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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