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How Should the West Cooperate with Russia on Belarus?

Last week, Russia issued an ultimatum to Belarus to present a programme of economic reforms “within 10 to 12 days”. This would be a necessary condition to begin the process...

Last week, Russia issued an ultimatum to Belarus to present a programme of economic reforms “within 10 to 12 days”. This would be a necessary condition to begin the process of negotiations for new Russian loans to Belarus. Apparently Russia is putting more pressure on Belarus to make structural reforms. This pressure can be far more effective than any pressure coming from the European Union.

There are two schools of thought with regards to cooperating with Russia in order to democratize Belarus. One views cooperation with Russia with suspicion because of Russia’s expansionist sentiments demonstrated in the events that unfolded in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moreover, many doubt that Russia, which has serious problems with democracy and human rights itself, can have positive influence on Belarus.

Others think it is necessary to cooperate with Russia since it has long enjoyed a much stronger influence on Belarus than any other country.

Lately, the Kremlin has been putting a great deal of pressure on Lukashenka and doing so at a time when relations between the two regimes were at an all time low. It seems that a return to the days of idyllic photo sessions of Lukashenka shaking hands with Russian leaders is no longer possible. For Russia, Lukashenka has become a problem rather than an ally. It can be argued that a regime change in Belarus is steadily becoming an increasingly common interest between Russia and the West.

Russia has exhibited by far the largest influence on the Belarusian government, both economically and politically, amongst all other international players. Russia also poses the largest potential threat to the independence of Belarus. This is based on long-lasting post-imperial revanchist sentiment among a influential fraction within the Russian leadership. Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been successfully exploiting this post-imperial stigma with the Kremlin in order to get economic and political support since the very beginning of his rule. Recently one can witness that relations between Russia and Belarus under Lukashenka gradually transformed into Russia subsidizing Belarus for several billions US dollars annually.

The Russian government abandoned this scheme a few years ago. This has been accompanied by what seemed like a serious personal conflict between Lukashenka and Russia’s ruling tandem heads of state Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In the aftermath of this conflict, Russia has launched a serious PR attack on Lukashenka utilizing all of the Kremlin-controlled media at its disposal. This campaign continues to dominate much of Russia’s media coverage of Belarus.

The current approach to relations with Belarus is very pragmatic on both sides. The Kremlin now tries to derive concrete economic benefits from Lukashenka in exchange for extending loans to support the struggling Belarusian financial system. There are only a limited number of benefits Russia can obtain from Lukashenka: privatisation of assets, a customs union and a few more. As soon as Russia gets them, Lukashenka will not be needed anymore. He would then be little more than an obstacle and troublemaker interfering in regional cooperation efforts being made both in Europe and the former USSR.

It can therefore be assumed that Russia is also interested in the gradual removal of Lukashenka from power. In the least, the Kremlin is now more willing to support a regime change in Belarus than ever before. It is therefore essential that the European Union and the United States coordinate their efforts with the Kremlin to have a common policy towards Belarus. That policy should simultaneously foresee a path to the democratisation of Belarus as well as safeguard its stability and independence.

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