move away from Russia is unlikely to provide a prosperous and democratic future. The Kremlin will have a strong argument to make that is likely to penetrate Belarus by speaking to the nation’s ethnic Russian population and a sense of unity with a Eurasian identity. The EU will likely have an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of Belarusians, and the spectre of Ukraine will likely loom large in any calculations that are made by Brussels.
Lukashenko is also likely to benefit from an uncoordinated EU response, including over economic sanctions. Germany and the Baltic states have already renewed sanctions on Belarusian leaders, but an EU-wide sanctions regime is unlikely to receive the support of all 27 member states. Belarus is likely to receive tacit condemnation from select European capitals with few enforcement mechanisms to provide for any substantive change in conduct from Lukashenko.
Future of the Opposition?
Belarus’ opposition has been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Still, it is united and represents a ‘big-tent’ approach to governance that is focused on unification ahead of party ideology. Given that Belarus is an authoritarian state with no experience of free and fair elections, the choices for Belarus’ opposition movement and the trajectory of its democratic development are stark. There is an opportunity for both the EU and the U.S. to provide funding and support for Belarus’ opposition and to help train the next generation of civil society leaders. This would undoubtedly be seen as Western interference by both Lukashenko and Putin, and perhaps delegitimise the pro-democracy movement as an EU and U.S. sponsored plot to overthrow Lukashenko.
If there is no support from the West for Belarus’ opposition, however, there is the risk of a sustained crackdown by Lukashenko that could eliminate any resistance to his rule. Belarus’ opposition could be permanently sidelined and subject to detention, torture, chemical attacks or targeted assassinations on the lines of what multiple Putin opponents have faced.
Furthermore, mixed messages from Europe that seek to reaffirm the belief of a divided alliance is an outcome Putin likely expects. Any opposition in Belarus is likely to be seen by Putin as Western directed. Therefore, according to him, not a legitimate government capable of respecting the rights of all Belarusians. This is a recipe for a coordinated and sustained response from the KremlinPutin that seeks to intimidate Belarus’ opposition through disinformation about the EU and U.S.This may also provide Russia with the rationale for the protection of Belarus’ large ethnic Russian population through a closer union with Moscow.
Belarus and Russia: What comes next?
Lukashenko has recently sought Putin’s help and met with him in Sochi, Russia, and Putin has pledged military support to Belarus should it be needed. Belarus plays a critical role in Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union to rival the EU, as does Ukraine and the Southern Caucasus states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. If Belarus moves too far towards the West, Putin is likely to take measures to ensure the protection of Belarus’ ethnic-Russian population, perhaps through a frozen conflict and occupation as witnessed in Eastern Ukraine. Putin may also try a passporting initiative as seen in Georgia before the war in 2008, which aimed to solidify the allegiance of residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions, by offering citizenship. Putin has also tried this method in areas of Eastern Ukraine and the Transnistria region of Moldova. By granting citizenship to ethnic Russians first, Putin creates the military justification for the protection of ethnic Russians should unrest break out that would signify a geopolitical shift.
Putin’s aim is likely to remind Belarusians that they are not wedded to Belarus but to a broader Eurasian identity that is less concerned about sovereignty and borders than a shared cultural and ethnic history. The laws and standards of 21st-century international relations matter less to Putin than the need for power and the reinvigoration of elements of the former Soviet Union. While Putin and Lukashenko are close, that allegiance is likely to be secondary to Putin’s desire for power and supremacy of the Russian state. Lukashenko may prove to be expendable should his continued presence risk the elimination of a union between Minsk and Moscow that would be a lifeline for Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.
Belarus and the EU?
The EU will likely have to decide quickly whether the strategic importance of getting involved is worth it and whether the eventual prospect of Belarus’ accession to the EU would strengthen the alliance. At the moment, there is little evidence of Belarus moving in this direction, even without Lukashenko at the helm. The experience of Ukraine in 2014 is still fresh in the minds of EU leaders. It has left Ukraine in a geopolitical quandary with Russian-occupied territory in its East. The EU will have to consider whether it is viable to have two neighbouring states, Belarus and Ukraine, that are effectively frozen from any integration with Europe. Both nations will be at risk of democratic collapse or backsliding and potential unrest with Russia, combined with threats to the rule of law and corruption. Ukraine is making significant strides, but Belarus will require support from Western institutions like the IMF if it wishes to join in the economic prosperity of its European neighbours.
It has become evident Belarus’ post-Soviet identity is less powerful and popular as it once was. The formation of either a Eurasian identity or a pro-European one that views Moscow as an external actor is likely the next challenge for Belarus in the years ahead. Union with Russia and away from the EU has provided Belarus with a degree of political stability that has escaped other post-Soviet states. However, this union has not offered a market economy, liberalisation or democracy, in addition to fundamental human rights. Belarusians today are willing to risk their lives for these issues. They are openly challenging Lukashenko’s security services that are capable of inflicting devastating violence. The Ukrainians who gathered at the Maidan in Kyiv were willing to die for Europe as well. Many paid the ultimate sacrifice.
As Belarus’ delicate balancing act continues, those events are likely to be fresh in the minds of Belarusian activists as well as EU policymakers as they navigate this strategic quandary.