Strengthening of civil society, construction of democratic institutions and economic support must all figure in an EU agenda for a post-Lukashenka Belarus.
Since the rigged presidential elections in Belarus in August last year, public protests against the longstanding dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, have been sustained. The nationwide democracy movement, enjoying the solidarity of the Belarusian diaspora worldwide, is headed by a once ‘stay-at-home mom’, Svetalna Tickanovskaya, who within a few weeks became the impressive leader of her country on the global political stage. It has the moral support of western leaders—from Boris Johnson in the UK and Gitanas Nausėda in Lithuania to Ursula von der Leyen on behalf of the European Commission—and received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament.
Ranged against it however are Lukashenka, determined to do whatever it takes, the brutal security apparatus loyally supporting him, the cold season, the Covid-19 crisis overshadowing everything … and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The impressive protests have not yet forced Lukashenka to resign and schedule new elections. Equally, he has not succeeded in suppressing them, despite massive police violence.
Although the peaceful demonstrations and the demands for freedom and democracy evoke the revolutions of 1989, this is not simply a catching up. Unlike the satraps in the western states of the Soviet bloc at the time, Lukashenka was and is a dictator in his own right. While in 1994 the popular and quite charismatic figure came to power in a democratic presidential election, the next five were neither free nor fair.
Yet over the years the authoritarian-paternalist ‘Batka’ received the approval of a significant part of the population. Compared with the upheavals in Russia and later Ukraine—the collapse of numerous state enterprises and collective farms, with the simultaneous rise of an inefficient, oligarch capitalism—the Lukashenka regime, with its continued Soviet-style culture and stability, fared quite well, especially among the elderly and the so-called common people. Meanwhile, the young urban middle classes had opportunities for exit through migration or advancement via jobs in the more dynamic private sector.
Tickanovskaya’s liberal economic adviser, Ales Alyakhnovich, sees Russian experiences as a reason for scepticism towards market ‘reforms’ and privatisation in Belarus today: ‘Yes, privatisation now has a serious image problem. Our society evaluates the privatisation of industry through the prism of the negative experiences of such changes in Russian and Ukrainian enterprises.’
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Under ‘the last dictator of Europe’ there have also been more individual freedoms than in Soviet times: freedom to travel and study abroad, free internet access, a wide range of western consumer goods and a growing number of private enterprises. Political opponents, opposition parties and independent trade unions have been massively repressed but—with an eye to remaining in dialogue with the west—not completely. Compared with hard-line autocracies, such as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Cuba, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index accurately rated Belarus, before the August elections, as a moderate autocracy comparable to Russia, Jordan or Turkey.
However, without Russian economic aid—granted in return for a pro-Russian foreign policy in recent decades—the Lukashenka model cannot work. With pro-Russian rhetoric and simultaneous insistence on (coinciding) personal and national sovereignty, the skilful operator has ‘generated’ over $100 billion in Russian transfer payments for his regime this century.
But Russia has become increasingly impatient, demanding more state integration between the two countries. Falling oil prices, European Union sanctions and costly military interventions in Syria and Ukraine have left Moscow short of cash. It is no longer willing to subsidise Belarus with cheaper oil and gas without hard quid pro quos.
Ironically, Putin’s decision to tighten the economic thumbscrews—to cut costs and cement Belarus’ integration into the Russian sphere of power—contributed significantly to weakening Lukashenka. The attempt to make the headstrong dictator more compliant deprived him of the financial means for authoritarian paternalism. Lukashenka’s total failure in the Covid-19 crisis did the rest. The discontent resulting from the health crisis and economic stagnation turned into mass protest and the call ‘Lukashenka uchadi’ (go away) after the brazen election fraud.
In view of the domestic political stalemate, the protest movement hopes to increase international pressure on the regime to achieve dialogue and democratic self-determination. Attempts to engage in talks with Russia have been unsuccessful. A joint, European-Russian mediation process would offer Russia the chance of a positive diplomatic rapprochement with Europe but also the risk of a democratisation at the end of which Belarus could be oriented towards the west.
Russia is concerned too that the spirit of freedom could spill over from Minsk to St Petersburg or Moscow. Offers of mediation by the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or individual western governments have been flatly rejected by Lukashenka—he refuses even to talk to western heads of state or government. Russia, too, rejects international mediation, protests against any western ‘interference’ and at the same time gives Lukashenka emergency loans, sends propaganda and security specialists and threatens to intervene if the protests get out of control.
On the Russian side, there are geopolitical and military-strategic as well as oligarchic interests. Russian oligarchs would like to acquire cheaply Belarusian refineries, chemical factories and potash mines, while Belarus is of strategic importance for Russian air defence and central to its self-image as dominant regional power.
The protest movement wants democracy in Belarus and not a geopolitical reorientation. In view of Russia’s strategy, however, it has no choice but to seek European support.
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Immediately after the elections, Poland and Lithuania, as also von der Leyen, signalled that support: the elections had neither been free nor fair, the violence against demonstrators had to stop, all political prisoners had to be released, Lukashenka was not recognised as president and new elections were required.
Due to resistance from Cyprus—seeking to lever EU measures against Turkey´s gas explorations in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone—it took almost two months to adopt a first package of sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials. In October, the Council of the European Union agreed to refocus relationships: co-operation with the government would be reduced to a minimum while support for civil society would be expanded. In a further round of sanctions, entry restrictions were imposed on 78 people and their accounts frozen. Some state-owned enterprises—especially arms companies—have been put on the list.
The sanctions are though mainly symbolic. They might be annoying for any Lukashenka servant who was so stupid as to hide his money in western accounts or who liked to travel to the Côte d’Azur but they will not make Lukashenka rethink or the security apparatus break with him. They lack economic leverage and are modest in their own terms. Personal sanctions could, for example, be extended to all leaders in the police, the judiciary, the KGB (it still exists in Belarus), the presidential administration and state media, and the EU could publish how much of whose property has been frozen.
On December 15th, Alyakhnovich suggested more effective economic sanctions which the international community could take to increase pressure. These included:
- stopping the export of Belarusian goods from private companies linked to the regime;
- freezing all co-operation with the state sector;
- halting all co-operation by the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Regional Development and the World Bank;
- ending international co-operation with, and financing of, state-owned Belarusian banks, and
- blocking international financial markets for the issuance of Belarusian government bonds.
He also suggested: ‘If these mechanisms do not work and repressions continue, the disconnection of Belarus’ state banks from the SWIFT system can be applied.’
Understandable as the protest movement’s demand to increase international pressure is, after months of brutal political terror with more than 30,000 arrests, countless injuries and many people beaten up and tortured, the political question is whether the EU—even if it wanted to—could through more sanctions force Lukashenka to begin a dialogue, at the end of which his resignation could be the only result.
Successful economic sanctions would have to trigger an economic crisis that would force the regime to give in or drive the desperate citizens to rebellion. Even in Iran, which has been subject to the harshest sanctions for years and has been excluded from SWIFT for eight years, this has not succeeded. Sanctions can only unleash their full force if a regime has no fallback options. Russia and China would have to participate—this is not likely to happen.
Beyond the Sakharov Prize and largely symbolic sanctions, what else then can be done? The EU has approved €24 million for an emergency programme to support civil society, independent media, scholarship programmes and small and medium-sized enterprises. This is to be delivered partly through the European Endowment for Democracy, created several years ago to provide flexible support for democratic activists in countries under authoritarian rule. In addition, several EU countries have simplified the visa regime. These measures are intended to protect the persecuted and help activists consolidate themselves as an opposition.
Support for Belarusian civil society cannot however be meaningfully provided by Brussels or Berlin officials. It requires the engagement of European civil society with Belarus. The diverse new movements and protest groups need exchanges and friendships with like-minded people from across Europe, especially eastern Europe, to develop their ideas and consolidate organisationally. Experience elsewhere shows that otherwise democratic upheavals do not issue in democratic societies but rather a political vacuum filled by a web of money, power and corruption.
Support means above all helping activists to do what they want—not telling them what is right. This is especially relevant for all the experts who like to recommend ‘shock therapy’ and other quack remedies, especially in transitional societies. Instead of unleashing raw market power, there is a need to strengthen debate and awareness that in democratic societies the common good is best arrived at through multiple opportunities for civil engagement and legally enshrined rights of participation.
The Council of the EU in October held out the prospect of economic support for a democratic Belarus, including:
- substantial financial and technical support for institutional reforms and economic development under the Multiannual Financial Framework;
- resumption of discussions on the implementation of further reforms, a necessary condition for EU macro-financial assistance;
- significant expansion of European Investment Bank and EBRD activities, and
- continued support for Belarus’ aspiration to join the World Trade Organization.
This reads like ‘Brussels-speak’ for a conventional ‘structural adjustment’ programme, as might be devised by the IMF. But strengthening democracy in Belarus and giving people confidence and a perspective cannot start with a vale of tears, under threat of state bankruptcy.
Free access for Belarusian exporters to the European market, a European fund for infrastructure investment in Belarus, co-operation with the modernisation of municipal enterprises, a development bank to promote business start-ups and provision of the macro-financial assistance needed in the short term—without the usual demands for rapid privatisation, cancellation of public services and labour-market deregulation—should be part of a European offer for a democratic Belarus.
Strengthening civil society, free and fair elections and inclusive economic development need to be thought of together in Brussels, to support the Belarusian people in their quest for freedom, democracy and prosperity.