A new crisis in the east of Europe may be in the making. Europe should assess how it will act — if and when it erupts.
The results of the on-going normalisation in relations between the EU and Belarus have been very modest, and so have been the domestic changes, which the turn in the European policy was intended to assist. Meanwhile, Moscow reacted to Alexander Lukashenko’s perceived “drift to the west” by toughening its approach towards Minsk.
In February 2016, the EU decided not to prolong the sanctions it had imposed five year earlier on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in response to brutal repressions against Belarusian political opposition. The sanctions were lifted as a reward granted to Minsk for the release of remaining political prisoners, for less oppressive presidential campaign of 2015 and – perhaps, above all – for Belarus’ refusal to fully support Russia in the conflict over Ukraine. At the same time, the decision was driven by hopes and expectations that the normalization of relations between Europe and Belarus would stimulate the latter to start domestic liberalization and economic reforms.
The timing was also quite suitable for Brussels to test its revised “customer-friendly” European Neighbourhood Policy with less accent on values and more attention paid to raising partner countries’ resilience. In turn, Minsk was willing to explore new funding opportunities and weaken its excessive dependence on Moscow.
The EU’s current policy of technocratic, “go-slow” re-engagement with Belarus is a policy for fair weather
Today, a year later, it is apparent that the results of EU-Belarusian rapprochement have been quite modest. In practice they are visible, besides minor EU project funding, mostly in the sphere of migration. EU and Belarus signed the so-called Mobility Partnership and generally advanced in the negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission. Furthermore, from January 2017 EU citizens, as well as altogether nationals of 80 countries, can visit Belarus for 5 days visa-free.
Political liberalisation, however, did not take place. Even though one opposition candidate and one representative of civil society were elected into the national parliament during the 2016 elections, OSCE found most of its previous recommendations ignored and was able to cite only slight improvement in the general conduct of elections. Media and political activists remain under pressure. The EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue showed little convergence on core issues including the death penalty, still applied in the country.
Economic changes did not start, either. Despite some reformist rhetoric, Minsk rejects the conditionality put forward by the IMF (a loan of $3 billion is offered in return), which also blocks the way towards EU macroeconomic assistance. The government prefers to stick to the old model, namely, to maintain state’s commanding role in the economy and support public sector and the Soviet-style welfare system. As Lukashenko said in October 2016: “we have already had all the reforms”.
The problem is that the model, the basis of the regime’s domestic legitimacy, does not function any more. In 2016, Belarus’ GDP fell by 2.6% and stays now at 2007 level. Exports went down by 13%. The country has only 5.4 billion dollars in gold and currency reserves, whereas the external debt due in 2017 only is 3.4 billion. Seeking to increase the budget revenue, the authorities prosecute businesses, raise utility tariffs and tax so-called “social parasites” for unemployment.
Meanwhile, generous Russian subsidies, which have been traditionally the main source of Belarusian “economic miracle”, are not available today. And the reason is not so much Russia’s own worsening economic situation, but the fact that Moscow apparently takes Lukashenko’s “drift to the west” rather jealously and creates additional leverages vis-à-vis its “closest ally”. What is to be expected is a “less for more” policy aimed at securing full loyalty of Belarus in the geopolitical standoff between Russia and the west with minimum expenses.
The time may be right to start thinking about the previously unthinkable — be it economic collapse in Belarus, radical internal transformations or an externally-triggered crisis
In fact, Russian-Belarusian relationship has been already significantly re-shaped. In 2016, Moscow refused to lower the gas price, as requested by Minsk, and as a result the latter at the moment owes Russia $550m. In the second half of 2016 Russia cut the supplies of crude oil from 12 to 6.5m tons, which incurred an estimated $1.5 billion loss in export revenues for Belarus. Russian authorities drastically limit agricultural imports from Belarus. Macroeconomic assistance from the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is routinely postponed.
In turn, Alexander Lukashenko doubles down and demonstrates disobedience. Minsk refused to conclude an agreement that would allow Moscow to have an air force base in Belarus. It unilaterally raised the fees for the transit of Russian oil. In December 2016, Belarusian leader chose not to show up at the summit of the EEU in St Petersburg and is dragging his feet with signing a new Customs Code of the Union. Belarusian authorities have recently arrested three bloggers representing the ideology of “Russian world” in the country. To put it shortly, the bilateral conflict continues to escalate.
It would be irresponsible to predict that the trend will necessarily lead to the removal of Alexander Lukashenko by Moscow or “voluntary reunification” of Belarus and Russia along the Crimean scenario. Possibly, a temporary compromise will be found. At the same time, it is obvious that Belarus is not any longer an island of stability in EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood it once was.
The EU’s current policy of technocratic, “go-slow” re-engagement with Belarus is a policy for fair weather. The time, however, may be right to start thinking about the previously unthinkable — be it economic collapse in Belarus, radical internal transformations or an externally-triggered crisis. All of these scenarios would require a much higher level of Europe’s preparedness, commitment and resources.
This article was originally published as a comment for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.