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Belarus: between international recognition and a Maidan scenario

Belarus the last pariah of Europe? Its leader, referred to as dictator, shunned by polite society? Its image tarnished in the media? No longer so. Alexander Lukashenko’s fortress has been laid siege to, has been bombarded and… emerged victorious. With flying colors. Minsk has hosted talks on Ukraine’s future, the sanctions have been lifted, and President Lukashenko has been readmitted both to the lay (Rome) and spiritual (the Vatican) European salons.

Belarus is a young, twenty-odd-year-old, landlocked country the size of a little less than Romania, with a total population comparable to that of Sweden. It is a country for the most part of its recent history spurned by western democracies for alleged violations of human rights and a dictator-style governance; a country that is a part of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Union; a country whose leadership, having been castigated by the West, also opted for creating the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

Since pressure applied from abroad either directly in the form of economic sanctions or downgrading diplomatic relations (like recalling the US ambassador from Minsk, the country’s capital, and maintaining the mutual diplomatic relations at the level of a charge d’affair)1)Further rapprochement with the West threatens Belarus with “Maidan” and Lukashenko with Yanukovych’s fate, EurAsia Daily 2016-04-27.or indirectly by means of propaganda (a Polish-based Belsat TV2)Its website: http://belsat.eu/.airing its programs into Belarus) and NGOs appeared to have little or no effect on the Minsk government in terms of making it toe the western party line, and since President Lukashenko turned out to be a defender of Belorussian independence and asserted himself as a politician, showing good will in holding the Minsk talks that aimed at resolving the Ukrainian crisis, the West has had second thoughts and decided to initiate a rapprochement with Belarus.3)EU lift majority of sanctions against Belarus, euronews 2016-02-15.Economic sanctions have been temporarily lifted (which does not include trade in military equipment, though) in, as it was stated, recognition of the improvement of the human rights and a more transparent presidential elections.4)EU suspends Belarus sanctions, arms embargo in force, Ukraine Today 2015-10-12.

Which makes one wonder what the stakes are.

President Lukashenko has been for long trying to get out of diplomatic isolation. To this end he may have taken a chance, readily hosting the Minsk talks on Ukraine; to that end he may have shown to the whole world that his country was no lapdog of Russia or, as he put it, Russia’s errand boy.5)Lukashenko: Russia should not consider Belarus its ‘errand boy,’ UAWIRE 2016-04-23.The West rose up to the bait, if it was Lukashenko’s bait, and made political overtures to Minsk. The Belorussian president soon cashed in on it and has paid a visit to Italy and the Vatican;6)Belarusian president to visit Italy, Vatican on May 20-21, TASS 2016-05-20.Czechia has already offered its participation in the development of the Belorussian industry.7)Mladek: Czechia ready to take part in modernization of Belarusian industry, Belarus News 2016-05-19.So far, so good for the Minsk authorities. The West has significantly lowered its expectations regarding Belarus, stating that it is satisfied with the democratic improvements, despite the fact that Lukashenko has been elected a fifth time for president; despite the fact that the country still upholds the death punishment, somehow an abomination for the European elites, a hallmark of the lack of ‘civilization’ (never mind that some 80% of the Belorussians approve it).8)When Belarusian TV-viewers see Anders Breivik sitting in a leather arm-chair smiling, they think that it is not that Belarus should abolish the death penalty – rather it’s Europe that should introduce it. Why Belarus Keeps Capital Punishment, Belarus Digest 2013-07-1.

Western powers must have eventually realized that Lukashenko is there to stay; that his support in Belorussian society is comparable to Putin’s in Russia; that it’s much better to play Belarus off against Russia rather than have it closely tied to Moscow. Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

How about president Lukashenko? The circumstances under which he’s been operating are quite unusual. It is not Minsk which does not allow Belorussian citizens to leave their country and go visit the West (that was what the Soviet era was known for); it is the West that stops Belorussians from entering their countries (at the same time letting in hundreds of thousands of Africans and Asians).9)Why The EU Lifts Belarus Sanctions, Belarus Digest 2015-11-02Lukashenko seems to have eventually asserted himself on the political stage. But has he? Now that the relations with the West are about to be renewed, isn’t he running a lethal risk of having a Maidan staged in the center of Minsk?

If he lets himself be used against Moscow, he may still preserve his power. The West has proved now and again that the standards which it upholds are malleable: the Minsk government has been punished for what the Turkish or Saudi Arabian governments never have been.

References   [ + ]

1. Further rapprochement with the West threatens Belarus with “Maidan” and Lukashenko with Yanukovych’s fate, EurAsia Daily 2016-04-27.
2. Its website: http://belsat.eu/.
3. EU lift majority of sanctions against Belarus, euronews 2016-02-15.
4. EU suspends Belarus sanctions, arms embargo in force, Ukraine Today 2015-10-12.
5. Lukashenko: Russia should not consider Belarus its ‘errand boy,’ UAWIRE 2016-04-23.
6. Belarusian president to visit Italy, Vatican on May 20-21, TASS 2016-05-20.
7. Mladek: Czechia ready to take part in modernization of Belarusian industry, Belarus News 2016-05-19.
8. When Belarusian TV-viewers see Anders Breivik sitting in a leather arm-chair smiling, they think that it is not that Belarus should abolish the death penalty – rather it’s Europe that should introduce it. Why Belarus Keeps Capital Punishment, Belarus Digest 2013-07-1.
9. Why The EU Lifts Belarus Sanctions, Belarus Digest 2015-11-02

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