Proactive engagement to help overcome the stalemate and firm signalling that any autocratic crackdown will trigger strong and effective measures are needed.
For weeks the people of Belarus have been on the streets demanding a fair presidential election. After a quarter of a century they want something better than the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenka. The creativity, peacefulness, discipline and determination of the protesters represents a powerful display of unity behind a simple human desire for freedom, democracy and respect. In this struggle, led by courageous, inspiring and modest women, Lukashenka is yesterday’s man.
Minsk is as close to Berlin as Berlin is to Paris. Historically, culturally and in their self-identification Belarusians see themselves as part of Europe. Supporting the Belarusian people is not only morally right. It is essential to the credibility of the European Union that it defends its core values—acting as a decisive soft power instead of just being soft towards autocratic leaders.
Of course, the people of Belarus should determine their destiny themselves and the absence of geopolitical interference would be desirable. But with the arch-interventionist Vladimir Putin as the other neighbour, talk about non-interference is naïve or accepts Belarus as Russia’s backyard.
The Belarusian people did not rise out of any geopolitical desire to liberate themselves from Russian influence. They did so because Lukashenka imprisoned electoral opponents and grossly manipulated the presidential election in August, while totally failing to protect his people from Covid-19—which he described as a psychosis, commending the remedial powers of vodka, sauna and tractor-driving.
Lukashenka and Putin immediately reframed the protests after the rigged election, however, as a geopolitical conflict. Lukashenka claimed unevidenced foreign interference and said NATO was deploying tanks and planes at the western border.
While the opposition mobilised the Belarussian people, Lukashenka flew to Sochi begging Putin for Russian interference—not that much begging was needed. Putin sent his Russia Today propaganda warriors to replace striking Belarusian journalists at the state television. The Russian president offered $1.5 billion to aid the crippling Belarusian economy and supported the establishment of a police reserve, albeit not to be used ‘until the situation gets out of control’.
At the same time, the EU cannot even agree on symbolic sanctions, as it is blocked by Cyprus demanding action against Turkey (for its gas exploration in the contested eastern Mediterranean) in return for support for sanctions against Belarus. The fact that Cyprus counts on Putin and Gazprom for help against Turkey in the gas dispute gives another geopolitical twist to the situation.
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Meanwhile, with the well-known chutzpah of Russian diplomacy, an invitation to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition presidential candidate, to attend a meeting of EU foreign ministers was denounced ‘as another proof of the European Union’s retreat from previous statements that there is no geopolitics in regard to Belarus’. Within the EU it is the Polish government—otherwise not known as a staunch defender of democratic values and human rights—and Lithuania which are the most active and vocal supporters of the Belarusian people.
So what is to be done? Sanctions would no doubt have an important symbolic value and it is fully understandable that Tikhanovskaya and her supporters want to see European action. But it would also be naïve to assume that targeting a limited number of individuals directly responsible for the repression and falsifications would cripple Lukashenka’s regime or change the minds of his loyal henchmen. Wider economic sanctions would be harder to ignore but, with Russia and China as allies, they would simply drive the regime even more into the arms of these dictatorships. Economic sanctions tend to work best if applied massively and universally by the international community.
Political and moral support for the demands of the protest movement is however important for the people in Minsk, Grodno and Vitebsk going on the streets every day. All channels must be used to demand the immediate release of political prisoners. Not only high-level political statements but public support for the demands of the Belarusian people on European streets would boost the morale of the protesters.
It is also important to demonstrate to policy-makers in Europe that the public wants them to support the struggle for freedom and democracy. Immediate support must include asylum status and financial support for Belarusians forced to leave the country and, while any foreign financial assistance for civil-society organisations in Belarus is illegal, supporting individual persons, such as striking workers who have lost their jobs, is not.
With Germany holding the EU council presidency, its no-drama chancellor, Angela Merkel, the most influential European leader, should be (and probably already is) signalling in diplomatic consultations with Putin and Lukashenka that after a free and fair election—best organised and supervised by a joint body of the people’s movement and the Belarusian government—there should be co-ordinated efforts to maintain and strengthen the economic co-operation of Belarus with both Russia and the EU.
The EU could support the further modernisation of the Belarusian economy and offer favourable trade relations without questioning the Eurasian Economic Union and the manifold economic links with Russia. There needs to be a robust reassurance that under whatever Belarussian government neither EU nor NATO membership is on the cards for Belarus.
Instead of another case of deteriorating relations between the EU and Russia, this could be an opportunity to reset relations in a collaborative matter. Russia should be offered the chance to be part of a positive solution instead of antagonising the people of Belarus. But Putin must also know that Russian help in suppressing the Belarusian people will trigger escalating European soft-power measures, including further economic sanctions. In other words, the EU will buy gas and oil somewhere else.
Credible and generous
There should also be a European pledge to support a democratically-elected government economically. Credible and generous European commitment would show that the opposition can secure additional support for the country. It would give people hope and confidence, while economic sanctions might be a double-edged sword for the protest movement, which might be blamed for the hardship tough sanctions would cause.
The presidents of Lithuania, Poland and Romania are already calling for a support package, in return for fair and democratic elections:
- a favourable trade regime with the EU,
- visa-free entry to the Schengen area for Belarusian citizens,
- EU support in negotiations to enter the World Trade Organization,
- financial assistance for reforms and
- help to diversify Belarus’ energy sector and make the transition towards a liberal economy.
These proposals however imply that Belarus should embark on the same liberalisation/transformation path eastern-European countries trod 30 years ago—a process that was economically costly, created massive social hardship and resulted in election victories for deeply illiberal politicians such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. If there have been widespread protests but no mass strikes in the big state enterprises, probably workers in Belarus know only too well what happened to large state-owned enterprises and collective farms in transition processes in neighbouring countries—and might be fearful of replacing Lukashenka with ‘shock therapy’ liberalism or oligarchic capitalism, as in Ukraine or Russia. Europe needs to offer economic support for Belarus with a pragmatic mind, recognising the deficiencies of previous transformation policies which alienated millions of enthusiastic pro-European people from European values.
A silent economic transition has already taken place under Lukashenka. Despite his Soviet-nostalgia rhetoric he has presided over a state-led transformation. Instead of rapid privatisation, the large state factories and collective farms have been sustained and partly restructured, while simultaneously allowing slow growth of private enterprises. Maintaining thereby a level of social and economic stability and securing modest economic growth has been the basis of acceptance of Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime for many years.
Gross domestic product per capita, at purchasing-power parities, is 40 per cent lower than in the neighbouring Baltic states but twice as large as in Ukraine or Moldova. The Gini coefficient of 0.25 indicates one of the lowest levels of inequality in Europe. Today state enterprises comprise less than half of the economy, which has more than 110,000 small and medium-sized enterprises and 48 per cent of the workforce is employed in the private sector. In recent years a striving information-technology sector has been nurtured.
Ironically, Russia itself destabilised the Belarusian set-up at the beginning of 2020 by discontinuing the delivery of oil and gas at subsidised prices, using its economic leverage to force Belarus towards deeper political, institutional and economic integration. For 25 years Lukashenka has supported this in words but rarely in deeds: he clearly prefers to be president of Belarus than governor of a Russian oblast in a unified state.
Belarusians today are far more knowledgeable about the functioning of markets and the working of capitalism than the eastern-European revolutionaries in 1989, who tended to take fairy tales about the ingenuity of the ‘free market’ at face value. Also corruption is far lower than in Russia or Ukraine, according to Transparency International, and compares favourably with Bulgaria, Rumania or Hungary. The World Bank Doing Business index—the neoliberal yardstick for market-friendly deregulation—ranks Belarus at 49th, scoring better than Hungary, Croatia or Italy.
The labour market has already changed far more radically than is recognised: virtually all employees have been transferred to fix-term contracts of up to five years, which can be terminated without reason at expiry. Independent trade unions are repressed, while the state-controlled, former-Soviet trade unions are part of the repressive structure. Here, better protective regulation and a guarantee of basic rights are what is needed—not further deregulation.
Belarus is not the economic basket-case media headlines sometimes suggest and this should not be ignored in discussions of (further) transition. Ensuring simultaneously positive economic relations with the EU and Russia will be vital.
Belarusian representatives from the protest movement, as well as independent and—if possible—government economic experts should be invited to design a partnership and support programme for the country which could be implemented immediately after fair and democratic elections. Ideally, Russian experts should also be invited, while the EU should not advocate ‘structural adjustment’ policies with a proven record of undermining support for European values.
Genuine support for the courageous people of Belarus requires policies which give working people the confidence that political freedom will not be followed by economic misery and mass unemployment. It is the best chance to avoid another chapter in Second-hand Time, in which the Belarusian noble laureate Svetlana Alexievich vividly records the voices of people living in the ruins of a perished Soviet society, struggling to get by in a reckless world of mafia and markets.
Lukashenka is still clinging to power but by using unprecedented police brutality against peaceful demonstrators he has lost all credibility among his people. He can only survive as a Russian puppet relying on police repression. Russia has to choose whether to stick with this lost cause, and antagonise the Belarusian people, or think about a more lasting, positive relationship with a population that has not yet become anti-Russian.
Europe needs to use all channels to make a constructive offer and all instruments at its disposal to help overcome the current stalemate. It should offer generous help to a democratic Belarus. If Lukashenka and, more importantly, Russia fail to engage and prefer continued policy brutality and foreign intervention, it means Putin continues to believe in resurrecting a lost empire by force and has decided once more to put to test Europe’s ability to react.
Faced with that, appeasing Realpolitik or pseudo-measures by the EU would send entirely the wrong signal. Escalation of the various soft-power measures, including economic sanctions by the EU and its allies, will become a necessity if the Belarusian people’s movement is crushed by force.