Can the EU resolve Belarus conundrum?
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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