Quo Vadis Belarus?

By Vasile Rotaru

After the December 2010 elections, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko lost legitimacy, both within Belarus and externally. His regime, based on a massive security apparatus, a propaganda machine and the guarantee of a job - albeit with low pay - is now in trouble. Belarus is facing serious economic problems and Lukashenko needs to regain popular support. The Belarusian leader is blackmailing the West with a new turn towards Russia. Lukashenko is bluffing, though. He is aware that relations with Moscow cannot be the same as before 2008 and that he is no longer perceived as a reliable ally for Russia.

The December 2010 post-election crackdown marked the end of the EU-Belarus honeymoon. Lukashenko preferred an alliance with Russia to the European plan for transforming his country, in spite of the mutual suspicion between Moscow and Minsk.  As a reward President Dimitry Medvedev described the post-election brutality in Belarus as “an internal matter” and agreed on a new energy deal with Minsk. On 25 January, whilst Russia resumed duty-free oil exports to Belarus, the Belarusian parliament ratified the agreement to join the free trade zone with Russia and Kazakhstan, and Minsk reassured Moscow that Russia would not have to pay for its military bases in Belarus.

In the opinion of some political analysts, Moscow is supporting Lukashenko at the moment due to a lack of alternative allies. The Custom Union project has undeniable importance for the Kremlin, but dealing with Lukashenko is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Russia, as Thomas Gomart has described. The information war between Minsk and Moscow before the December 2010 elections demonstrates that in the long run, a Union will only be possible without Lukashenko.  Although the Belarusian leader can be bought, he cannot be relied on.

On the other hand, Lukashenko seems to be well aware that he can no longer rely entirely on Moscow and understands that the more independent Belarus is the more real power remains for him. He fears that, if Russian influence becomes too strong in the Belarusian economy, this would limit his ability tomanoeuvredomestically.

It is clear that Lukashenko wants to keep Moscow at a safe distance. On 18 March 2011, during a meeting with top executives of several Russia mass-media outlets, the Belarusian leader repeated what he said before the election: “If Belarus feels pressure, we will build mud huts but we will not kneel. Our fate is to be a bridge between Russia and the West. Russians should in no way perceive that Belarus has no way out”.

Minsk cannot afford to turn its back on the EU. The improved relations with the EU of the past two years have resulted in irreversible changes in Belarusian-Russian relations. Lukashenko and other power holders in Belarus are aware that if they take steps towards real integration with Russia (such as selling off enterprises to Russian companies, monetary union, the expansion of military cooperation), then they will lose a huge amount of influence, risking becoming submerged and destroyed. On the other hand, Lukashenko now faces an external debt of 52 per cent of GDP, a USD$7 billion trade gap, an unmodernised, largely state-owned economy, and rising expectations among 9,5 million Belarusians. Belarus is running out of cash, with people waiting in day-long lines to exchange rubles as they prepare for another devaluation. Russia is no longer as generous as it was. As Moscow is preparing to give Belarus $3 billion it will be eyeing Belarus’ most lucrative assets, particularly its oil refineries and chemical plants. A more open relationship with the West is an economic necessity. Lukashenko needs Western technologies in order to avoid being swallowed by Russia. Modernisation of industry and increasing the efficiency of energy consumption have become matters upon which survival of the Lukashenko regime will be determined. However, the EU is not willing to accept compromises from Belarus anymore. As the most effective sanction against the totalitarian regime is to provide broad support for civil society and an independent media, the EU is now focusing  on helping Belarusian civil society in various ways. Several neighbouring countries renounced visa fees for Belarusians.  This should help ordinary people to travel abroad more easily and, perhaps, lead towards more pressure for democratisation back home, on the model of Cold War events.

Stefan Fule, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, announced that the European Commission intends to increase its funds and support for Belarusian civil society fourfold, increasing the funding from the currently available €4 million to 15,6 million, in order to avoid isolating the Belarusian population. This aid will primarily target NGOs, independent media outlets and student movements who are subject to the regime’s repression. These measures show that the EU has not quit the struggle for bringing democracy to the last European bastion of authoritarianism.

President Lukashenko does not have much choice. Whether he continues towards the democratic process or risks being ousted either by Moscow or by a popularrevolt, he has to accept that he cannot rule endlessly. Instead of selling the country’s assets to Moscow without any guarantee of remaining in power,Lukashenko should recognise  that the only solution for Belarus is a stronger  alliance with the West. By accepting democratic reforms, the Belarusian President could leave office without rancour, andBelarus could avoid economic collapse.


Vasile Rotaru is currently researching for a doctorate at The National School of Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest, Romania. He is a beneficiary of the Doctoral Scholarships for a Sustainable Society project, co-financed by the EU through the European Social Fund, Sectoral Operational Programme Human Resources and Development 2007-2013.


8 August 2011


Related Article: 

Roland Bensted, Fear and Loathing in Lukashenko's Belarus