Turmoil in Belarus: Looking Beyond the Horizon
Three months ago, Belarus was a country whose domestic politics were best described as stagnant. Ruled by the same leader for twenty-six years, it was due to hold yet another seemingly perfunctory presidential election. Today it stands as a symbol of both popular yearning for democracy and brutal oppression.
None of this was expected or predicted. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are at a loss as to what to do other than follow their Pavlovian reflexes honed in the course of previous revolutions in the former Soviet bloc, most recently in Ukraine in 2013–2014, and endorse democracy and threaten sanctions. Neither will advance democracy in Belarus, put an end to police brutality, or deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from sending his troops to Belarus to save its crumbling dictatorship—should he decide to do so. What is needed as a first step before acting is a sober assessment of the situation in Belarus—regardless of whether its despised dictator stays or goes—and what awaits it over the coming weeks, maybe months, and what its friends can do to help.
It is a safe bet that on President Donald Trump’s watch, the United States can be counted out as a constructive force in this situation. The Trump administration has worked hard to undermine trans-Atlantic relations and weaken NATO, coddled aspiring autocrats, and insulted key European allies. It has squandered its credibility with its transactional approach to foreign relations, widespread disinformation, and ambitions to suppress votes in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
That leaves Europe. It too is weakened by internal divisions and the lasting consequences of the pandemic. But it cannot turn a blind eye to events in Belarus. It should be obvious to everyone that imposing sanctions on the Minsk regime or its backers in Moscow will be just as effective as sanctions have been in deterring Russian aggression against Ukraine: i.e., not at all. Moreover, friends of Belarus need to recognize that a revolution is not the end, but merely the beginning of what is certain to be a long and difficult road toward making it a “normal country.” Anyone doubting that should look at Ukraine and its post-2014 struggles.
Difficult as it may be in the midst of a revolution unfolding before our eyes, it pays to step back and look at the situation with a longer lens. To say that Belarus is strategically important is to understate the obvious. It is the historical invasion route from Europe to Russia—think Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941—and vice versa. For NATO, it is the springboard for any future Russian military action against allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. For the Kremlin, after losing Ukraine, Belarus is the last remaining buffer shielding it from hostile Europe.
However, six years after the revolution in Ukraine, it should be clear to the Kremlin that NATO and the EU are not looking for new members in Europe’s east. By the same token, it should be clear to policymakers in Brussels that with the stalemate in eastern Ukraine in its sixth year, the Kremlin is not eager to march on into Central Europe. Belarus occupies a precarious point along the East-West axis. If any credit is due the regime in Minsk, it is for managing the balance between the two centers of gravity. Maintaining that balance is in everyone’s interest. Thinking that the Kremlin would calmly accept a geopolitical reorientation of Belarus is wishful thinking.
Now despised for his brutality, often referred to as “the last dictator of Europe,” and ridiculed as provincial and crude, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has until recently demonstrated considerable skill in maneuvering between East and West. For well over two decades, he extracted billions of dollars from Russia in vital subsidies for his economy inherited from the Soviet Union. Yet he kept the Kremlin at arm’s length and resisted Putin’s pressure for closer political, economic, and security ties. He did little to reform the economy and thus avoided the societal and economic dislocation that Russia suffered in the 1990s. And he allowed the country’s science and engineering talent—another Soviet legacy—to experiment with capitalism, which gave rise to a successful IT sector. After brutally suppressing the country’s small opposition earlier this century, he was left to rule Belarus unopposed and enjoying the support of a sizeable segment of the public as the leader who ensured stability and a measure of economic well-being.
Lukashenko took advantage of the Ukraine crisis and positioned himself as a mediator between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. He hasn’t accomplished much, but it was a way to reconnect with Brussels and Washington after being ostracized and subjected to sanctions for his domestic oppression. He signaled to the outside world that he was more than just Moscow’s lackey. He also relaxed the atmosphere inside the country. Belarusians have been free to travel abroad and had mostly uncensored access to the internet. Taken together, these two developments paved the way for Minsk, Washington, and Brussels to launch a détente—until the August 9 election.
Regardless of who emerges from the crisis as the country’s leader, he or she will face a daunting set of challenges. Putin is not in the business of charity, and he will demand a stiff price for keeping the subsidies flowing. Moreover, any future leader of Belarus will have to maintain good relations with the Kremlin and pay a certain amount of deference to its sensitivities and sensibilities. To attempt a different course would be unrealistic, dangerous, and run counter to the attitudes of the Belarusian public. Friends of Belarus need to recognize that.
Nor should there be any illusions about the country’s economic prospects. Before the current turmoil, its economy was projected to suffer a 6 percent contraction due to the aftereffects of the pandemic. Large state-owned enterprises are badly in need of reform, which is certain to be a painful process, both economically and politically. The Belarusians are not ready for it. A U.S. government-funded poll conducted in calmer times in 2019 found that while 36 percent of Belarusians wanted less government, 22 percent did not want any reforms, and 17 percent wanted reforms that would lead to more government. Only 12 percent favored “shock therapy,” 41 percent favored gradual reforms over a long period of time, and 35 percent wanted “pinpoint” changes only in a handful of select spheres.
Privatization of state-owned enterprises—a standard prescription for former Soviet countries’ economic malaise—could trigger another crisis. For the Belarusian public, long accustomed to the stability (or stagnation) of the Lukashenko era, the shock is certain to exceed the amount of therapy likely available to minimize it. Moreover, with little or no indigenous private capital, Belarusian reformers will have to look abroad, with Russia and possibly China probably topping the list of prospective investors.
No matter how the present crisis is resolved, the next chapter in Belarus will be difficult. Now is the time to prepare for what will happen after the revolution, and to consider how the country’s precarious position between Europe’s East and West can be maintained. Both have a large stake in preserving it.
Eugene Rumer is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.