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Bringing Belarus in from the Cold

It is said that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka never misses an opportunity to surprise partners and foes alike. But the outcome of the last weekend’s presidential elections in Belarus may have taken by surprise even the country’s long-standing ruler.
Jana Kobzova
22 December 2010

For most of his political career, Lukashenka had essentially only one foreign partner, Russia. Belarus was generously rewarded for standing by Moscow even during the ‘difficult’ years of colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine: Russia supplied cheap oil and gas and bought up Belarusian goods, which helped sustain Belarus' unreformed economy. There was a limit to Lukashenka's love for Russia: Minsk consistently resisted Moscow’s proposals for economic and political integration and refused to cede control of a key pipeline network to Russia. With few political returns for its 'investment' and the threat of colour revolutions fading away, Moscow started to scale back the subsidies for its Western neighbour after 2006. The relationship further deteriorated after Minsk failed to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in the aftermath of the global economic crisis; with its own financial reserves slimmed down, Russia was keener to stop subsidising its stubborn ally.

Aware of the almost total dependency of Belarusian economy on Russia and his own vulnerability to Moscow’s pressure, Lukashenka launched in 2008 a charm offensive towards the West. Belarus released political prisoners and modified several election laws. The intention was to lure as much Western economic assistance and investments as possible to help Minsk re-balance its relationship with Russia. The EU, Belarus' direct neighbour, keenly responded and took most of the Belarusian officials – including the president – off its visa ban list. Brussels offered more loans, grants and technical assistance in exchange for continuing opening and liberalisation. Falling out of Moscow's grace, Lukashenka could hardly hope for better.

Last weekend's presidential elections were supposed to test Minsk' readiness to go beyond formal improvements in legislation or modest reforms of the state-owned economy. To be sure, no one (including Brussels) expected completely free and fair contest. But hopes were high that state interference, censorship and repression would be smaller than during the last elections in 2006. Moreover, Lukashenka stood against nine other candidates, whose chances of winning would have been slim even under normal circumstances. Until the election day, things went better than many expected: opposition candidates were free to collect signatures and campaign around Belarus, and for the first time in years, they took part in a debate on the state-controlled TV. The incumbent held the upper hand, though – unlike other candidates, he had unrestricted access to the state media (which gave him an overwhelmingly positive coverage) and other administrative resources. All in all, however, the electoral campaign seemed freer than four years ago: until Sunday evening, it seemed Lukashenka would manage to retain both power and the EU's goodwill after the elections. This, in turn, would have allowed him to continue his delicate game of balance between Brussels and Moscow.

This is why the post-election crackdown caught most Belarus-watchers by surprise. The brutality used by special forces to suppress the crowd of demonstrators – which was by most accounts smaller than four years ago – was appalling. Given the fragmentation of the opposition and their lack of strategy, locking up seven out of nine of Lukashenka's competitors and detaining more than 630 activists seems illogical. With photos of unconscious Vladimir Neklaev, one of the opposition candidates who was attacked by the security forces, in major international media, the regime made it very difficult for the EU not to – at least partly - roll back its offer of further engagement with Minsk. Few facts, too many conspiracy theories, and unclear picture of who really was behind storming of the House of Government by the crowd, and who took decisions to suppress the protests so brutally, have all complicated the EU's decision about what it should do in its relations with Belarus.

But despite the violent conclusion to the elections, the EU leaders should not rush with final judgement. Those who have followed Belarus for a number of years, such as Balazs Jarabik from FRIDE, think that what happened on Sunday may be a sign of internal wrangling in Minsk and the regime's lack of strategy.  The crackdown empowered those in the regime who want their country to remain distant from the EU. Meanwhile, those in the opposition and the regime who believe in gradual opening in Belarus have lost out. Perhaps this is more than coincidence; one possible explanation is that the crackdown was engineered precisely to thwart rapprochement with Europe. If there really are divisions and fractions within the regime, the EU's interest is to empower those who favour close links with the EU. New blanket sanctions would needlessly punish all and reduce the leverage the EU has.

The Union, then, needs a more nuanced policy: it should ban those directly responsible for the atrocities from travelling to the EU. Brussels should refrain from further engagement with the regime unless all those unlawfully detained are released; there should be no high-level contacts as long as Belarus holds political prisoners. But at the same time it should continue efforts to introduce visa-free regime for Belarusian citizens; this would expand the circle of those in Belarus who have a personal or business interest in close ties with the EU. And the EU should keep alive its dialogue with lower-level Belarusian officials on matters such as energy supplies or border security.

The elections have not ended hopes of gradual EU-Belarusian rapprochement; they have merely highlighted the acute lack of strategy in Minsk. As a result, the regime may not be able to pursue a coherent and unified foreign policy. The EU will need to learn to discriminate among the various actors in Minsk, cultivate friends and isolate its opponents. The task of 'bringing Belarus in from the cold' has just become vastly more complicated – but not impossible.

This article was originally published on the European Council for Foreign Relations web site.

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