Opinion: Does Russia Want EU Sanctions Against Belarus?
Yesterday Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talked with Alexander Lukashenka over the telephone. On the same day Lukashenka announced at a meeting with Belarusian foreign policy officials that he may release some of Belarus' political prisoners.
The relation between these two facts is unclear. However, this coincidence once again provokes thoughts as to Russia's real and possible role in influencing the Lukashenka regime.
Over the past few weeks Russia has called upon the EU several times to lift sanctions against Belarus and start a dialogue with Lukashenka. This demand was made by Russia's foreign ministry, in a joint statement with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and in a joint statement by Medvedev and Lukashenka.
It can be argued that these calls clearly contradict the most popular argument for the lifting of economic and political sanctions against Belarus. The argument says that the Kremlin is interested in strengthening the sanctions against the regime in Minsk. Sanctions would strengthen the dependence of Belarus on Russia and enable Russia's businessmen to get access to the privatisation of strategic Belarusian enterprises.
In fact, Russia is strategically far more interested in the West lifting its sanctions on Minsk. Belarus plays an important role in Moscow's long-term vision for Europe, where Russia, its post-Soviet satellites and the EU would create a common economic area. For this, Russia needs Belarus to be eventually accepted as a legitimate participant in the integration between the European Union and a Russian-led bloc of post-Soviet countries. This may be the strategic reason why Russia is interested in Lukashenka's eventual resignation – but not before having Belarus' key companies land in the hands of Russian investors.
Russia's long term foreign policy strategy: EU + Eurasian Union
Putin's articles show the two main directions of the Kremlin's foreign policy for the coming years. One concerns the traditional integration (as is stated, mainly economic) with former Soviet republics. This includes the construction of a single economic area with Belarus and Kazakhstan, with a possible future involvement of other countries, especially Ukraine.
The second vector, which usually remains in the shadows, is economic integration with the European Union.
In his recent article about Russia's foreign policy, published by the newspaper Moskovskie novosti
Russia proposes to move toward the creation of a common economic and humanitarian area from the Atlantic to the Pacific – a community which the Russian experts call the Union of Europe.
Prior to that, Putin wrote the same in an article published by Izvestiya which was dedicated to the possible creation of a post-Soviet integration body referred to as the Eurasian Union:
The Eurasian Union will be based on universal principles of integration as an integral part of Greater Europe, united by shared values of freedom, democracy and the laws of the free market(…)
The Customs Union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and later the Eurasian Union will be the party holding the dialogue [on the creation of the common economic area] with the EU from our side.
We can conclude that in the long run, current Russian foreign policy is aimed at some form of economic convergence between the EU and the would-be Eurasian Union.
Russia (the Russian elite) has perhaps even stronger ties with the EU than with the countries of the former Soviet Union. Western Europe is the main market for Russia's exports, the source of investment and technology. The EU attracts Russians by its lifestyle, investment opportunities and education.
Russia has not recovered from the gloomy 70 years of communism and is not able to form a separate civilization. In today's globalising world it will therefore inevitably see itself more and more as a distinctive part of European civilization and strive to integrate with other European countries, given its closer ties to them than to the Muslim East or China.
Lukashenka as an Obstacle to the Implementation of Russia's Strategy
Needless to say that Belarus, at the junction of the European Union and the so-called Russian "near abroad", plays a notable role in this picture. If not a nodal point, it can (and has) become an obstacle to the realisation of Russia's strategy of building a "harmonious community of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok" Putin writes about.
Russia is interested in Belarus as a full-fledged subject of the pan-European economic integration process. Economic and political sanctions against Belarus are clearly inconsistent with Moscow's vision of a future Eurasia.
Thus, Russia is naturally interested in the lifting of Western sanctions against Minsk. The question is what the costs and the instruments available to do this are.
Obviously, there are two options with regards to how to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted. One is to force the regime in Belarus towards democratisation. The other is to force the West to accept Lukashenka as a full and respected partner in pan-Eurasian integration.
The second approach has been repeatedly tried in the past years and has consistently proven to be ineffective. It is likely that Russia would oppose, and possibly prevent the imposition of, new sanctions by the West against Belarus. But Russia will never succeed in returning Belarus to the status of a full member of the Eurasian-European integration as long as Aliaksander Lukashenka remains president of Belarus.
Forcing Lukashenka to dismantle his authoritarian regime (and, if possible, to resign) is the only measure that ensures the lifting of sanctions against Belarus. It is easier for Russia to help Lukashenka resign rather than trying to force the EU to engage in a dialogue with his regime, which has proven to be absolutely unable to negotiate, naively referring to "artificial barriers to trade".
What Stops Russia from Making Lukashenka Resign
It took the Russian government ten years to realise that the construction of a "Union State" between Belarus and Russia has no future. Let us see how long it will take to realise that the easiest way to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted would perhaps be to join these sanctions at first.
The only thing that stops Moscow from deciding the fate of Lukashenka is the illusion that he may give Russia preferential access to the privatisation of the few attractive assets in Belarus. This presents a contradiction between the strategic interests of Moscow in pursuing pan-Eurasian integration and tactical interests in the privatisation of specific assets by Russian companies. This is the issue which provides the main uncertainty for the coming one or two years and the only area for speculation by Lukashenka's regime.
One must realise that the contradiction is not stable and cannot last too long. For instance, against the status quo works the critical situation of the Belarusian economy. In addition, Russia may soon find out that negotiations on the privatisation of strategic companies would be far more productive with almost any future government of Belarus. Most importantly, deals with a future government would be less likely subject to a future revision and cancellation – never forget that Lukashenka has been holding his position illegally since 2006 or perhaps even 1999.
Despite a common discontent with the situation in Belarus, the West and Russia have been reluctant to publicly cooperate on this issue or to even form a single position. One may argue that no change may be expected until the international community acts jointly and leaves Lukashenka with no space for manoeuvring between Russia and the West.
Why Don’t Belarusians Revolt?
Over the last fifteen years Belarusians have become used to the authorities' brutality during opposition demonstrations. Since 19 December 2010 the police have been particularly repressive, leaving no opportunities for protesters. But the massive rally in Minsk on 25 March, Freedom Day, was unexpectedly peaceful.
The police behaved in an unusually friendly manner. This led some commentators to conclude that a new political thaw might be beginning in Belarus. Unfortunately, such a conclusion looks groundless. The Belarusian regime sees the prospect of massive protests as a major threat to its power. Therefore it will take every possible step, including harsh repression, to prevent any form of revolution.
The Roots of Fear of Street Democracy
The authorities' fear of street democracy originates in memories of the 1990s, when tens of thousands regularly went to the streets to protest.
Massive demonstrations began at the end of the 1980s and grew larger in the first half of the 1990s. Belarusians protested primarily against the government's economic policies. Interestingly, at that time the authorities treated demonstrators with tolerance. According to the authors of the book Baptising the Nation police only used force and dispersed a street protest on only one occasion between 1988 and 1990.
In 1991 Belarus saw the largest street rallies in its history. The workers of the majority of Minsk factories went on strike because of rising prices and falling living standards. On 4 April 1991 the biggest demonstration ever occurred with between 50,000 and 100,000 protesters gathering in the centre of Minsk. Large rallies also took place across the whole country.
In 1992-1995 the protests significantly subsided. The level of police violence against demonstrators remained low. But after Alexander Lukashenka was elected president in July 1994 the government took a very aggressive stance on all forms of mass discontent.
The year of 1996 saw a wave of massive street protests. They were caused by the developments to the government’s domestic and foreign policies. The most notable of these were the signing of the Commonwealth Treaty with Russia (2 April 1996) and Chernobyl Day protest (26 April 1996). Authorities dispersed the protests with extreme brutality.
Authoritarian Grip on Street Activism
Following the constitutional changes in November 1996, the Belarusian political system turned authoritarian. The government started to severely limit all political freedoms. It did not allow most of street demonstrations and then brutally dispersed "unsanctioned" ones.
The authorities began to apply a wide range of repressive measures against the participants of street actions. Besides brutal physical force, they include fines and administrative arrests. Universities started to expel students who participated in street action. The government also began to force employers to dismiss their employees who were noticed at opposition demonstrations. Although the vast majority of protesters remain in their jobs and at universities, the fear of being dismissed works as a strong deterrent. Because of the poor economic conditions in the country, finding a new job could be a very difficult task.
As a result of the government's repression, the number of participants of demonstrations started to drop significantly. Opposition street events turned into mainly political rituals that did not have country-wide resonance. It became too risky for common Belarusians to sacrifice not only their physical wellbeing but also sources of stable income for their families.
Renaissance of Street Democracy
The euphoric victory of the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine impressed many Belarusians. They hoped that the 2006 presidential election would provide an opportunity for a similar scenario in Belarus.
Between 15,000 and 25,000 people took to the streets following what was seen as a rigged election in March 2006. An opposition tent camp popped up in the central square of Minsk as a sign of the protesters’ determination to fight for their rights.
The camp survived for a week and became a symbol of youth resistance against the authoritarian state. In the end the police stormed the tent camp and arrested several hundreds of young protesters. Dozens of demonstrators were later expelled from universities or were sacked from their jobs.
Four years later during the 2010 presidential campaign, a real renaissance of street democracy took place. Following the rapprochement with the West, the Belarusian authorities were trying to create a picture of political liberalisation during the campaign. They allowed open air gatherings of the candidates’ teams with their supporters and some forms of previously banned street agitation.
Unfortunately, that renaissance was brutally terminated by the crackdown on the election night. The riot police dispersed a demonstration which gathered around 30,000 on a cold December night. They arrested hundreds of the participants, including most of the presidential candidates (two of whom still remain in prison). A wave of repression against the opposition and civil society followed. However, only very few demonstrators were sacked or removed from their jobs this time.
The Regime Will Not Allow Street Democracy Again
After the peaceful demonstration on 25 March some commentators rushed to assume that the authorities might have started lowering the degree of repression in the country. Unfortunately, it does not look to be the case.
Several factors could explain the authorities’ tolerance towards the latest demonstration. First, the protest organisers agreed to follow the route that had been approved by the city council far from the city centre. Second, it was evident that the celebration of Freedom Day would not gather that many demonstrators. Third, the lack of unity among the opposition could hardly turn the demonstration into something threatening to the government. The result of the repression which followed the 2010 presidential elections was devastating for the opposition, which can no longer effectively mobilise its supporters.
The authorities could also have used the 25 March demonstration to signal to the EU that they can be flexible in their treatment of the opposition. Finally, in the Belarusian authoritarian system it is important for the government to “measure” the opposition’s street potential from time to time. That helps them understand the trends and see whether there are any new leaders.
But there is little reason to expect that this tolerance will continue. Even if the authorities decide to end the current conflict with the EU they are unlikely to soften their grip on the opposition. The 2010 presidential campaign was taken on board: tolerance to opposition street activities can undermine the government’s control of the situation. And that is what they fear most of all.
And the majority of Belarusians still fear revolting because of potential government repression. The risks of protesting for average Belarusians are high, while the probability that their protest will change anything remains, at best, uncertain.