The 9 August presidential elections in Belarus represent an unprecedented challenge to the power of Alexander Lukashenko. But as the autocrat is expected to achieve re-election in one way or another, little is likely to change as concerns the dilemma the EU (and the US) face in dealing with him.
Reading some Western newspaper headlines, one almost gets the feeling that as the vote in Belarus approaches so does regime change. It is indeed undeniable that, after 25 years in power, Lukashenko is not going through the best moment of his political career. A massive opposition rally – described by news agencies and local NGOs as the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union – gathered in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a presidential candidate who decided to run after her husband was arrested, and is now backed by other opposition candidates disqualified from the elections. Belarus’ economy is largely expected to contract in 2020 due to the COVID-19 global economic shock, worsening relations with Russia – well symbolised by Moscow’s “tax manoeuvre” – and its contraction of crude oil imports: and all these factors are only exacerbating existing and deep economic vulnerabilities. On top of all this, after months of minimising the coronavirus epidemic, Lukashenko tested positive for the virus - almost a déjà vu of what happened to Boris Johnson a few months ago.
The authors of this dossier do an excellent job of depicting the critical juncture the country is in: the economic and health-related challenges, the political repression by an autocratic regime that is increasingly afraid of civil society which, on the contrary, seems to be more and more vocal and daring. But whether “Europe's last dictator will fall” for real or not has yet to be seen. As Volha Charnysh rightly notes in this dossier, “revolutions are hard to anticipate: the most predictable are the least likely to occur”. Since its inception, Lukashenko’s regime has been developing numerous resilience mechanisms, including strong clientelist networks. In his opening piece, Yahor Azarkevich indeed finds no evidence of an elite breakdown, recognised as one of the most common factors behind regime change worldwide. Empowered siloviki - representatives of the security and military services – as well as politicians widely regarded as pro-Western, such as the current foreign minister Uladzimir Makei, have recently expressed support for the actions of the incumbent government.
If Lukashenko manages to maintain his grip on power and becomes even more uncompromising vis-à-vis a bolder political opposition, as many analysts and this dossier’s authors believe, the West will inevitably continue to face the old same dilemma in interacting with the regime: sanctions or engagement? Both carrots and sticks have historically been part of the US and EU Belarus strategies for years; the choice to go for one or the other is influenced by a series of elements, usually having something to do with Belarus’ “brotherly” Eastern neighbour. Nicolas Bouchet, for instance, explains for ISPI how the turns in the cycle in US-Belarus relations have long been influenced by a combination of the regime’s degree of repression and the need for the US to uphold its principles and practices of democracy, on the one hand, and the need to contain Russia, on the other.
Now more than ever, the same dilemma haunts the EU as well, which is increasingly influenced by geopolitics in dealing with troublesome neighbours. Belarus is a member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership but it takes part only in some of the programmes, also because Minsk is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and its customs union, so a free trade agreement with the EU similar to the ones Ukraine or Georgia have is technically impossible. The EU has been mixing its harsh rhetoric against human rights violations, adopted on the occasion of the repression of the current protests too, with openness to dialogue and rewards for the regimes’ goodwill gestures; for instance, in 2016, the EU lifted most of its sanctions in return for Lukashenko releasing political prisoners. The need for a rapprochement is easily justified by the need to keep what Valeriya Klymenko in her contribution calls Belarus’ “situational neutrality” and, most critically, sovereignty. After all, as Yauheni Preiherman warns, another crisis in relations with the West – read fresh sanctions and isolation - would allow Russia to gain the upper hand to impose its own bilateral agenda with Belarus.
Yet today, with the fast-paced evolution of the situation on the ground, the calls for a sharper EU Belarus strategy consequently multiply. Of course, such calls are not limited to Belarus only. For a long time Brussels has been trying to strike a very fragile balance between realism and idealism in implementing the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). While there is no consensus in the literature and experts’ community on the effectiveness of sanctions (see also the vivid debate on the Russia sanctions), a common fear is that an excessively pragmatic and compromising EU approach will only result in freezing the autocratic regimes in power and lead to an inefficient and even useless ENP. Yet with Lukashenko likely to remain in power for the medium term and the ENP’s means and even objectives dwarfed by a longstanding economic and political crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic will only worsen, does Brussels really have a choice? The EU will tilt more and more towards realism rather than idealism in the future. Keeping a flexible and pragmatic approach to Belarus and communication channels open with the regime indeed looks like the most rational option the EU seemingly has for the time being.