Europe lifts stigma of ‘last dictatorship’ from Belarus as Russia looks on

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sits in a car in Minsk, Belarus, Oct. 6, 2015

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sits in a car in Minsk, Belarus, Oct. 6, 2015

Ex-Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia and the European Union

For Europe the connotation of “going eastward” now implies not only to engagement with China or Iran but also to its “soft-sell” overtures to Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, run ever since the collapse of the USSR by hardliner Alexander Lukashenko.

Recently the European Union has unexpectedly softened its stance on Belarus, lifting political and economic sanctions on the 9 million people of the republic for four months. This followed recent elections in which incumbent Lukashenko won the mandate for the fifth time in a row.

As a pretext for this foreign policy volte-face, the EU official named the freeing of political prisoners, mediation in the Minsk negotiation process to find a settlement to the civil war in Ukraine, and the “observance of democratic procedures” in the course of the presidential elections, previously regularly accused by Europe of being conducted unfairly.

What are the EU’s motives? Troika Report asked Vyachaslau Pazdnyak, the Minsk-based coordinator of the “Wider Europeproject.

— After the election can we expect that the West will try to embrace Belarus and welcome Minsk's policy of distancing itself from Moscow? What would be the consequences of such a policy shift?

“The EU is expected only to suspend, but not to completely lift its sanctions vis-à-vis Belarus’ state structures and functionaries. So far, this is a half accomplished political bargain between Minsk and Brussels, a half-hearted compromise on both sides. This bargain is yet to be approved this month.

“Due to the long record of difficult bilateral relations there is a lot of mistrust in Western capitals. Hence a ‘testing period’ is in sight to verify that Belarus is going to stay the course of political restraint and reform at home and to forge sustained cooperation with the West.

“Rather than wondering at an immediate ‘embrace‘ we are going to observe a measured, graduated and slow process, most probably a ‘winding road’ with no breakthroughs guaranteed. Minsk simply is in no position to radically distance itself from Moscow and receive equivalent replacement support from the EU, which, in turn, is not ready to provide this. So, as before, ‘tectonic’ shifts initiated by Minsk are hardly possible.”

— How is President Lukashenko going to fit in this larger game involving Russia and EU? For how long will he be able to play the old game?

“It looks like President Lukashenko’s choices are very limited. He has no instruments to seriously influence the policies of either Moscow, or Brussels, or Washington. His major stake in the current geopolitical configuration may be described as the preservation of the Belarusian state along with the existing political regime and his own position. This is an arduous task in light of Minsk’s limited autonomy for independent policies.“

— What happens if Minsk sets itself adrift from the current political and economic support it enjoys in the east?

“To put it bluntly, Belarus’s dilemma is its dependence on Russia and conditionality and restrictions from the West. Any thoughtless sharp political bend to the west or to the east would entrap official Minsk in a very precarious situation that would destroy the current balancing mechanism. What Minsk is trying to do now is to repair this mechanism by streamlining the asymmetry and improving relations with the West. One could say that the show (or the game) ‘must go on’.”

In fact, the new “game” kicked off a long time ago. The EU sanctions regime, intended to pressure the leadership of Belarus, was introduced back in 2010. Yet in 2012 trade turnover with the EU and European investments in Belarus surged by around 20 percent. Both these macroeconomic parameters showed a dramatic upward trend starting in spring 2014, right after the change of power in Ukraine, with Germany, France and Poland as the patrons of the new leaders in Kiev.

Moscow-based experts nurture the suspicion that the sudden change of attitude towards Alexander Lukashenko, referred to in the West until very recently as “the last dictator in Europe,” reveal a hidden agenda.

First, the lifting of sanctions comes as a Western reward to the Minsk strongman for rejecting Moscow’s offer to set up a new military base on its territory to protect the Unified State of Russia and Belarus amid an increased NATO build-up in Eastern Europe in response to the perceived threat from Russia.

Lukashenko’s cooperative mood could be capitalized on for two purposes: to pressure Russia through its closest strategic ally, as a minimal goal, and, as a maximum goal, persuade Minsk to distance itself from Moscow.

In what way is Lukashenko’s election victory linked to the decision of the EU to suddenly abandon sanctions? Kirill Koktysh, a political scientist from Belarus and assistant professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, suggested the following line of thinking in his comments to Troika Report:

“Internal developments in Ukraine undermined the pro-European trend while the controversial policy of the EU towards Ukraine destroyed trust in European values in Belarus. So it is not that Lukashenko’s performance was strong but that it was discovered that he was almost the sole political performer.”

— Is there a true dilemma for Lukashenko in choosing between Europe and Russia?

“In my opinion, Lukashenko will be tied even more to Russia than to Europe just because of a simple fact: The Russian market has the capacity to secure the economic development of Belarus, while Europe has little to offer. The European market has no spare room for Belarusian products.”

— The popular myth in the West painted Belarus as some kind of Asian autocracy. Will the new honeymoon between the two change this perception?

“It is not Lukashenko who has changed. Europe has changed its approach. In my opinion, there are hardly any grounds for Europe to use the old stereotype.”

In any case, the partial legitimization of Lukashenko by the EU is a welcoming sign of the new “realpolitik” bridging the two sides of one Europe, as the French say, from Brest in France to the city of Brest in Belarus.

The opinion of the writers may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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