Can the EU resolve Belarus conundrum?

Proteste am 23. August 2020 in Minsk, Belarus, Foto: Castleski/​Shutterstock

A four-month stand-off between Belaru­sian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the pro-demo­c­ratic protesters posed a serious challenge for the EU. The block that had announced its ambition to become a geopo­lit­ical actor, has found itself with very few levers in relation to the crisis in its immediate neighborhood.

Brussels has been active in its rhetoric – condemning violence, criminal perse­cu­tion and torture of protesters in Belarus. With some initial delay, sanctions followed. First two packages black­listed Lukashenko and dozens of those respon­sible for repres­sions, third package will target not just officials, but also nine busi­nesses close to the regime. Two European banks, EBRD and EIB, have frozen their activity in the country, with exception of the projects that need be finalized.

Other measures were mostly of human­i­tarian nature: the EU pledged to redirect some of the funds planned as an assis­tance for Minsk to civil society and inde­pen­dent media. Baltic states and Poland liber­al­ized visa regime for Belaru­sians fleeing perse­cu­tion. Vilnius and Warsaw now effec­tively host all those leaders of Belaru­sian oppo­si­tion, who are not jailed at home.

However, the bitter reality is that most if not all these measures have negli­gible impact on the trajec­tory of political crisis in Belarus. Lukashenko dropped the idea of the West-East balancing, so he cares very little about his repu­ta­tion in the EU. His entourage and top security officials face so profound risks at home, that suppressing the protest has become infi­nitely more important for them compared to not being black­listed in the EU. The same goes for the Lukashenko-affil­i­ated busi­nessmen. They would rather lose their profits or assets, than argue with their political patron.

Sectoral sanctions (e.g. ban on petroleum products imports) are not on the table at the moment. But even if situation escalates, these measures will hardly enjoy consensus support within the EU. Besides, they can push Belaru­sian economy towards full depen­dency on Russia, compli­cating things even further.

This lack of effective leverage on behalf of the EU reflects deep geopo­lit­ical asymmetry – Belarus is and has always been much more dependent on Russia. This depen­dency is compre­hen­sive, Russia outweighs the EU in terms of Belaru­sian foreign trade, invest­ment, military inte­gra­tion, cultural and infor­ma­tional presence.

With such a deficit of instru­ments to affect immediate devel­op­ments in Belarus, the EU should look at its mid-term levers. No energy should be spent trying to make Lukashenko change his behavior. If he ever does, this will happen, first and foremost, due to domestic or Russian pressure. The EU should instead do its best to maximize the like­li­hood that the tran­si­tion in Belarus, whenever it begins, will be heading towards a more demo­c­ratic system and will not jeop­ar­dize the country’s independence.

For these ends, Brussels should find right spots to exert its influence. There are three forces that can push Lukashenko towards power transfer: Belaru­sian people, his own ruling elite and Russia.

There is not much the EU can do to bolster the deter­mi­na­tion of Belaru­sian people to fight for democracy – they are already doing more than anyone expected. What EU can do is providing at least some safety net for these brave people. It makes sense to continue and enhance human­i­tarian and medical help to victims of police brutality and to provide substan­tial funding to Belaru­sian soli­darity foun­da­tions. These foun­da­tions, based in exile, help people in Belarus compen­sate their fines for political activism and cover expenses for striking workers. The EU and its member-states could also expand educa­tional and schol­ar­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties for students and academics, who flee repres­sions, and open the borders for Belaru­sians as much as it is possible during the pandemic.

While these measures will not directly affect the dynamics of the protest, they will immensely improve percep­tion of the EU among protest sympa­thizers. People remember those who helped them in hard times.

Secondly, the work with Belaru­sian bureau­cracy should not be abandoned. The fact that most officials have stood with their leader, does not mean this support will be eternal. Many of the top officials realize that the country is on the wrong trajec­tory, they are just not ready to do anything about yet. In a likely scenario of no mean­ingful political reforms and growing Russia’s frus­tra­tion with Lukashenko, Belaru­sian economy will be in free fall.

The EU must be prepared for the moment, when the magnitude of problems will force even the conser­v­a­tive Belaru­sian bureau­cracy to look for ways out of the deadlock. Brussels should be there with an option for those members of the elite, who still want their country well. If they see a realistic carrot on the horizon, they will be more inclined to push for democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the country.

An economic support plan for demo­c­ratic Belarus is already under discus­sion in the EU. For this tool to be efficient, the offer must be convincing. After the Ukrainian expe­ri­ence with Western support, which in Minsk was perceived as insuf­fi­cient and over­bur­dened with strict condi­tions, Belaru­sian officials by default mistrust such instru­ments and have doubts about their added value. That is why the offer should be very clear and concrete: once the country undergoes the demo­c­ratic tran­si­tion – an election recog­nized by the OSCE – it receives the money. Layers of addi­tional condi­tions, compli­cated instru­ments, vague promises like “assisting Belarus in joining WTO”, and too much diplo­matic jargon around the offer would undermine it in the eyes of the potential recip­i­ents. The sum of funds on the table should also be consid­er­able — at least 3 billion Euros, which is roughly the amount of foreign support Belaru­sian economy needs each year to sustain itself.

To make the message heard, the EU should retain the maximum possible diplo­matic presence in Belarus. When and if Belaru­sian officials want to have backchannel talks, they must have such an oppor­tu­nity in Minsk.

Finally, the EU must work with Russia. It does not mean deciding Belarus’s fate over the heads of Belaru­sians. This is hardly possible anyway. Instead, Brussels can convey a number of clear messages to Moscow to incen­tivize its construc­tive role in Belaru­sian crisis. In the end, neither Russia, nor the West want to have another Ukraine-like problem to deal with for years.

First message should be that no one intends to drag Belarus out of Russian-led inte­gra­tion alliances. According to all available polls, Belaru­sians them­selves want to keep border with Russia open and economic inte­gra­tion to continue. The support for the EU member­ship in Belarus is small. Despite the pervasive crisis of trust between the EU and Moscow, all these arguments need to be reaf­firmed to Russian decision-makers at every occasion.

The EU should be frank that it would accept any choice Belaru­sians make on free election, even if they pick a Russia-friendly politi­cian (which they would likely do given the current state public opinion). In the end, the main issue the West has with Lukashenko is his brutality and disregard for the basic rights of his people, not his orien­ta­tion towards Moscow. Inter­est­ingly, as the latest opinion polls suggest, Belaru­sians are becoming increas­ingly frus­trated with Russia’s support of Lukashenko and their pro-Russian sympa­thies cool off, which him uniquely toxic for both sides. This argument should be reit­er­ated to Moscow.

Secondly, Russia must also realize that it would pay a price if it chooses to capi­talize on Lukashenko’s vulner­a­bility. This may include coercing him into some deeper inte­gra­tion or squeezing other economic or military conces­sions from Minsk. As a first step, the EU can float the idea of possible expansion of Belarus-related sanctions onto those Russian entities who directly profit from supporting Lukashenko’s regime. The EU should also be clear that it would not recognize any deals between Moscow and ille­git­i­mate lead­er­ship of Belarus that would limit country’s sovereignty.

Belaru­sian crisis can become an important litmus test for the EU capacity to manage problems in its neigh­bor­hood. This requires commit­ting adequate political and financial resources, dedi­ca­tion, patience and flex­i­bility. All of this might be in deficit in these turbulent days, but that what it takes to be a successful geopo­lit­ical actor.


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