This blog is part of EU-LISTCO, an innovative and timely project that investigates the challenges facing Europe’s foreign policy. A consortium of fourteen leading research institutions and universities aims to identify risks connected to areas of limited statehood and contested orders—and the EU’s ability to respond.
When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko manipulated the results of his country’s presidential election on August 9, 2020, to maintain the only remaining one-man dictatorship in Europe, he triggered a popular uprising that is still ongoing.
Lukashenko’s security forces have tried to repress civil society, including through gross human rights violations—a typical reaction for an autocratic regime that has lost all legitimacy.
The result is an order contestation combined with a struggle over who controls the state. And of course, Russia is once again trying to meddle in the internal affairs of one of its neighbors.
This combination of popular uprising, violent repression, order contestation, and external interference has resulted in an explosive situation which could easily turn into a security threat to the EU.
So, what can the EU and its member states do to mitigate the risk of order contestation and prevent governance breakdown and violent conflict in Belarus?
Research on external efforts at protecting and promoting human rights and democracy as well as on the transformative power of Europe has shown time and again that, first, it is hard to foster regime change from the outside when there are no internal liberal forces that demand democratic change.
Second, however, external democracy promoters can empower domestic actors and civil society in their mobilization for democratic reforms, tilting the domestic balance of power in favor of the liberal reform coalitions.
In Belarus, we encounter such a democratic movement. However, direct support by the EU to prop up the social mobilization would almost certainly be counterproductive. It would give Lukashenko an excuse to step up repression against the alleged interference of hostile external powers.
Likewise, it might provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with a pretext to support Lukashenko with Russian security forces, even though Russia’s military doctrine only provides for military assistance in case of an armed attack against Belarus or actions involving the use of military force.
The liberal opposition in Belarus has carefully avoided pro-EU or anti-Russian statements. Unlike the 2013–2014 Maidan movement in Ukraine, no EU flags are waved nor are demands for independent statehood voiced. Instead, protesters invoke Belarusian patriotism and self-determination to back their demands for democratic change.
So, is there nothing that the EU and its member states can do to promote regime change in Belarus without risking governance breakdown and violent conflict?
Not quite. Rather than Lukashenko, the EU’s focus should be on Russia. The popular uprising in Belarus has resulted in a situation in which Lukashenko and his autocratic regime is more than ever dependent on Russia with regard to maintaining control over the means of violence as well as the provision of collective goods and services.
Cutting off Lukashenko’s Russian lifeline is likely to increase the chances of the democratic opposition in Belarus tipping the domestic balance of power in their favor and forcing the president and his cronies to negotiate a peaceful transition. The EU and its member states should put maximum pressure on Russia to follow their example and not meddle with the internal affairs of Belarus. Let the Belarusians deal with their own situation!
Putin’s regime is vulnerable, both politically and economically. The coronavirus pandemic has brought down prices for the gas and oil on which Russia’s rent-based economy depends. Attempts to poison a prominent Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, has triggered an international outcry. Even some German politicians have demanded to suspend the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Without denying the brutality of the Navalny incident, so much more is at stake in Belarus.
The EU and its member states should use all the leverage they have, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and targeted sanctions against Russian oligarchs, to prevent Putin from further interfering in Belarus.
So far, the Belarusian opposition forces have shown remarkable resilience in facing Lukashenko’s repressive regime.
Our research demonstrates that social trust and legitimacy among domestic actors and civil society generate and sustain strong collective-action capacities against autocratic regimes.
Chances are that the Belarusians will be able to work out their own peaceful regime change if left to their own devices. Any outside interference will only play against them.
For all the talk about a European geopolitical strategy, exerting maximum political and economic pressure on Russia would be speaking the language of power that is actually in line with European liberal values.
Tanja A. Börzel is a professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science of the Freie Universität Berlin.
Thomas Risse is a professor at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science of the Freie Universität Berlin.