How Long before Business as Usual: Tai Chi à la Lukashenka
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has an uncanny sense of balance. Elections and gas disputes occasionally threaten his equilibrium with a push to the West or East. But like the best Tai Chi practitioners, Lukashenka has learned that pressure to one side or the other already contains the forces needed to upright himself.
In this sense he has perfected the art of the weak nation stuck between more powerful actors. It also means that decisions in the West or East do not ever really change Belarusian policy; for example, decisions like whether or not to impose sanctions just determine how long the balancing process takes to reach equilibrium again. The latest case demonstrates just how much Lukashenka has perfected this process: his actions between the disputed December election and the EU Council of Ministers’ response on Jan. 31 ensured that only a slight nudge was in order this time.
The dialectic in the Minsk-Moscow relationship is Lukashenka’s hope that Russia will provide material support while forgoing dominance in the economy and foreign policy of its smaller neighbor. Unsurprisingly, the relationship is marked by tension. Lukashenka has refused to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He allowed the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan (an enemy of the Russians for refusing to evict an American air base) to settle in his country. During the ‘gas war’ in June 2010, Lukashenka even threatened the possibility of Russia ‘losing’ Belarus. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has accused Lukashenka of acting outside the rules of decency; he had used similar language in a letter that severed relations with former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. The Russian media has likened Lukashenka to both Hitler and Stalin.
To prevent his country from leaning too much in the Russian direction, Lukashenka has scoured the globe for other partners. Belarus has signed an agreement with China worth $3.5 billion in credits. Minsk has even tried to reverse Soviet era pipelines to import Venezuelan oil through the Baltic states and Azerbaijani oil through the Ukraine to be processed in Belarus and then and sent to Europe. Unsurprisingly, Russian companies have done their best to frustrate such maneuvers. Ironically, the recently imposed American economic sanctions affect the company, BelNaftakhim, that has been on the frontlines in the fight to prevent Russian from sabotaging its plans to import oil through Latvia.
China and Venezuela are far away, however, and Minsk knows that it can gain most of its balancing strength through Brussels. The Europeans, especially the Poles and Baltic states, are more than happy to help ease Russia’s geopolitical pressure on one of its neighbors. Yet the EU is in an awkward situation. ‘Colored revolutions’ are often seen as an important step in curtailing Russia’s sphere of influence, but that goal loses some of its saliency when the dictator is already willing to make some of the right noises with regards to its relationship with Moscow. Despite democratic setbacks, Europe already has an incentive not to push Belarus back into the arms of Russia. Lukashenka can furthermore ease this process by making meaningless democratic concessions that allow the Europeans to maintain a relationship with Belarus while keeping a straight face.
Even if Belarus was pushed into the arms of Russia, the situation would rapidly change for several reasons. First, Lukashenka would remember how much he dislikes Russian chauvinism. Second, the West would recognize that its policies were likely not leading to any benefits. Third, over time the memory of the most recent crackdown on democratic rights would slowly fade.
These principles can clearly be seen in the most recent episode. After the election, the
Belarussian Foreign Minister quickly made a tour of the European capitals to explain the necessity of the crackdown. A few days before the EU Council of Ministers was scheduled to vote on how to punish Belarus for the arrests, Lukashenka transferred several political prisoners from prison to house arrest. Even here the Belarussian president’s cleverness was on display: the most famous of those released was Uladzimir Nekliaeu, a man who had recently been charged as the candidate supported by Moscow.
Meanwhile, Belarussian diplomats in Berlin explicitly hinted that strong sanctions would push Minsk back into the arms of Russia. Partly to strengthen that sense, and likely also because of a genuine feeling of weakness, Belarus agreed with Moscow in January to an oil and nuclear deal that most experts see as against Minsk’s interests. To spread the blame, both Russia and the West were accused of engineering the street demonstrations against the regime.
Unsurprisingly, the European and American response finally announced on January 31st was tepid. Officials were slapped with travel bans and asset freezes; a few days previously Lukashenka mocked such a step, noting that he had faced a travel ban before and survived. The punishment did not even include the economic punishment suggested in a previous non-binding declaration passed by the European Parliament. Washington only went slightly father than Brussels and revoked licenses needed to do business with two subsidiaries of BelNaftakhim.
Minsk’s relations with the West have certainly been damaged. Russia will likely get some
concessions from Belarus in the short term. Belarus may be more cooperative with regards to the Customs Union, and the most extreme step Lukashenka could take, the recognition of the separatist enclaves in Georgia, would mean a much stronger step into the Russian orbit than usual. Even so, given the ‘reset’ in relations with Russia, this would not cause many alarm bells in western capitals. Lukashenka’s crackdown pushed him in one direction; it will not be long before business as usual again.
by Joseph Torigian, contributing writer
Joseph Torigian is a PhD researcher in the Security Studies Program at MIT in Cambridge, MA
Will Lukashenka Outsmart the West Once Again?
Mr Lukashenka certainly hopes that he can outsmart the West this time. Shortly after the violent crackdown following the falsified presidential elections, his administration was sending envoys to the West with a secret message. The secret was that it was actually Russia which wanted to instigate violence in Belarus and Mr Lukashenka had to react.
Last week, prior to the important meeting of the EU foreign ministers he released several political prisoners from the KGB prison. That is supposed to look like a gesture of good will from him. The Foreign Ministry of Belarus continues to issue statements that they are ready for cooperation with the West, even with Poland. On the other hand, Mr Lukashenka threatens with tough retaliatory measures if sanctions are imposed against Belarus. He also hints that sanctions will move Belarus even closer to Russia.
Those tactics may fool only those who knows little about Mr Lukashenka. Let us assume for a moment that the glass in the governmental building on the election day was broken by provocateurs from Russia. But does that explain why over 700 people were subsequently detained, and searches and confiscations are still taking place, long after the election day? It is hardly possible to blame Russia for mistreating and isolating political prisoners and not letting them see even their lawyers. Most political prisoners are denied any opportunity to communicate with the outside world. Blaming Russia is the same old song. It is unfortunate that some countries are happy to seriously listen to it.
There is little doubt that Russia benefited the most as a result of post-election brutality in Belarus. Now it will be much easier to put pressure upon Mr Lukashenka. But he has made a conscious choice in favor of Russia long time ago. Russia does not really care about human rights violations in Belarus and is ready to subsidize Mr Lukashenka as long as he remains anti-Western. Therefore, if the regime’s longevity can be put in question – the carrots from the West are unlikely to work.
Just recently, the West offered Mr Lukashenka a significant financial aid package in exchange for more respect for human rights. In return, Mr Lukashenka accused Germany and Poland, the very same countries which offered him financial incentives, of staging a coup d’etat in Belarus.
It is better to look for a realistic explanation of what happened on the election day in Minsk rather than Moscow or Berlin. Most likely Mr Lukashenka was seriously frightened when he understood two things. First, that in reality he failed to win in the first round. And, second, that tens of of thousands came out to protest the election fraud despite threats and freezing weather. The peaceful protesters were brutally beaten and arrested to make sure that the protests would not endanger his rule. Opposition leaders, including presidential candidates, were put into the KGB prison where most of them are kept until today.
Keeping opposition leaders in prison has an additional benefit for Mr Lukashenka. As predicted, these people are going to be used as hostages in diplomatic war with the West. It would be ideal for Mr Lukashenka to release political prisoners if the economic sanctions are lifted. The West and democracy in Belarus will gain nothing compared to the pre-election period. But from Mr Lukashenka’s perspective, he would have achieved what he wanted – the people of Belarus would be even more frightened and many activists will have to go into exile. Those who took active part in demonstrations are going to be slowly squeezed out of their jobs and universities. Lifting sanctions in exchange for release of political prisoners is going to be a clear victory for Mr Lukashenka.
Belarus will not move too close to Russia as a result of pressure from the West. For years, Belarus has been more dependent upon Russia, both politically and economically, than any other country. Mr Lukashenka’s regime is still afloat primarily because of Russian subsidies. Russia may now force Mr Lukashenka to privatize some of Belarus state-owned companies and build a nuclear station using its technology. But this is not going to change much in Belarus.
On the other hand, the Western economic sanctions are not going to cause a collapse of Mr Lukashenka’s regime. Russia will not let it happen. But the sanctions can send an important message to the regime and other countries of what can be tolerated and what cannot. More importantly, if the EU member states can lift visas for Belarus citizens and let them freely travel and perhaps work in the European Union – that could be the strongest blow to Mr Lukashenka’s policy of isolating Belarus population. If nationals of Albania can freely travel in Europe why can’t Belarusians?
It will be clear today whether the European Union will go beyond traditional condemnations, reduction of visa fees, and symbolic travel bans.