Why Belarus is not Egypt
Many are wondering these days – why demonstrations in Belarus two months ago were not as massive in Egypt and have not led to political changes. Belarus is not Egypt in many important respects, but this does not necessarily mean that changes are impossible in Belarus.
The most obvious difference between Belarus and Egypt is that Belarusians have not yet fully formed as a nation – neither politically, nor culturally. Although there are two official languages, those who speak Belarusian are usually treated with hostility because this language is seen as a sign of a certain political position. A dominant religion is also absent – although nominally the majority are Russian Orthodox, as far as those actually practicing religion are concerned, the number of Catholics and Protestants is higher than those of Orthodox. The vast majority of Belarusians do not practice any religion at all.
More importantly, until the 1990-s Belarusians have never enjoyed a prolonged period of their own statehood, outside of control of foreign nations. That prevented them from cementing their own vision of history and their place in the world. Belarusians as nation are political teenagers who need time to grow and mature.
In addition, centuries of wars and foreign domination on Belarus territory have made their trick – people often prefer to be satisfied with the bare minimum. The official propaganda portrays an image of a happy Belarusian who only needs two things – a shot of vodka and a piece of pork on the table. Obviously, most Egyptians need neither vodka nor pork to be happy. To be absolutely fair, in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union Belarusians have seen more freedom and prosperity than ever in their history. Even today there is much more freedom in Belarus than in the Soviet times.
The other reason why Belarus is not Egypt is that it is very difficult to organize people in a country with cold climate. Belarus is the world’s northenmost autocracy. Having such a political regime in the North is already an anomaly because countries in the North such as Sweden or Canada are usually exemplary democratic countries with very low political corruption. Perhaps Charles de Montesquie was right when he attributed national character to geography and climate. He observed that “you must flay a Muscovite alive to make him feel”. The same applies to Belarusians today. As northern people they are relatively insensitive to pleasure and pain which makes them different from Egyptians who live and protest in warm climate.
Not surprisingly, after Lukashenka was first elected in July 1994 he organized presidential elections in cold months. When it was relatively uncontroversial that he would win the second term, the elections were held in September 2001. The next elections were held in March 2006. In 2010, when it was clear that he was losing support of the population the elections were held at the end of December. Then the winter cold helped the regime more that its riot police.
Finally, Belarus is not Egypt because it remains heavily dependent upon Russia both economically and politically. Russia is comfortable with the status quo and will continue to facilitate alienation of Mr Lukashenka’s regime from the West. The Eastern neighbor is so influential in Belarus not only because of the language but also because Russian TV channels dominate Belarusian media landscape. The Belarus nation has not yet formed as such and therefore particularly vulnerable to outside media influences.
Belarusians obtained its independence nineteen years ago and soon the nation will no longer be a teenager. It is important to help Belarusians mature as a European nation by strengthening its national identity and language. The country’s dependance on Russian media can be reduced by offering alternative sources of information so that Belarusians can see the world through their own lenses. After all, it is not always cold in Belarus which makes the prospect of political changes more promising.
Europe’s Belarus Policy: The Need to Go Beyond Sanctions
The last week’s decision to go on with the Eastern Partnership’s EURONEST parliamentary assembly without Belarus again highlighted disagreements in the EU about how to deal with the deviant Eastern neighbour. The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly is the parliamentary component of the Eastern Partnership to which Belarus is still a member. After more than two years of ‘muddling through’ towards beneficial neighbourly cooperation the rigged election and the barbarian-style wave of political repressions have unexpectedly brought the EU-Belarus rapprochement to a halt. It also reintroduced the language of sanctions in the Union’s ‘Belarus vocabulary’.
However, ‘the language of sanctions’ is not enough if the European Union intends not just to enter into yet another round of talks with Lukashenka. Having cleansed the opposition he would be happy to trade his political hostages and make cosmetic concessions in exchange for the EU’s ‘geopolitical understanding’. European sanctions can hardly lead to a change unless they are closely coordinated with the Russians. This holds true even now that Lukashenka’s relations with the ruling tandem in Moscow remain tense.
However, the Kremlin is not likely to unite against him with the European Union. On the contrary, it is the biggest winner in any Belarus-EU conflict and will try to make best use of it. As a result, there is high probability that Europe will soon again become concerned about the geopolitical dangers to the Belarusian sovereignty and will gradually return to some form of engagement strategy with Lukashenka. This is a ‘vicious circle’ of the East European geopolitics. And Lukashenka is exploiting it to his own ends. Therefore, any feasible sanctions will most likely have nothing more than just a limited temporary effect.
Therefore, the European Union should add an important element to its Belarus policy. That is Lukashenka personally should be singled out as the only obstacle to normalization of the EU-Belarus relations.
The fundamental point is that personalistic dictatorships (exactly what Lukashenka’s regime is like) never transform themselves into democracies. Such regimes can respond to internal and external pressure and make certain minor concessions but only as long as their ‘sacred’ hold on power is not really questioned. And any systemic transformation of a personalistic dictatorship (which the EU has been promoting when engaging in a dialogue with Lukashenka) inevitably poses multiple question marks as to the future of the dictator.
The European Union should send a very clear message to the Belarusians that 1) Lukashenka will no longer be considered as a legitimate representative of Belarus and 2) there will be no more business with him personally. Technically, not recognizing Lukashenka means that the government appointed by him is also illegitimate. But in the present situation it is crucial to draw a dividing line not between the whole state apparatus and the rest of Belarusian society but between Lukashenka and the whole Belarusian people.
The West should make it clear that if the demands to release the political prisoners, stop politically-motivated repressions are fulfilled, the Union will be eager to resume cooperation with the government, whereas Lukashenka personally will under no circumstances again be seen as a legitimate and reliable partner. On the practical side, this might even entail refraining from sending new ambassadors to Minsk after the current ones’ missions are over and lowering the level of diplomatic presence to charge de’affaires. European diplomats will not then have to present their credentials to Lukashenka and shake hands with him.
Personally ignoring Lukashenka is just one element which can have important, though gradual, effects. Firstly, it will give the dictator considerable psychological discomfort and raise his fears of conspiracy in the closest surrounding. Secondly, Lukashenka will never again appear in the eyes of the ordinary Belarusians as the winner of all his geopolitical battles. Thirdly, it will more expressly than the previous vague democratic conditionality question the official propaganda’s myth that the wellbeing of the Belarusians is dependent on the wellbeing of Lukashenka. Fourthly, and most significantly, it will sooner or later impact his legitimacy among the “nomenklatura”. Currently, Lukashenka is still perceived by them as a strong president who is dealt with by both the European Union and Russia. But if his legitimacy is really (not only in words) undermined by a major external actor this will become an additional incentive for the “nomenklatura”, who are already fed up with him but are still scared.
by Yauheni Preiherman, a contributing author
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk