Last year a conflict sparked between Russia and Belarus, as specific economic disagreements escalated into a political stand-off that culminated in a shouting match between the two presidents, who traded some highly personal accusations.
The dust settled by the end of the year as the two leaders resumed their dialogue: Belarus ratified the Common Economic Space package and Moscow agreed to meet Minsk halfway on oil export duties. Lukashenko’s predictable victory in the recent presidential election led to a ruthless crackdown on the opposition, suggesting the next phase of relations with Russia is unlikely to differ much in content from the last.
Belarus’s status as a transit country has always been Lukashenko’s key political asset. This is not only about pipelines, although in both Russia and Belarus they are never far from view; his is a policy of constant geopolitical maneuvering between stronger neighbors. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while there was no love lost between Lukashenko and the West, he nonetheless made sure he distanced himself from Moscow. Despite all the rhetoric of friendship and fraternity he so eagerly deployed while negotiating economic privileges, he still insisted his country’s sovereignty was sacrosanct. He probably had a simple selfish motive for doing so, as only Belarus’s independence can guarantee his personal monarchic power.
Unsurprisingly, tensions between Russia and Belarus began to grow as rivalry between Moscow and the West for influence in post-Soviet countries intensified. That was when Lukashenko, whose inherent political instincts are nearly always correct, sensed that this new reality could make Europe more willing to turn a blind eye to his past “sins” against democracy and human rights – since stripping Moscow of a formal ally suddenly seemed so much more important.
This change became especially evident after the 2008 Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia, when Europe almost officially removed the epithet of “Europe’s last dictator” from Lukashenko. Lukashenko then found himself and his country in a similar position to that of Leonid Kuchma’s Ukraine. Kuchma also successfully maneuvered between Russian and Western interests despite the chilly reception he received from Europe and the United States, especially towards the end of his presidency.
When the economic crisis hit in 2009, Europe’s ambition of expanded influence shrank as EU countries had enough problems to keep them busy. Russia meanwhile embarked on a consistent economic integration drive, promoting the Customs Union as a much more promising project than any of its predecessors. Lukashenko felt his room for maneuver dwindle, and, clearly a passionate gambler, chose to risk it all.
First of all, a sharp rise in tensions with Russia won him back the European Union’s attention, as Europe was forced into showing some foreign political activity, whatever problems it had at home. Second, the higher stakes in his political gamble with Moscow meant greater winnings: As Moscow was highly unlikely to risk the political repercussions of disrupting relations, concessions were inevitable.
His next move came after the elections. On the eve of the vote, officials in several European capitals obtained the results of a survey allegedly leaked by the Belarusian government, which suggested Lukashenko’s real popularity rating was under 40%, while opposition leaders, if united, could rally at least as much support. European politicians concluded that Lukashenko was a lame duck and his regime was on the verge of collapse.
But he confidently showed them that they had hoped in vain: He was strong enough to nip any alternative in the bud. He indicated that he could not be bribed into liberalizing the country, especially given so paltry an offer. The German and Polish foreign ministers visited Belarus shortly before the vote and offered three billion euros in total. Incidentally, since that was in part World Bank money, that amount included a Russian contribution as well.
It looks like Europe will have to accept Lukashenko’s vision of Belarus because it is unlikely to change any time soon. The sanctions Europe is threatening him with do not seem at all serious. Belarusian officials and indeed the president himself have all been banned from visiting Europe, but it did not prove effective in the slightest. Freezing bank accounts in theory should be a more effective measure but again this threat sounds more like political rhetoric than anything else. Economic sanctions such as a trade embargo or recalling European investments aren’t even on the menu. In addition, EU leaders still disagree on whether Belarus should be boycotted – some believe the move would be as futile as all the previous attempts suggest.
Lukashenko is now preparing his next move. He needs to show Russia that he has not been cornered and that Moscow won’t get anything from him without a fight. Therefore, we can almost certainly expect another dispute.
It is indicative that shortly before New Year’s, Lukashenko replaced Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky, who had developed a very constructive relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with his longstanding associate Mikhail Myasnikovich.
Any new escalating conflict with Russia will also serve as a signal to Europe that this consolidation of his personal power will not have any impact on his foreign policy, which remains aimed at diversification. So if the EU is willing to play – Minsk is ready to join in.
Lukashenko’s policy is a very precise balancing act. Neither the West nor the East has any confidence in him left. Moscow’s cool congratulations on his reelection, when seen alongside the critical coverage of subsequent events in Minsk by Russian TV channels, clearly indicates he cannot expect any special treatment. On the contrary, Moscow expects adequate compensation for any support it sees fit to provide. Greater integration – something Russia sees as a priority these days, is likely to be the price he has to pay.
On the other hand, this is also a tool to pressure the EU. Europe will relent toward Minsk sooner or later, when its outrage about the arrested opposition activists subsides and pragmatism once again begins to prevail. So, the Belarusian leader will continue to cut something of a solitary figure as, walking on thin ice, he divides his neighbors and tries to rule.