Belarus: Danger ahead – EU response needed

Many EU cap­i­tals regard Belarus as an exten­sion of Russia and take little inter­est in it. EU leaders are also uncom­fort­able dealing with its long-time auto­cratic leader, Alexan­der Lukashenka. Such atti­tudes make it hard for the EU to see the danger from Moscow’s efforts to pull the country into a closer embrace. These could easily de-sta­bilise the sit­u­a­tion in Belarus with serious con­se­quences for Euro­pean security.

Here you can down­load the policy paper.


Why we should be paying atten­tion to Belarus

Belarus fell largely off the radar Euro­pean public after the pro-democ­racy move­ment foundered there in 2010. It shouldn’t have. The country has become the latest stage for Russia’s great-power ambi­tions. Putin has ratch­eted up the pres­sure on Belarus to inte­grate into a state union. This would put an end to Belaru­sian inde­pen­dence and would have serious con­se­quences for the strate­gic sit­u­a­tion in Central and Eastern Europe. As it happens, a union of states might well open a con­ve­nient path to a new pres­i­dency for Putin when his current term runs out.

Moscow’s most pow­er­ful lever­age over the Belaru­sian regime lies in the eco­nomic depen­dency of the latter. The message: the pref­er­en­tial terms for its oil and natural gas sup­plies and loans will only con­tinue if Belarus sac­ri­fices its sov­er­eignty. Mean­while, the Kremlin is ramping up the activ­i­ties of its polit­i­cal net­works in Belarus as well.

Drag­ging his feet, Lukashenka has managed to resist so far. While he has not called the union treaty into ques­tion, he nonethe­less insists on Belarus sov­er­eignty. Lukashenka has no desire to become a gov­er­nor serving at Putin’s plea­sure, and he wants to keep Belarus well out of Russia’s con­flict with the West.

The aim of fending off the Kremlin’s embrace is one on which the inter­ests of the regime and the country’s national inter­ests coin­cide. A large major­ity of the Belaru­sian pop­u­la­tion wants an inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian state with good rela­tions with both Russia and the EU.

An inde­pen­dent Belarus lies in the EU’s strate­gic inter­est as well. Should Putin succeed in gob­bling up this little neigh­bour, this would be a serious blow to all hopes for demo­c­ra­tic change. The exten­sion of the deploy­ment zone of the Russian mil­i­tary – includ­ing for the deploy­ment of nuclear mis­siles – right up to the borders of Poland and Lithua­nia would be another con­se­quence, of no minor importance.

The dis­par­ity in the polit­i­cal, eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power of the two states will make it nearly impos­si­ble for Lukashenka to con­tinue resist­ing the pres­sure from the Kremlin indef­i­nitely, unless, that is, the West creates some alter­na­tive breath­ing space for him. Pos­si­ble options include a part­ner­ship agree­ment, improved access to the Euro­pean inter­nal market, energy-sector coop­er­a­tion and the pro­mo­tion of medium-sized enter­prises. Mem­ber­ship in the Council of Europe should also be con­sid­ered, pro­vided that Lukashenka is willing to elim­i­nate the death penalty and recog­nise the juris­dic­tion of the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights.

The EU must find a way to strengthen Belaru­sian inde­pen­dence without lending legit­i­macy to Lukashenka’s dic­ta­to­r­ial reign. It cannot and must not guar­an­tee him life­long rule. But it could offer him the prospect of improved rela­tions with the West that are not tied to con­di­tions that would lead straight to his res­ig­na­tion. At a minimum, the EU would have to insist that Lukashenka allow civil society to breathe. Democ­racy grows from the bottom up.

We should not treat Belarus like a fore­court of the Kremlin. There are many there who see them­selves as Euro­peans. Visa-free travel, schol­ar­ship pro­grammes and cul­tural exchange would be oxygen for demo­c­ra­tic civil society in Belarus. The pro­mo­tion of small- and medium-sized enter­prises would reduce depen­dency on a too-pow­er­ful state. The EU should con­cen­trate on these cat­a­lysts for change in its policy towards Belarus.

This policy paper by John Lough, a British expert on Eastern Europe, analy­ses the ten­sions between Belarus, Russia and the EU and dis­cusses polit­i­cal mea­sures that might help to strengthen Belaru­sian inde­pen­dence. In view of the pres­sure being exerted Russia, it is high time that the EU pursued an active policy towards Belarus.

Berlin, in October 2019

Marieluise Beck, Ralf Fücks
Center for Liberal Moder­nity (LibMod)

Here you can down­load the full policy paper.


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