Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: What to Do With Belarus?

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan S. Burger, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov

The Belarusian presidential election at the end of last year resulted in a predictable victory for the country's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who, according to official results, won nearly 80 percent of the vote. What was completely unexpected, however, was the Belarusian government's harsh crackdown on its political opponents in the aftermath of the vote, resulting in the arrest of more than 1,000 people, including at least six presidential candidates.

Several opposition presidential candidates, including Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrei Sannikov, the unofficial frontrunners of the pack, were severely beaten by Belarusian riot police and remain in prison as I write this, facing criminal charges for organizing public unrest, which carry prison terms of up to fifteen years in jail.

The events almost certainly spell the end of Lukashenko's recent flirtation with the West. They also mark a decisive turn for the regime, at least for now, toward Russia, Belarus' long-time political and economic patron.

This was another big surprise of the Belarus election - the sudden turnaround in Lukashenko's relations with Moscow just days before the vote. For almost the whole of 2010, the Kremlin had put strong pressure on Lukashenko, running a highly personal smear campaign in the Russian media, hinting at the desirability of his removal from power.

Lukashenko responded by upping the ante, blocking Russia's initiatives with the Customs Union and Common Economic Space and also engaging in highly personal verbal attacks against Russia's ruling tandem. Moscow in turn flirted with the idea of not recognizing the results of the vote, thus delegitimizing Lukashenko's rule.

Lukashenko placed his bets on securing a political opening with the EU, including economic aide to Belarus to replace the Russian subsidies. For a while, the EU appeared willing to play his game, hinting at the possibility of reopening dialogue, provided Minsk conducted the presidential elections in accordance with basic OSCE criteria for free and fair elections. Last November, the Swedish and Polish Foreign Ministers (Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski), proposed progress on free trade and visa liberalization, plus almost 4 billion dollars in aid, if Belarus began political reforms. The United States also made overtures. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised Belarus only three weeks ago for its decision to dispose of its enriched uranium stockpile by 2012.

Then, a week before the vote, the Kremlin reversed its position and President Dmitry Medvedev embraced Lukashenko, by lifting Russian oil export duties in excess of 4 billion dollars a year (a direct subsidy) in exchange for Minsk's ratification of all Customs Union and Common Economic Space agreements, thus locking Belarus into its integrationist projects. Prime Minister Putin praised Lukashenko for taking a "clear course toward integration with Moscow."

What is less clear is whether Moscow gave Lukashenko its blessing for the political crackdown that followed the vote or why Lukashenko decided to pursue such a hard-line course. Most tellingly, president Medvedev - perhaps with the recent Moscow disturbances in mind - described the crackdown in Minsk as an internal matter.

Rather than join international criticism of the presidential vote, Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov declared on December 21 that Russian parliamentarians "respected" the "choice" of the Belarusian people. Medvedev congratulated Lukashenko on his victory, while Putin said that the number of votes in favor of Lukashenko speaks for itself.

Lukashenko's efforts, however fledgling, to improve relations with the West have now come to nothing. The United States and the EU did not recognize the results of the vote. The foreign ministers of Poland, Sweden, Finland and Hungary declared efforts to engage Lukashenko a waste of time and called for a new set of EU sanctions against Minsk. The EU has just reinstituted the visa ban for Lukashenko and his top ministers.

Where does this leave us? What should be done with a Belarus that will continue to be ruled and dominated by Lukashenko for the next five years and maybe more? Where does it all leave Moscow, and particularly president Medvedev? Was it a skillful move on his part to reverse the course and force Lukashenko to choose sides between the EU and Russia? Why then did Moscow try to discredit Lukashenko and provide at least some political and media support to his opponents? Was it simply a tactic to make him play ball or an effort to try a different strategy in Belarus that failed? What will the West now do about Lukashenko? And what does that tell us about the prospect of a coordinated strategy between Russia, the US and the EU on Belarus?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA):

"The strange case of Alexander Lukashenko" (to be Holmesian about it) is best examined from a distance and over a longer timeframe.

A pattern has emerged of attempting to manipulate international relations in order to leverage increasing benefits (primarily for the Lukashenko circle, its acolytes and supporters, with any leftovers going to the country at large.) The fundamental problem in Belarus is that except for its geographic location and the ability to provide simple and basic subsistence products, it does not own the fundamental physical resources required to run a modern, well-developed society.

Contemporary Belarus, like Soviet Byelorussia before it, is a net consumer of capital and goods. Belarus would be on the road to bankruptcy without substantial economic support from Russia in the form of "best-prices" for energy resources (which Lukashenko resells to generate hard currency) and tariff-free exports to Russia, which a Common Economic Space will provide.

These are the hard realities, and Lukashenko is aware of them. But he is an ambitious man, with aspirations to have influence far greater than his circumstances permit, or that he even understands. This is a frequent defect among political parvenus.

So over the years, Lukashenko has tried to enhance his importance by playing one side against the other and leveraging Russia's regional strategies into policies which would be exceptionally concessive for Lukashenko's Belarus. The United States and the EU were meant to be the other parties in the grand haggling for Belarus' charms, but Lukashenko's domestic politics so far have not helped him in that direction. Not that the EU, NATO or United States are particularly squeamish; but words have been said and gestures made which cannot easily be undone:

Even so, recently Poland and Sweden took the bait and dangled monetary enticements for Lukashenko. This in itself is a curious phenomenon, because in the long term neither Poland nor Sweden can spare resources to support Belarus. Lukashenko is no doubt aware of this. What could be Poland's and Sweden's motivation? Most likely, it stems from pre-Modern memories, when what is today Belarus was territory contested among the Baltic powers. In any case, the attempt was abortive, and probably something Lukashenko counted on to get those additional concessions from Russia.

What are Russia's motivations? The most important is the vast network of individual ties that have existed for centuries between the region of Belarus and the rest of Russia. One must recognize the power of shared history. While for Poland, Sweden (or EU members like Spain or Ireland) Belarus would be at most a remote appanage, for Russia, Minsk is part and parcel of 1000 years of history; and social, business, education and family links reflect that heritage.

Thus, the pattern of international haggling and bluffing established by Lukashenko spans much more than a couple of years and looks like the strategy of an ambitious poker player with a fundamentally weak hand. It is an exaggeration to suppose that Lukashenko is a fully controlled client of Russia (or of anyone else) - and this situation essentially validates the cleverness of his policies in his own mind. Lukashenko does not see (or care) that his behavior as an unreliable associate significantly erodes his appeal.

There is not much that can actually be done regarding Belarus. Lukashenko will continue to push the envelope, but avoid causing an external confrontation that could remove him from power. In a sense, he is like a Soviet leader of the 1970s. Meanwhile, societal forces inside Belarus are inexorably evolving, and in the longer term Lukashenko will fade from the scene - hopefully, without much violence.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Squires Way, Fairy Meadow, Australia:

What was remarkable about Lukashenko's recent "victory" after more than 15 years in power is that just a month ago many Western observers and politicians had convinced themselves that either:

(i) Belarusian-Russian relations had deteriorated to such an extent that he actually might choose to rule with a lighter hand in order to secure closer relations with the European Union and the United States, or;

(ii) that massive electoral fraud carried out by the regime could lead to a popular reaction in the country that over time might actually result in Lukashenko losing power.

Admittedly, I was first intrigued by the dissemination of anti-Lukashenko information by the Russian media, but when Belarus and Russia reached a settlement over the price Russia would charge Belarus for natural gas, I came to appreciate the Russian gambit - make Lukashenko feel more politically vulnerable in order to gain more concessions.

The New York Times has reported that the Belarusian KGB is arresting people throughout the country even those with seemingly tenuous ties to the opposition. This suggests that Lukashenko not only refuses to loosen his grip on power, but is taking every opportunity to crush the political opposition and its supporters.

If indeed Lukashenko enjoyed a genuine basis of support in Belarusian society, such actions would be unnecessary. His regime can only be preserved through repression as he lacks few allies other than those who have benefited from his rule. He can only depend on individuals on the state payroll and those who fear the repercussions of being deemed unreliable.

At the same time, he is grooming his son to be his successor. Belarus in some ways is a bit like North Korea, only that it lacks nuclear weapons and has no neighbor that is the equivalent of South Korea, the standard of living is higher, and Lukashenko is far cleverer and risk adverse than Kim Jong-il.

What are the implications? Is Belarus, Russia's future? Though the countries differ in political and economic significance, if Lukashenko survives, will the Russian ruling elite look at his policies for some intellectual inspiration?

The EU has been shown once again to be impotent and naive in its efforts to promote human rights in the region. Medvedev's willingness to treat the "electoral" outcome as legitimate has undermined his international legitimacy as well as his standing with some Russians who believed that he was capable of supporting the principles he espoused and modernize the country.

Having acquiesced in Putin's vendetta against Khodorkovsky, his statements about his commitment to making Russia a law-based society seem hollow at best. Medvedev seems unable or unwilling to prevent the deterioration of human/political rights in the country.

For example, the new year began with former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov being jailed for disobeying the police. He and more than 100 others had been demonstrating in defense of the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of assembly.

With the renewed unrest in the Caucasus and Russia's continued economic dependence on raw material exports, the situation bears a striking resemblance to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Russia cannot afford a meaningful safety net for the country's population. Only now there is no Communist Party to manage society or Warsaw Pact/CMEA countries to lessen the country's isolation. The Russian state does not have a monopoly on information within the country - and this will have real consequences. Bread and circuses did not save Rome - nor will the future Winter Olympics or World Cup. I expect that soon it will be possible to speak of the "BRIC" countries only in the past tense.

Ira Straus, US Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington, DC:

You ask: "what does that tell us about the prospects of a coordinated strategy between Russia and the United States and the EU on Belarus?"

It tells us that merely tacit, implicit, passive cooperation is a weak reed. And likely to fail. As it just did.

The United States, EU and Russia were tacitly on the same side, but gave no evidence of consulting on their moves on Belarus, much less mutually vetting their moves and making sure they were all on the same page. They were all passive; none of them took active measures to drive Lukashenko out of power, or, apparently, warn him of active measures if he failed to yield to the passive ones. Naturally, in these conditions, he figured he did not have to yield to the passive pressures, because, as long as he could hang on, he would have the resources with which to bait each outside party and play them off against each other. First he played the European card, then the Russian card. A smashing success for him. Egg in the faces of the EU and Russia, despite what Russia gets out of this (at a real cost of subsidies). Tragedy for the good people who participated in the electoral process hoping for better, and landed in jail.

The prospects of fixing this - for coordinating henceforth on Belarus - are slim. To be sure, it would still be well-justified by the interests of both sides, but it is hard to imagine the political will being found for it, after what has happened.

It would be better to learn something from it. And learn the right lesson, not just keep learning the trivial lesson about how Russia and the West cannot trust each other. Of course we cannot trust each other very much at this stage. That is why we need: to organize our cooperation seriously, so it will be viable; to consult and coordinate policies explicitly, not just tacitly be on the same side; to agree on measures active enough that the aces will be in our (joint) hands, not in the hands of our target, and used to re-divide us.

Those lessons would be readily applicable to a series of other situations, in the CIS and around the world - situations where we need in the objective interests of both sides to be cooperating. And where our cooperation has usually suffered for not including measures adequate for achieving the goals; and has usually broken down.

It is a basic, realist lesson that active measures can often trump the seemingly more profound underlying long-term economic measures because active measures move faster. Another basic lesson: that a confrontation needs to be serious, otherwise the confronted party will be able to wear you down and buy you, or your partners, off. Another realist lesson: that cooperation needs to include measures adequate for achieving its goal, otherwise the transaction costs of cooperation will exceed the benefits and the effort will break down. And a basic idealist lesson: that cooperation works best when it is not shamefaced but proud, active, out in the open, staking a claim to applause.

Someday we will have to learn these lessons and start applying them in our mutual relations.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

Obviously many analytical centers are currently preparing their recommendations on Belarus. I will comment on just one such recommendation published recently in the Russian Journal. The author, Ira Straus, who is the founder and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO (CEERN), was quite straightforward when suggesting "joint measures for future removal of Lukashenko:, and free elections, with Russia and the West letting the people of Belarus know which candidates they jointly regard as acceptable." (Quoted from English language version of the article found on Johnson's Russia List #3, 2011.)

At first, I could not believe my eyes when I read these last words "they jointly regard as acceptable." And, probably, this mutual "acceptability" will later be called a triumph of democracy for Belarus in the western media, as it was in Iraq a few years ago. It is really shocking, and it is really sad to see such neocolonial rhetoric today. I really hope people in Belarus read such passages and see how they are viewed from the West and the democracy that is being considered for them.

It is probably true that Belarus is a frozen piece of the Soviet Union with all its positive and negative aspects. Positive because in many ways life in Belarus for regular people is better than it is in most of the provinces of Russia and much better than in other post-Soviet countries which implemented political and economic reforms that utterly destroyed the Soviet legacy. More and more people are getting nostalgic about that legacy today because the last twenty years have quite obviously proved that post-Soviet capitalism is not what the majority of people in the Soviet Union wanted in exchange for their old way of life.

Even according to the CIA World Fact Book (that it is difficult to imagine has favorable attitudes toward the country) Belarus is ranked higher than Russia in many positions, such as life expectancy, percentage of GNP spent on education, AIDS rate etc. Belarus is a less criminalized and corrupt country without oligarchs, ethnic tension and the horrifying gap between rich and poor that is so typical of modern Russia and other CIS countries. There was no de-industrialization in Belarus and most of the Soviet era factories continue to operate. Many of them are quite well adjusted to the new reality and produce quality goods. In other words Belarus is living evidence that the Soviet economic model could survive, as well as be reformed differently than according to Gaidar's "shock therapy" and similar approaches used in other former Soviet republics but with the same catastrophic consequences for their economies and societies.

It is certainly true that Alexander Lukashenko is a Soviet style politician and some people are tired of this leader who has been in power since 1994. He is an awkward partner even for the Kremlin and, unfortunately, he does not always follow his promises - as we have learned in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence. However, any objective observer recognizes that he still has the support of the majority of his people. It is also true that many of those who vote for him are simply afraid to lose even those positions that they have for now, if reform begins. They know well what these reforms did to their neighboring countries.

As for now Alexander Lukashenko is the elected president of Belarus, regardless of the recognition or non-recognition of this fact in some western capitals. The Russian leadership simply had to accept this fact and it did. Belarus is not a colony of the West, or of Russia.

In such countries as Belarus outside pressure produces no results (just as it never has in Cuba, for example) and a change in leadership is possible only because of an internal development within the current elite, as happened in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s and 1980s. Videoblogs and smear campaigns, like the one aired on Russian TV a few months ago, are only counterproductive and will not seriously influence people in Belarus. At the same time it does not mean that Russian governmental contact must be limited to Lukashenko only.

Russia and Belarus have a Union State and there should be more open and honest dialogue with the people of Belarus, other government institutions and structures of the country, including the military, law enforcement and security agencies. There should be dialogue with the opposition. At least it should be advised against such irresponsible and illegal action as what we saw in Minsk on December 19th. Illegal action by the opposition is not welcomed by the Kremlin in Moscow and nor should it be supported by the same Kremlin when it takes place in Minsk. Russian cooperation with Belarus should be continued in all spheres from the Customs Union to the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The best move for the West is to allow people from Belarus to visit neighboring EU countries with less formalities and lower prices for visas, since visa free regimes are some way off. This will provide the people of Belarus with an opportunity to see an alternative system of life in the European Union and decide for themselves which way to go.

And the best advice for Alexander Lukashenko is to be a man of his word - and actually do what he once promised. Your name is already in the history books of your own country; make it so that the people in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali too will remember you in a good way.


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