Belarus: Return to the Empire?

Sören Behnke is a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Circle based in Berlin and is currently enrolled in the ‘Military Studies’ M.A. at the University of Potsdam.

Lukashenko’s Gamble
MINSK-1-Russia-EU-Ukraine-BelarusIn the early stages of 2015 all eyes were on Belarus, due to the Peace-Negotiations in it’s capital Minsk. It might have seemed to coincidental for western mainstream media to pick up on, but actually the location of the renewed peace talk was anything but that, and there is ample reason to keep an eye out for Belarus during the remainder of 2015. Once called “Europe’s last Dictator” (or Madman) Belarusian President, and proud Moustachio, Alexander Lukashenko has certainly used the war in Ukraine to his advantage, appearing as a somewhat more sane version of Rusian President Vladimir Putin (while in fact he is not), western leaders can rely on.

With Minsk being one of the last remaining places in Europe Putin will travel to, with the exception of Crimea for victory parades and Hungary, Lukashenko positioned himself cleverly to use both Russia and the European Union to his advantage.

Towards Russia
Russia and Belarus have traditional been seen as a kind inseparable tandem, cooperating in nearly every societal sector that politics can and will try to influence and control. Belarus is one of Russia’s most prized assets (or partners) in the newly found Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and it’ predecessors, the common tariff zone. This is important for Russia rather ideologically than from a pure business perspective, as the bilateral trade is primarily vital for Belarus and not Russia, but that is actually the whole point of the EEU. From a geopolitical and security standpoint, Belarus is extremely important for the Russian concept of defence against a possible threat from the EU/NATO. Just like Ukraine, the Kremlin regards Belarus as a geographical buffer zone, useful in particular with regards to its concept of strategic depth. Russia currently has one of its Volga radar stations situated in Belarus. Since 2012 Russia and Belarus share a common Air-Defence-Perimeter, and since 2013 there is much fuss over a planned Russian air base in Belarus.

After losing Ukraine, Russia’s partnership with one of it’s most important remaining allies, Belarus, seems to be crumbling as well. Rumours have long been abound that Lukashenko and Putin have had some private difficulties, but up until now, their alliance has not been strained by any possible personal animosities. Over the past few years, there have been ample occasions, where Minsk was able to play it’s bigger neighbours desire for a allies in clever way, gaining concessions, access to natural resources and other advantages simply for staying in Russia’s EEU. But in the latter months of 2014 significant trade disputes have arisen between the two states, with Belarus announcing that it might switch the currency of it’s bilateral trade back from rubles to dollars, due to the formers weakness.

The Eurasian Economic Union

Furthermore there has been a wave of accusations levered towards Minks by the Kremlin over illegal flows of European and other illicit goods via the Belarusian border, even though these flows are primarily thought to be conducted by Russian organised crime, i.e. the Siloviki themselves.

The latest episode starting when Lukashenko announced in January of 2015 “that he ‘does not exclude the possibility’ of withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), if the association agreements are not observed”. This might simply be due to the fact that the Belarusian President has had enough of the bullying behaviour of it’s sisterly neighbour, but that’s in all probability not all there is. Lukashenko went even further when he, at least rhetorically, explored the possibility of Belarus having to defend itself at it’s eastern border, and one does have to wonder who the aggressor might be in that case.

Despite the rumblings between Minsk and Moscow, both are still engaged in a range of economic, cultural, military and other activities, and as long as Lukashenko still sees some perks to be had from Russia, he won’t abandon his long-time ally.

Towards the EU
But over the course of 2014, Lukashenko has used the Kremlin’s Ukrainian adventure to gain popularity at home and abroad, presenting himself and the political system he resides above as a slightly less dangerous authoritarianism. Which may be true on some points of the most common political and economic rankings. But overall when it comes to personal and business freedom, there is not much difference in between Russia and Belarus. Still the peace conference in Minsk has brought Belarus crucial recognition, as important western leaders where on Belarusian soil for the first time since the late Silvio Berlusconi visited Lukashenko in 2009. This in itself seems to be an important victory for Minsk, but there is probably more that the Belarusian administration is fishing for when it comes to it’s relations with the EU. And Lukashenko himself has publicly stated that he wants to “normalise” relations with the west, creating opportunities for foreign investment in Belarus, which is critical to the Belarusian economy.

Lukashenko and Putin during the CSTO Collective Security Council meeting in Moscow, 2012.

Lukashenko and Putin during the CSTO Collective Security Council meeting in Moscow, 2012.

The EU on the other hand seems to have quiet the opportunity of further weakening Russia’s EEU Project and it’s overall geopolitical hand, and thus applying even more pressure on the Kremlin to become conciliatory on a whole range of topics, could it drive a wedge between Belarus and Russia. Furthermore expanding the European influence in Belarus could help transform the political system of Belarus once Lukashenko, who will be nearing his late 60’s at the end of his next 5-year term as the Head of State, decides to step down. More importantly it could help enable a scenario like this at all, or at least European diplomats believe. A possible transition towards democracy requires after all some kind of safety guaranties for a departure of the ruling family, which after all is quite a delicate affair.

But besides the glimmer of hope, there are many obstacles towards an rapprochement between Minsk and the other European Capitals, and the EU as a whole would be wise not rush anything. First and foremost, many Belarusian officials are still under travel restrictions/bans by the EU including Lukashenko himself. These bans were issued by the EU in order to address the still dire human rights situation in Belarus, which hasn’t changed a bit over the recent past. Besides all of the feel good rhetoric coming out of Minsk, the political opposition is still oppressed and incarcerated, and though the regime may be less corrupt than it’s Russian counterpart, corruption is still rampant in Belarus, with no end in sight. Thus the EU should be careful not to overplay it’s hand and most importantly not to expect major changes from a political system, that for the last 20 years has resisted any and all attempts of reform.

At Home
So far it has worked out quite nicely for Lukashenko as he saw his popularity levels rising after expressing his solidarity with the brotherly people of Ukraine time and time again over the course of 2014. As there is a presidential election approaching in the autumn of 2015, another important point for Lukashenko is to appeal his home crowd, who’s solidarity for the people of Ukraine has been steadily rising since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

One could wonder, why of all people Lukashenko would need publicity stunts like that, as Belarusian elections aren’t know for any of the Schumpeterian attributes. But that would be to misunderstand the inner workings of this specific regime and authoritarian states in general. Even though every election can and will be fixed, it is still an important national political event. Rather than being a concrete day of decision it is more like political ritual, and Lukashenko needs to act accordingly. So even if the probability of him not being “re-elected” is rather slim, to say the least, it is still important to virtually appeal to his populace in the coming months leading up to the elections. This is also why the Belarusian authorities were stepping up their patriotic campaigns in the recent months, re-evaluating school textbooks, emphasising the importance of the Belarusian language etc. By inciting patriotic sentiments in the Belarusian populace Lukashenko is clearly aiming at presenting himself as a true and independent Belarusian Leader, which so far seems to have worked out quite well.

The Year of Belarus
Whilst many western analysts focus on the dangers for the Baltic states, that might be posed by Russia over the course of the Year, 2015 will be actually the a decisive year for Belarus, it’s political system and it’s alliance structures. Lukashenko is gaming on every possible angle, trying to squeeze favourable commitments from all sides, while enforcing his position at home. This could lead to a somewhat fierce competition between Russia and the EU with regards to influence and stakes in Belarus. This puts ordinary citizens in the most unfavourable spot, as any moves by either Russia or the EU will, at least in the short term, bolster Lukashenko.

This might mean that even though the EU might not be overtly willing to support Europe’s “last Dictator” it might feel forced to do so, in order to deny Russia further leverage over Belarus, whilst hoping for medium term improvement of the human rights situation. Germany even has it’s own catchy slogan for that kind of policy “Wandel durch Annäherung” (change through rapprochement), dating back to the Willy Brandt’s policy towards Eastern Europe. But has that ever worked out fine?

This entry was posted in Belarus, English, Sören Behnke, Security Policy.

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