• Belarus Before the Election

    Posted by: Ryhor Astapenia October 09, 2015

    Since Belarus gained independence in 1991, almost every presidential election in the country has been marred with fraud and the beating up of the opposition, all of which had the effect of bringing the country closer to the Kremlin. But this week’s election in Belarus—voting began on October 6 and will end on October 11—could break that pattern.

    The circumstances have changed due to a slowdown in the economy, worries about Russia's intentions and about how President Alexander Lukashenko is dealing with the opposition.

    Lukashenko, president since 1994, has recently released the last six of approximately ten political prisoners jailed in Belarus. The highly controlled state media even wrote about democratic forces, and the authorities gave more opportunities for the opposition to campaign.

    These changes reflect Lukashenko’s desire to show the West that he is still capable of gradual change—the same could be said of similar gestures made before the 2010 election. But Belarus today has a much greater need to find common ground with the West, and in particularly with the EU.

    The war in Ukraine showed that the Kremlin has almost no limitations with regard to its small Western neighbors, especially considering the domination of the Russian media in Belarus and Russia’s strong interest in setting up a military airbase in Belarus.

    Even if Lukashenko shows little interest in the national security of Ukraine, Poland, or the Baltic states, he cares about his own. A Russian military airbase in Belarus would weaken the country’s position in future negotiations with Russia on almost every subject and Minsk would no longer be able to maintain its neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

    On October 6, Belarus denounced Russia’s plans to establish an airbase. That does not mean that such a base won’t appear in the future.

    Then there’s the economy.

    According to the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, gross domestic product fell by 3.5 percent. Minsk is now seeking the possibility of obtaining a loan from the International Monetary Fund. On September 26, Lukashenko met IMF director Christine Lagarde in New York, who welcomed some recent progress in strengthening the policy framework in Belarus.

    The idea of cooperating with the IMF looks serious, especially because of Belarusian self-imposed painful internal devaluation of the Belarusian ruble. Several Western-educated Belarussian professionals with work experience in the private sector have been apppointed to positions in various parts of the economic administration.

    Not before time.

    Lukashenko has neglected economic reforms for far too long and for good reason. He feared that liberalization would reduce his power. Now, the situation is changing. If the authorities want to retain their power they have to start implementing economic reforms. Otherwise, the Belarusian economy, that is so dependent on Russia, will collapse.

    For Lukashenko, the current economic situation poses a serious challenge. When faced with difficulties in the past, the president could rely on a number of options often followed by dramatic policy shifts that allowed him to remain popular. Now, he has less room for manoeuver.

    For example, in 2008 when Lukashenko had problems receiving oil supplies from Russia, he paid above and beyond market prices to import it from Venezuela. In 2010, Lukashenko ended the dialogue with the EU and brutally arrested more than a thousand opposition supporters protesting against claims of vote-rigging.

    In the past, Lukashenko could make such radical moves because he had confidence in the future. Now, the economy has become his Achilles Heel and his political options are diminishing. Lukashenko does not want to anger the Kremlin or disappoint the West once again. Were it so easy.

    Lukashenko has long succeeded in playing off Russia against the EU and vice versa. But now that space has also decreased. If Russia succeeds in positioning its military airbase in Belarus, the West will question Lukashenko’s independence. The possibility of a further deterioration of the economic situation brings with it the threat of wide social discontent. And if Belarus continues making advances toward the EU, the Kremlin could reduce its level of financial support or even try to destabilise the country which is a member of the Russia-led Eurasia Union.

    So what does Lukashenko do? Minsk keeps silent about liberalization, even though the authorities are making small steps in this direction. For better or worse, the EU and the United States seem satisfied with these gradual steps.

    But don’t expect Lukashenko to grow too close to the EU. The Belarusian regime traditionally sees the EU as a threat to its rule and close cooperation with Europe risks bringing additional pressure from the Kremlin.

    Ryhor Astapenia is development director at the Ostrogorski Centre.


  • Merkel Is Not for Turning

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Thursday, October 08, 2015

    The refugee crisis is changing the German chancellor and could change Europe, for better or worse.

  • Judy Asks: Can the EU Do Business With Erdoğan?

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Wednesday, October 07, 2015 2

    Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

  • The Five Building Blocks of EU Foreign Policy

    Posted by: Jan Techau Tuesday, October 06, 2015 2

    The EU is an occasional foreign policy player. Five factors are key to unlocking the union’s foreign policy power.

  • Merkel’s Syria Trap

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Monday, October 05, 2015

    Russia’s intervention in Syria will increase the flow of refugees to Europe, putting further pressure on Merkel’s asylum policy.

  • German Reunification: A Job Still Unfinished

    Posted by: John Kornblum Friday, October 02, 2015

    It is Germany’s turn to help the United States understand the realities of power in post–Cold War Europe, rather than the other way around.

  • Europe’s Powerlessness in the Middle East

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Thursday, October 01, 2015 4

    Europe has ceded all influence in its Southern neighborhood, as Russia intervenes in Syria to protect its interests.

  • Judy Asks: Is Russia Back on the World Stage?

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Wednesday, September 30, 2015 1

    Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

  • Erdoğan’s Delicate Visit to Brussels

    Posted by: Marc Pierini Tuesday, September 29, 2015 1

    The Turkish president’s forthcoming trip to the EU institutions comes at a critical time for the international community, for the EU, and for Turkey.

  • Understanding Central Europe’s Opposition to Refugees

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Friday, September 25, 2015 1

    Experts from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia explain the positions taken by their governments toward Europe’s refugee crisis.

  • Refugees Could Break Europe’s Comfort Zone

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Thursday, September 24, 2015 5

    European governments have a real chance to rescue an EU that never recovered from the end of the Cold War. But which leaders will seize the opportunity?

  • Judy Asks: Will the Refugee Crisis Destroy the EU?

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Wednesday, September 23, 2015 2

    Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

  • Alexis Tsipras to the Rescue—Again

    Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis Tuesday, September 22, 2015 1

    The leader of Greece’s left-wing Syriza party has become the country’s only serious political player. But how powerful is Alexis Tsipras now?

  • Central Europeans Speak Out for Refugees

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Monday, September 21, 2015 7

    Europe’s refugee crisis is provoking a much-needed debate in Central and Eastern Europe about identity and memory.

  • Cameron’s Silence and the Fallout of Brexit

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Friday, September 18, 2015 4

    The British government is leading the country inexorably out of the EU. That would have serious geostrategic consequences for Britain, Europe, and Ireland.

  • Scrap NATO’s 2 Percent Target and Go Bold!

    Posted by: Sean Kay Thursday, September 17, 2015 1

    NATO’s 2 percent spending goal is a political basis for driving the debate on burden sharing. But that debate must lead to firmer action if NATO is to remain durable.

  • Judy Asks: Should the West Work With Russia on Syria?

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Wednesday, September 16, 2015 6

    Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

  • Reforming the World’s Voice of Reason

    Posted by: Jan Techau Tuesday, September 15, 2015 1

    The BBC is the voice of liberty and democracy around the world. Reforming the corporation is a matter of concern not just for audiences but also for foreign policy pundits.

  • Merkel’s Refugee Crisis

    Posted by: Judy Dempsey Monday, September 14, 2015 6

    Germany’s decision to close its borders to stem the flow of refugees is but a stopgap. It also reveals much about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership style.

  • How to Establish a Workable EU Refugee Policy

    Posted by: Marc Pierini Friday, September 11, 2015 3

    As Europe’s refugee crisis continues, EU governments urgently need to find concrete solutions. At stake are questions of rights, dignity, and Europe’s moral stance.


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