On 29 October the European Union officially lifted its targetted sanctions against individuals and entities linked to past crackdowns and election fraud in Belarus under President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The situation will be reviewed again in February 2016. This decision had been expected following the release of all remaining political prisoners in Belarus and the peaceful (but still undemocratic) presidential elections. Is this a pivotal turning point in relations between Minsk and Brussels?
Seasoned Belarus watchers will have a distinct feeling of déjà vu, looking back to events in 2008. Then like now political prisoners, including a former presidential candidate, were released from jail (in 2008 it was Aliaksandr Kazulin, in 2015 it was Mikola Statkevich). Similarly national elections were held which, while neither free nor fair, at least saw some minor improvements (in 2008 they were parliamentary elections, in 2015 presidential). Seven years ago the Belarusian authorities were concerned about a resurgent Russia intervening in its neighbourhood (in 2008 it was South Ossetia in Georgia, today it is the ongoing crisis over Ukraine). Furthermore Minsk faced economic difficulties and was interested in more Western support (in 2008 it was concerns about energy disputes with Russia and the emerging global financial crisis, in 2015 it is the fallout from the Russian economic crisis). From October 2008 onwards, the EU lifted its sanctions on a rolling six-month basis for two years, until the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus and the brutal crackdown against protesters on polling day. Is history destined to repeat itself?
2015 is not simply 2008 redux. The EU has learned its lessons from the disappointments of that so-called ‘window of opportunity’ in the normalisation of relations with Belarus. Political liberalisation was not a serious prospect under Lukashenka in 2008-2010. Minsk was interested in economic and technical cooperation with Brussels, and in playing off the EU against Russia in the hope of extracting economic concessions from Moscow. Expectations of change this time round are likely to be very modest, possibly to the disappointment of the opposition to Lukashenka in Belarus. Any serious backsliding by Belarus is less likely to be tolerated however. Sanctions have only been suspended for four months rather than six months in 2008. Nevertheless, while highly unlikely, the EU would not welcome a worst case scenario in which Belarus was simply incorporated in to the Russian Federation. In that context, Lukashenka might be viewed by some politicians in Europe as the least bad option leading the country.
Lukashenka’s geostrategic room for manoeuvre has also become more constrained since 2008. Belarus is now a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and remains as dependent that ever on Russia, in spite of attempts at diversification. As the Russian economy stalls, threatening to drag Belarus down with it, Minsk may be forced to implement the political and economic reforms which might be asked of it by Western institutions. In 2008-2010 the ultimate goal was probably to secure more subsidies and concessions from Moscow. This time actually securing financial support from the West might be more of a priority and the opportunity can’t be wasted in the hope of a better offer from elsewhere.
The authorities in Minsk are probably expecting that the relative stability of Belarus is something the EU will be keen to preserve, which means Brussels might be more pragmatic (or alternatively, cynical) about democratisation. As the Belarusian Foreign Minster noted, every other Eastern Partnership country (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) faces some sort of conflict with either a secessionist region or a neighbour. The hope in Minsk might be that the EU will shift its focus to backing the sovereignty of Belarus as an island of stability (under the autocratic but stable rule Lukashenka and as a counterweight to Russia in the region) rather than its democratisation (which would push Lukashenka away or if effective could potentially result in Russian intervention against any new post-Lukashenka leadership it did not have influence over).
Lukashenka’s well-worn tactics in balancing relations with the EU and Russia for his own advantage are understood by both sides. Concessions from either Brussels or Moscow are less likely to be granted any more without Minsk taking its commitments seriously in return. Yet such commitments are likely to undermine Lukashenka’s rule. In spite of the prestige of hosting the Minsk summits on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Lukashenka is not seriously viewed as an indispensable peacemaker or honest broke in the region. It remains to be seen whether the Belarusian authorities can take the potential opportunities posed by a normalisation of relations with the EU starting with this suspension of sanctions, without either antagonising Russia or undermining any progress through the regime’s own undemocratic tendencies. Lukashenka’s fifth term as president may be the most challenging yet for his regime.