The mass protests in Belarus are unprecedented in the nation’s history. Hundreds of thousands of people went to the streets regularly to protest against the falsification of the election results. Some still do. Not only the scale, but also the duration of the protests is surprising. Despite brutal interventions by the riot police, mass arrests and prison tortures, they continued and still continue, for well over 100 days.
In general, three phases of the mass protests can be distinguished.
The first wave erupted in direct reaction to the falsification of the elections; the second, as a reaction to the brutality of the law enforcement services; and the third, as a sign of frustration that previous protest were politically ignored by Alexander Lukashenko. A deteriorating economic situation in Belarus and declining wages might fuel another wave of protests soon.
For an outside observer, the determination of the Belarussian people, going out to the streets in protests for months, despite brutality of the police and mass arrests, is astounding. It marks a turning point in the political self-consciousness of the Belarussian society. It is also a turning point for Lukashenko, whether he will prevail for another few years as president, or not. There might be no doubt that he has lost the support of his citizens. He may stay in power only based on brutal force and authoritarian rule.
Despite sceptics, the Belarussian opposition and its leaders – mostly exiled already – have politically matured, improved their coordination and organisation, and found direct channels of communication with western leaders and opinion-makers. They have also preserved contacts with local opposition leaders who remain inside the country. These contacts may however prove increasingly difficult, due to the closure of the borders and detentions conducted by the secret service. New leaders who emerged can further gain experience and play a prominent role in the future. They have to be taken into consideration as a political factor by the regime. That is quite an achievement in a country that did not have any significant political opposition yet.
However, it is becoming obvious that the regime is getting an upper hand in the struggle against the opposition and the popular protests, at least in a tactical and operational sense. The opposition leaders are either exiled or detained. Mass protests have shrunk in numbers and are limited to few large cities. Security forces have adapted their tactics and are exercising increased brutality, faced by lower numbers of protesters. And finally, winter weather has arrived. All that marks an end of popular protests and signals another, more hidden, phase of political opposition to Lukashenko.
Strategic policy outlook for the EU
There has been a lot of discussion in the European Union on how the EU should react to the crisis – at the European Parliament, among policymakers, diplomats, experts and academics. For the moment, the EU has decided to sanction dozens public figures in Belarus, which are held responsible for the falsification of the election and the violent crackdown of the protests, including Lukashenko himself. However, sanctions alone are not a strategy. They might put some pressure on the regime. They may surely confirm to the outside world that the EU is a community of values. But in a real, political sense, sanctions alone limit the scope of EU diplomacy, without bearing any immediate fruit. In that respect, sanctions were rather counterproductive to the long-term goals of the EU diplomacy. Sanctions have to be supplemented by a strategy of engagement and dialogue.
In a geopolitical perspective, what should the main strategic goal of the EU be? It needs to prevent a Russian takeover of Belarus – political and economic – and a forced integration of the country into the Russian Federation. That may be Putin’s ultimate goal, but if anything, it will be the EU’s activity that may prevent it. Not its passivity. With a Belarussian national awakening, an incorporation scenario carries wide risks for Moscow. A more subtle modus viviendi in Belarus, with support of the EU and Russia, could be a feasible, and even desirable alternative for Russia.
Belarus crisis as opportunity for EU diplomacy
The situation in Belarus should be of primary importance for the EU diplomacy. If the EU cannot project its soft power and employ its political and diplomacy tools right at our borders, then where should it ‘prove’ itself? Deciding to ‘give up’ Belarus for the sake of appeasing Russia would mean an end to not only global, but even regional ambitions of the EU.
If we want to stand up as a community of values, the bloc’s most vital interest is to project stability, good governance, democracy, and human rights beyond our immediate borders. Especially Social-Democracy believes in a progressive foreign policy, which combines the implementation of these universal values with the promotion of political dialogue and – as a long term vision– a cooperative security order from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Against the background of these long-term strategic goals of the EU, and for the sake of the block’s international credibility, the crisis in Belarus should be treated as an opportunity for EU diplomacy, not a threat. In the end, for almost 20 years, the EU has been unable to foster change in the ‘last dictatorship’ of Europe and develop some pragmatic forms of cooperation. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, due to the heroism, determination and patriotism of the politically disregarded Belarusian society, the foundations of the Lukashenko’s regime are being shattered in the streets of Minsk, Grodno and other cities and towns. Ignoring this opportunity would be a grave mistake for the EU diplomacy.
Belarus is not Ukraine, streets of Minsk are no Maidan
The very nature of the protests in Belarus points to the opportunities for the EU’s diplomatic engagement. Contrary to Ukraine in 2014, the mass protests are not carried out under EU flags. The protesters simply demand more political freedom, plurality, and a true democracy – not EU integration. More importantly, the protests are not anti-Russian – both countries share the same historical heritage, and a majority of Belarussians feel close ties and sympathy to their Eastern neighbour. The protests have also not grown into a Maidan-style popular rebellion, fuelled by radical nationalism and influx of illegal weapons. They preserve their peaceful character, despite increasing brutality of the riot police.
In result, the standoff in Belarus does not possess – perhaps not yet – the same destructive potential for EU-Russia relations as the 2014 events in Ukraine. On the contrary, both EU and Russia might be interested in a political dialogue for a progressive change in Belarus.
The EU’s interests, those of Russia
The above may sound naïve. Plenty of analysis and articles argue that the EU has no stakes in Belarus, that this is a Russian colony only few years short of being incorporated into Russia, that the EU’s actions should not provoke Russia, and the bloc should limit itself to some face saving activities. Or opinions, popular in several countries, that because Russia is an “evil empire”, Belarus should be treated as yet another battleground with Moscow, and the protests (and protesters) should be utilised as proxies to confront Russia. Growing anti-Russian sentiments among the Belarusian population are seen as an appreciated development. In other words, the worse it gets on the streets, the better.
Both extremes should be dismissed by a progressive strategy to tackle the Belarussian crisis. The EU and Russia must show that they have learned from the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Turning Belarus into a geopolitical confrontation between “the West and Russia” should be prevented, both by Moscow and Brussels.
But that cannot be achieved with a passive EU. Inaction, in the short term, would play into Moscow’s favour. There would be more time and space to convince Lukashenko by all possible means to step down and agree to a successor and prepare, in comfortable circumstances, a successor preferable to Russia. In the longer run, however, it could be counterproductive to Russian interests – Moscow’s meddling in the democratic process, or an attempt to install a Russian “puppet” government, could turn against the Kremlin, as proven by the Ukrainian experiences.
Indifference, apathy, and disinterest in neighbouring Belarus would be also a self-fulfilling prophecy for EU diplomacy, further weakening the EU’s international position and credibility. A delight for all world powers who see Europe as a declining power, and the European integration as a temporary phenomenon.
It is not true that the EU lacks bargaining power in Belarus, due to the political and economic dependence of the regime on Russia. As the most critical, violent, and unpredictable phase of the mass protests is behind us, the field for EU diplomacy truly opens.
Both Minsk and Moscow might be interested in a constructive dialogue. Lukashenko, because he desperately needs to keep his economy afloat, seeks leverage against Putin’s attempt to find his successors, and political ways to keep the opposition (domestic and exiled) in check. Russia, because it wants to get rid of Lukashenko (and the EU might be ultimately of help), remains afraid of another wave of unpredictable protests in spring, and of a possible grow of Belarussian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments.
What could be an alternative to such scenario? A cooperation between Russia and the EU to convince (or force) Lukashenko and his regime to agree to a gradual political transition and free elections. Both Moscow and Brussels may share this goal and hammer out a political avenue to resolve the conflict, preferably through a constitutional reform. To achieve minimum credibility with the protesting Belarussian society, such a reform needs to be backed by both Russia and the EU. Engaging in such a dialogue might further support the role and perception of Russia as a positive and constructive player in Belarus.
The policy towards Belarus should also be placed in a broader context of the EU’s relations with the Eastern neighbourhood, which can be framed into three dimensions: European security, economic cooperation and tackling protracted conflicts. Finding a constructive solution to the Belarussian crisis might encourage the EU to offer an ambitious tailored fit approach towards Belarus in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. That, in turn, could encourage the creation of ‘compatibility interfaces’ between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, designed for countries that does not want to choose “either or”.
The EU does not lack leverage. Sanctions work both ways: they may be deepened, but also lifted, if true political progress is achieved. Stopping an economic catastrophe will not succeed without access to EU markets – many services, products and oil distillates are exported mostly to the EU and Ukraine. The leaders of the Belarussian opposition, the main political force opposing the regime, are influenced by EU policy by the simple fact of benefiting from asylum in the EU. They will listen to Brussels, not Moscow. The same is true regarding many portions of the Belarussian elites and population.
The EU has a plethora of diplomatic tools at its disposal. Starting from the formal actions of the European Council and the German/Portuguese presidencies, the activities of the High Representative and the EU diplomatic corps, to the political initiatives of the European Parliament. Past initiatives, like the Cox-Kwasniewski EP mission to Ukraine, proved to deliver first-hand know-how and insights into the political processes in the East. The EU’s actions could be supported by the institutional potential of national diplomacies and international organisations, particularly the OSCE. The EU might contemplate the use of the mediation potential and experiences of post-Soviet countries in Central Asia, well known and credible both to Moscow and official Minsk, and remaining in good institutional relations with Brussels.
As we enter a post-violent phase of the crisis in Belarus, new opportunities open for both, the EU’s, and Russia’s diplomacy. Potentially, the crisis brings positive change for Belarus and all the neighbours. Only Russia and the EU working in cooperation might negotiate with Lukashenko to embark on a sustainable constitutional reform, which would have credibility both internally and externally. Russia should recognise, that through a constructive approach it may prevent a “maidanisation” of the political conflict in the future and strengthen the positive image of Russia in Belarus. If successful, Belarus – a society that finds itself equally close to Russia as to the EU, and does not want to be forced to choose between them – might become an example of constructive cooperation between the EU and Russia.
A progressive strategy towards Belarus does not require scarifying EU values on the altar of ‘Realpolitik’, but it also does not ignore the reality for the sake of morality. If implemented, it may not only help the Belarusians improve their democracy, diversify the political representation, stabilise their economy and improve the EU’s relations with Russia.
Opponents of the European integration – internal and external – might see the EU as a declining power. An active role in fostering democracy in Belarus could proof them wrong.
- Belarus’ painful path to transition, by Katia Glod
- The deeper causes of Belarusian popular mobilisation, by Ekaterina Pierson-Lyzhina
- Belarus at the crossroad: what role for Europe?, by Liutauras Gudžinskas
- Against the EU’s passivity towards Belarus, by Ireneusz Bil
- From a symbolic to an effective foreign policy – the EU in Belarus, by Fernando Rejon Sanchez
- Belarus protests: the role of women and young people, by Ana Pirtskhalava
- “Women are leading the fight, that is indeed incredibly inspirational!”, an interview with Alexander Kwasniewski