Russian aggression toward Ukraine has put the Belarusian leadership in a difficult position and accelerated Minsk’s attempt to improve its relations with the West.
The EU recently opened discussions on how to respond to the Belarusian offer. Talks should be realistic, however: the regime of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is unable to carry out any of the political liberalizations and economic reforms that his country needs more than ever. The EU can help alleviate the Belarusian regime’s serious problems—but Brussels, not Minsk, should set the agenda.
Revisiting Belarus even after a relatively short break offers some surprising impressions. Today’s visitor to Minsk can see a public campaign promoting the Belarusian language on street billboards, books by previously forbidden opposition novelists in the bookshop window next to the headquarters of the KGB, the national security agency, and the reconstruction of a series of historical buildings downtown.
All these are visible signs of changes in the officially promoted politics of identity and memory. The authorities clearly want to demonstrate the independence of the Belarusian state. The context of this still rather limited shift is Russia’s aggressive policy, which has strongly affected the Belarusian regime’s sense of security.
Peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine were held in Minsk on two occasions. That has drawn a little more international attention to Belarus, whose relations with the West are frozen. The Belarusian leadership has been trying to use its hosting of the talks as an opportunity to break out of its international isolation and thaw relations with the West.
Although the geopolitical situation in the region has changed dramatically, the Belarusian regime has not done so at all. Five years ago, Lukashenko was at least imitating his alleged desire for reforms. Now, he seems to think that the changing international context is enough for a new opening in his country’s relations with the West. Belarus’s message to the EU should be read as follows: “Do not bother us with calls for democratization and free-market transformation, but accept us as we are.”
Not only are there no signs of liberalization in Belarusian domestic politics, but on the contrary, the regime has further reduced the country’s (already very narrow) space of freedom. To give two examples: In December 2014, the government accepted amendments to a media law that will hit the opposition’s online resources. And in mid-April 2015, a court handed down further punishments to Mikola Statkevich, a former presidential candidate imprisoned after the 2010 presidential election.
Such additional restrictions against civil society and opponents of the regime are part of the government’s preparations for this year’s presidential election, which will take place before November 20. Paradoxically, the regime’s antidemocratic efforts have been accompanied by unprecedented weakness among the highly divided Belarusian opposition and poorly organized political activities among the general public.
Russia’s response to the Euromaidan antigovernment rallies in Ukraine makes large-scale protests in Minsk unthinkable. Hence Lukashenko’s regime remains unchallenged.
The Belarusian leadership is trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to achieve its own political objectives. Belarus strives to receive concrete concessions from the EU and an end to its international isolation. Minsk also hopes for economic support and access to external financial sources, which Belarus needs because of its serious economic crisis.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that Belarus’s GDP will contract by 2.3 percent in 2015. A GDP decrease in an election year is an unprecedented situation in Lukashenko’s two-decade-long rule.
Given Belarus’s high political, economic, and military dependence on Russia, Minsk’s attempt to (at least partly) normalize its relations with the West is also part of the country’s strategy to balance its highly Russian-oriented foreign policy. The EU could play a key role here. However, Lukashenko is struggling to use the EU only instrumentally, counting on its naïveté.
Minsk wants four things from the West: the lifting of EU and U.S. sanctions, money, investment, and technologies. But at the same time, there is no concrete offer that Lukashenko’s Belarus could deliver to the EU in return. Minsk is interested neither in economic integration nor in most of the EU’s Eastern Partnership agenda.
Furthermore, the EU has yet to understand that Belarus is also uninterested in visa liberalization. Minsk’s firm “no” to the offer of a local border traffic regime with Lithuania and Poland—a scheme that allows residents of border areas to cross the frontier without a visa—is the best example of this negative approach. Dismantling visa restrictions would benefit Belarusian society and, as a result, further undermine the security of the regime.
In considering its response to the Belarusian offer, the EU should bear in mind that the key task of the current regime in Minsk is to preserve its power at any price. Lukashenko could never initiate a Belarusian version of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. The Belarusian president will never be a reformer but remains a defender of the status quo. His alleged role in creating the Belarusian state will also have to be assessed in the future.
The experience of Lukashenko’s twenty-one years in power shows incontestably that he has not built up the strong state institutions that would guarantee Belarus’s independence. On the contrary, the Belarusian state is fragile and dangerously dependent on its Eastern neighbor, while its economy still needs to be modernized. Another serious challenge for the future of Belarus is the succession, after Lukashenko’s extremely personified model of power comes to an end.
In the ongoing discussions on how to live with Lukashenko’s Belarus, the EU members too often resort to beating their breast. European policy toward Belarus has indeed failed to achieve its ambitious goals. But why should the EU blame only itself? In attempts to find someone guilty, everyone should remember the quality of the partner in Minsk with whom the EU has to deal.
The EU could (and should) be an important actor in helping solve Belarus’s numerous problems. Unlike Russia, the EU does not pose a danger to Belarusian identity and has no hidden agenda. But the EU should do this on its own terms, not Lukashenko’s.
The sine qua non for the EU’s effectiveness is to remain consistent. If the EU retreats in its demands for the respect of human rights and free-market reforms in Belarus, it would contradict the whole mechanism of the conditionality policy, which is part of EU’s approach toward all its neighbors. An undemocratic Belarus will not be able to deliver what the EU expects—namely, political stability based on an open and pluralistic political system and enhanced opportunities for economic and investment cooperation based on free-market rules.
If the EU grants Belarus concessions without these reforms, the union will only support Lukashenko’s undemocratic regime while receiving nothing in return. Don’t take Belarus as it is.
Wojciech Konończuk and Rafał Sadowski are Eastern Europe analysts at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).