by Pawel Kowal
Despite large anti-government protests in Minsk in March 2017, Belarusian jails have not filled with political prisoners. The reaction of the West to the crisis has also been muted. It looks like President Alexander Lukashenko’s good luck and cunning have helped him secure another year or so in power – until the next crisis.
Other than that, the political fallout from the latest protests remains unclear. Massive anti-government marches, which culminated on March 25, did not bring down President Alexander Lukashenko. Before the confrontation, Belarusian authorities warned citizens to steer clear of the demonstrations, and ordered the police and secret police to carry out large-scale detentions on the date set for the event. Those apprehended included both activists and ordinary citizens who decided to join the protest.
The demonstrators’ motives were largely economic. The key grievance was the president’s decree against so-called parasitism, seeking to impose an additional tax on those who supported themselves outside the official employment system. Even before the standoff, Mr. Lukashenko suspended the decree, making it unlikely to ever become law. The concession, however, failed to bring quiet.
Approximately 700 people were arrested on March 25, some of them members of the news media. On the following day, during a follow-up demonstration in solidarity with those detained, the police arrested more protesters. Several hundred were dragged before courts but, surprisingly, the judges handed down administrative rather than criminal punishments, and almost all the detainees quickly returned home. Unlike in the past, no long-term sentences were issued. The basic question is, what game is the president of Belarus playing this time?
The reaction from the European Union to the conflagration was also atypical. In the past, Minsk’s spasms of oppression at home were met with diplomatic freezes and economic sanctions from the West, and relations took a long time to recover. This time around, it looks as if Western diplomats successfully persuaded Minsk to go easy on the protesters. The only institution that formulated a stern assessment of Mr. Lukashenko’s behavior was the European Parliament. The European Commission and EU member states – including Poland, whose assessments of the situation in Belarus tend to carry significant weight in the bloc – have signaled no change in the policy course. The thaw in relations with Minsk will continue.
Business as usual
No scheduled visits to Minsk were canceled and Western diplomats confirm off the record that the EU will do everything it can to calm the waters. Thanks to this pragmatic approach, Mr. Lukashenko has gained some wiggle room for making amends with Moscow. The West, at this point, is interested in keeping him in power. Its analysts tend to believe that weakening him would tempt Russia to lean harder on Belarus and possibly provoke a situation in which Mr. Lukashenko is replaced by another leader, one who is less experienced and even more dependent on Moscow.
Apparently, the EU’s red line for Mr. Lukashenko is brutal terror at home, not short-term detentions. In the case of the United States, the perspective may be different. President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for ending all USAID programs for Belarus and Poland, on top of cutting spending on aid for Ukraine by nearly 70 percent. Practically all U.S. funds allocated for Belarus’ opposition would evaporate. The budget may still be altered in Congress, but the proposals already signal the new administration’s weak interest in Central Europe.
The differences between Minsk and Moscow remain fundamental. They stem from strategic issues for Belarus: the supply and cost of Russian energy, the construction of a nuclear power plant and conditions for Belarus’ participation in the Russia-led Eurasian Union. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust in President Lukashenko has eroded severely of late, the latter’s supplicant gestures toward Moscow notwithstanding. The Russians have not been pleased with Minsk’s quiet cooperation with Latvia and EU institutions, and they have been downright alarmed by the recent Polish-Belarusian rapprochement. Mr. Putin has waged a de facto war on Ukraine in response to its pro-Western turn in 2014, so it is hard to imagine that he would swallow another key ally’s overtures to the West.
Russia does not like the idea of Minsk having a bigger role within the framework of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, put forward by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. Of all areas of cooperation, only Belarusian-Russian military relations do not seem to give Moscow reason to be upset. In March 2017, President Lukashenko meekly accepted the Kremlin’s ambitious objectives for joint military exercises code-named “Zapad-2017” (West-2017), scheduled for September in Belarus – the yearly, massive show of force that has been a source of concern among Baltic countries. The military sphere shows how easily Belarusian-Russian differences are overcome when Moscow adopts the language of ultimatum.
Minsk must tread carefully. The Russians, if not pushed too far by Mr. Lukashenko’s imprudence, are not going to resort to drastic means to stop his very limited liberalization. It sufficed for Moscow that the Belarusian president repeatedly criticized the West during the March protests: he accused Poland for fomenting the demonstrations and announced that he would never allow “a Maidan in Minsk” (a reference to the Ukrainian opposition’s camp in downtown Kiev; in early 2014, its activists toppled a Moscow-backed government). Then Mr. Lukashenko humbly flew to St. Petersburg. Finding a formula for the postponed Lukashenko-Putin summit proved to be no problem.
On April 3, 2017, the day of a terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg subway, the long-awaited talks took place. Leaving the meeting, President Putin declared that all outstanding issues with Belarus had been settled. According to leaks, two topics dominated: Belarus’ debt to Russia and the energy issues. It looks like Russia has agreed to refinance the Belarusian debt and a deal was reached on duty-free deliveries of Russian oil and gas, and on merging the two countries’ electricity markets by 2019. The Belarusian president returned home with enough financing to survive politically for another year.
Therefore, there are no visible obstacles for continuing his quiet normalization process with the EU. President Lukashenko and his officials will refrain from displaying too much cordiality in dealing with their Western counterparts, but the Minsk-Brussels channel of communication is likely to remain open. It is difficult to imagine this taking place without Moscow’s tacit consent.
The secret of Mr. Lukashenko’s success at this juncture lies in a particularly favorable international situation. No one is currently interested in escalating the crisis in Belarus. Some joke that the president of Belarus was saved by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that the U.S. Navy fired on Syria in April 2017. Aside from delivering a stern warning to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, it reminded Mr. Putin that it may not be wise for him to start yet another international conflict, with parliamentary elections in Russia looming this year and growing dissatisfaction among its citizens.
Eastern policy experts in the EU realize that the previous attempts to put the squeeze on the Minsk regime, especially after the crackdown that followed the manipulated 2010 presidential elections, proved counterproductive. In the end, the limp, porous Western sanctions served more to diminish the standing of the leaders who imposed them than to provide an incentive for the regime to change its behavior.
So, everyone, it seems, is ready to pay some price for quiet in Belarus. Even if the opposition proved capable of mobilizing significant numbers of supporters, the country is not in the mood for a revolution. The EU will continue a cautious rapprochement with Minsk. Mr. Lukashenko’s survival at this juncture does not guarantee a longer-term stabilization in Belarus.
Western companies can, of course, trade with it with reasonable safety, and small entrepreneurs may continue to quietly set up businesses there – as long as they stay below the political radar. Meaningful domestic reforms remain out of the question, larger-scale foreign investment is a no-go as well. The system is not about to change. A pervasive feeling of temporariness in Belarus and ambiguity about Moscow’s political intentions towards its satellite all remain. The only new thing is that President Lukashenko has extended his 23 years in office by another year or so.
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