With opposition leaders now either imprisoned or fled, president Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus is facing some tough choices in both the domestic- and foreign-policy theatres. Having lost the support of many Belarusians, infuriating the West and demonstrating weakness to Russia, Lukashenko’s chances of pulling off a peaceful transition of power akin to the “Kazakh scenario” seem challenging.
Relations with the EU
The period 2014–20 was marked by perhaps the best state of relations between Belarus and its Western counterparts since 1991. These ties improved, however, not because of something but, rather, despite something. This limited improvement owed much to a dramatic worsening in political relations between Russia and its Western counterparts over Ukraine. Nevertheless, developments since 9 August 2020 led to things reverting to how they used to be: three rounds of sanctions imposed by the EU on the Belarusian political leadership seem to have dealt a serious blow to some previously achieved progress.
A superficial glance suggests that, at least for now, neither party is willing to take reconciliatory steps. This is, perhaps, more so for the Belarusian political leadership: given the severity with which public protests were crushed—as well as Lukashenko’s previous transgressions when “dealing with” political opponents—he will never agree to step down (as is demanded by the opposition and some EU member states), whatever guarantees he might be promised by the EU and/or the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power. For one thing, the example of Slobodan Milosevic—who lost the presidential election, stepped down and then spent his final days in court (prison)—will be a constant reminder to Lukashenko to avoid this scenario.
Given the current trajectory, it seems very unlikely that Lukashenko will make any attempt to normalise ties with the EU in the next several months. Rather, if public discontent recurs in the spring or summer, Belarus’s ruling elite will opt to restrict existing ties with the EU (and some of its members in particular), using this for internal consolidation and further promotion of the “besieged fortress” narrative.
From its side, however, the EU needs, if it does not want to lose Belarus for good, to take a very balanced approach, which should include attempts to find ways to communicate with Lukashenko, who—despite rhetorical escapades—is unlikely to completely bury his “multi-vectored foreign policy”, which is an important tool for Belarus. If the EU refuses to look for ways to get closer to Lukashenko, this will push him closer to Moscow.
While it is very hard to forget (and forgive) Lukashenko’s wrongdoings and numerous transgressions in the realm of human rights, finding ways to continue communication with the current ruling elite is crucial. The following idea may sound cynical but, given the multiple structural weakness and lack of strong leadership among the opposition, it might make sense for the EU to concentrate mainly on restoring dialogue with Lukashenko. Another crucial aspect is to avoid promoting or endorsing (even tacitly) any type of anti-Russian sentiment/narrative in Belarus, where this runs very high. If Moscow feels it is losing Belarus, it is likely to pull off a “Crimea” or “Donbass” scenario and the EU would end up with another unstable region on its borders.
Relations with Russia
The fact that ties between Minsk and the EU have worsened—both with Brussels and with individual member states—initially caused visible enthusiasm (if not triumphalism) among Russia’s conservative experts.
Indeed, during the heyday of public demonstrations, when Lukashenko seemed to be on the brink of collapse, one might have thought that he had no choice but to fully embrace Russia with its integration-related demands. Now, however, the situation seems to be gradually changing and Lukashenko appears to be (once again) returning to his previous model of “partnership” with Russia based on rhetoric and incessant promises with very little concrete action.
In this regard, two important aspects should be noted. First, at the 6th All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA) in Minsk on 11–12 February, Lukashenko emphasised the importance of political and economic ties with both Russia and China, thereby continuing his pre-election course based on bowing to both powers. In practice this means that the Belarusian political leadership is not planning to break with its previous “multi-vectored foreign policy”—i.e. a perpetual thorn in the side for Russia, but a foundation for Belarus’s survival as an independent state.
Second, Lukashenko’s postponement of constitutional reform, which Russia expects to clearly point to integration with Russia as Minsk’s main priority. Moscow—which is ready to grant Lukashenko more economic subsidies in exchange for promised reform, which de facto will mean the end of the “multi-vectoral foreign policy”—seems to be losing patience (although Russian officials are determined to disguise this with rhetoric). In the meantime, Lukashenko is persevering with anti-Western rhetorical escapades, while postponing key decisions in contacts with Russia.
Having first falsified the results of the presidential election much more blatantly and despicably than before—although it still seems quite doubtful that Lukashenko lost the election—and then falling back on violence against protestors, Lukashenko has put himself in a very difficult position, both domestically and in terms of foreign relations.
Domestically, where, for a variety of reasons, he enjoyed massive support—which, incidentally, went well beyond Belarus—the president may have set a time bomb that could go off either this spring/summer, or closer to the next presidential election and/or announced constitutional changes that might fail to deliver any actual change. If this scenario materialises, Belarus might be looking at a new series of public protests whose consequences are currently difficult to forecast.
In the foreign-policy domain, Lukashenko has virtually destroyed his limited ties with his Western partners, although the damage is not irreparable if ties between the West and Russia sink to a new low. The main problem, however, is that the EU seems to be tired of Belarus and, at the same time, is not willing to engage in a new round of confrontation with Russia over the country. Verbal support and some (limited) boosting of the “opposition in exile” is unlikely to bring any result.
From its side, however, Russia—whose leadership has been tired of and irritated by Lukashenko for some time—is now determined to finally convert the hardships experienced under Lukashenko into something more tangible than “brotherly rhetoric” and constant promises. Arguably, the time is now ripe for Russia to push for the integration process between two countries to reach a qualitatively new level. Above all, from the military-strategic and moral-psychological points of view, Belarus holds a very special place for Russia. If, as noted by leading Russian policymakers and intellectuals, Ukraine–Moldova–Georgia constitute so-called “red lines”, then Belarus’s role is tantamount to a matter of domestic security. However, having achieved mixed results in Ukraine, Russia is likely to act with far greater caution than in 2014.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).