Softly, softly Belarus
One might not notice it, but certain changes are taking place in Belarus. This may be good news for European policymakers and diplomats who seek to engage Belarus and keep it balanced in its relations with Russia, as long as expectations are not kept too high.
Belarus is changing. It is changing in ways that help European engagement. But, to be clear, the area where change is minimal is probably the one where Europeans want to see the most improvement. This is the political sphere. The label “Last Dictatorship in Europe” may be out of date, but Belarus is not about to become a democracy any time soon. What is driving change is the concept of sovereignty. First is the logic of sovereignty, which has been operative for some time; but often belated or delayed by political factors, namely Belarus’s formerly close relationship with Russia. Second is the threat to sovereignty since the situation in Ukraine from 2014; though partly this threat can be traced back to the war in Georgia in 2008.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s primary motives are regime survival and personal survival. The changes that are being pushed through are instrumental. Nevertheless, these changes are significant across four main areas of policy: cultural, foreign, security and economic. Change, as previously stated, has been least noticeable in domestic politics. However, in order to achieve Belarus’s goals in these other areas, changes in the domestic sphere must also be implemented. This is done slowly. Yet the cumulative change can be great, and arguably in the long run this may take Belarus just as far away from Russia as Ukraine. The logic of sovereignty also applies to other erstwhile Russian allies, like Armenia and Kazakhstan. It will be interesting to compare the impact the more dramatic Ukrainian approach and the “softly-softly” Belarusian approach have in the long-term.
The good news is that Belarus needs a local civil society to help guide and sustain this process. It also needs more engagement with the European Union, of course for instrumental purposes. Remaining in an isolated, one-dimensional relationship with Russia will only mean the gradual erosion of Belarusian sovereignty. A triangular relationship would be best as the Belarusian authorities still often harbour suspicion of the “fifth column” civil society. The best way for the EU to protect civil society in Belarus is to endorse their work with the government. The EU, to be sure, should not forget about human rights dialogue with Belarus. It can be predicted that change will come in this area when Belarus and the EU have invested enough in developing other aspects of their relationship.
In many ways, the most striking change has been in state cultural policy or, if you like, national identity policy. It is striking because these are existential issues of collective destiny. Belarus has traditionally been conceived as “Russia-lite” – a country without much of a national identity of its own and Lukashenka has been depicted, often rightly enough, as a neo-Soviet nostalgic. He became president in the 1990s with some pioneering fake news, depicting the Belarusian People’s Front, his main opponents, and all predecessor nationalist movements in the 20th century as Nazi sympathisers or dupes of other mortal enemies (Poles, Americans, even Lithuanians). But Lukashenka now calculates that he needs more than statism and nostalgia to stay in power. Belarusian statehood also needs some props of cultural support. In 2018 one of the iconic symbols of the nationalist movement, the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918, was granted centenary celebrations – an inconceivable event even only a year or two ago.
And this is not the only change. The other two pillars of traditional Belarusian nationalist historiography are gradually being reintroduced. One is deconstructing the idea of a common East Slavic origin at the time of Kievan Rus’ by stressing the separate local history of Polatsk. The other is reintroducing the idea of the medieval Grand Duchy as a quasi-Slavic, and therefore quasi-Belarusian, state rather than a time of Polish repression. All of this is being done slowly, piece-by-piece. According to the commentator Piotr Rudkouski, the old “east Slavic unity” formula has never been directly deconstructed by Belarusian ideologues, but is gradually being marginalised by a number of indirect measures: “Direct deconstruction of the east Slavic idea would be too costly. Firstly, it would create a strong impression of inconsistency of the regime (there was a time when this idea played an important role in the official discourse). Secondly, it would directly offend the pro-Russian option within the establishment. So, the indirect way of marginalisation is politically ‘cheaper’”.
At the same time, Belarus has seen a succession of campaigns to raise awareness of and commitment to its national history and culture. Many of these were originally civic initiatives that were then taken up by the state. To name a few: “Be Belarusians!”, “the taste of national language” and in 2018 the “year of local homelands”, celebrating the idea of Belarus as a patchwork of local identities. Russia has attacked this approach as “Ukrainianisation” or dismissed it as mestechkovyi natsionalizm (small-town nationalism). But Russia has found it hard to respond because its lacks what might be called negative cultural capital. In Ukraine, Russia can attack the “Banderites” (the followers of war-time nationalist leader Stepan Bandera) or west Ukrainians, former citizens of the Habsburg Empire, as alien and artificial types of Ukrainians. But there is no real equivalent in Belarus. That said, the approach to nationality policy is still eclectic. In 2018 Belarus also celebrated the centenary of the Red Amy and the KGB. (The predecessor of the KGB, the Cheka, was founded in 1918 by Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was born in Belarus. There is still a Dzerzhinsky Street and statue in Minsk).
And just to show that this is a top-down process, the state elite may actually be in advance of public opinion, which remains quite Russophile. Belarus is not at war, unlike Ukraine where public opinion has turned against Russia more dramatically. The majority of Belarusians still consume Russian media, particularly Russian television; though Lukashenka belatedly changed the heads of many key media outlets this spring. The second front is foreign policy, which is becoming more generally and more genuinely multi-vectoral. The foreign minister, Uladzimir Makei, when speaking in London in March this year, said in the past “we spoke about a multi-vectored foreign policy, but in reality we were oriented to Russia”. Now Belarus wants to make multi-vectorism a reality. Official foreign policy discourse is now full of key terms like “balance”, “proportion”, “strategic hedging” and the correct “algorithms” of relations. This does not mean balance in the sense that Belarus is half-way across some metaphorical plank between Russia and the West. Belarus’s primary strategic, economic and security relationships are still with Russia. But Belarus is manoeuvring to preserve its freedom of manoeuvre. It is making sovereign choices to stress its sovereignty.
According to Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogues, this is “an exercise in minimising risk, but it is risky in itself”. The first risk is Russian reaction, or rather over-reaction. Russia wants Belarus to remain a client state. The second risk is being misunderstood. Belarus uses a mix of techniques in its strategic hedging: balancing, bandwagoning, elements of neutrality policy. Whatever works best. But this can look inconsistent. Contradictory moves are inherent. The EU can help, but needs to be patient and needs to understand the proper place of EU relations in the new Belarusian foreign policy tool kit.
But Belarus now has a brand. Since first hosting the Normandy Format discussions that led to the Minsk Peace Agreements with Ukraine in September 2014 and February 2015, Belarus has been keen to promote its image as a security donor, and Minsk as a venue for diplomatic discussions. As well as the ongoing Normandy Format, these include the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in the summer of 2017, the Munich Security Core Group later in 2018 and Belarus’s own initiative the Minsk Dialogue, which held a much-expanded session in May 2018. Foreign Minister Makei and President Lukashenka have launched the grandiose idea of a “Helsinki 2” security dialogue. Unlike then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-fated European Security Treaty initiative in 2009, this would give all European countries a voice. Lukashenka said at the Minsk Dialogue that “it doesn’t matter what this process is called or where it is held”, but he would clearly like to host the process in Minsk. According to Makei, “Belarus is the only place where people from different regions can meet.”
A third area of change is security policy. Belarus used to be Russia’s closest military ally. Its armed forces were in many ways integrated. But the threat to Ukrainian sovereignty since 2014 has led to a rethink. Again, the emphasis has been on preserving and protecting sovereignty. The Belarusian security services are still proudly called the KGB, which has strong links with Russia. The last tentative rapprochement between Belarus and the West was ended by widespread repressions after fraudulent elections in 2010, overseen and arguably initiated by the KGB. Since 2014 the president has diversified security agencies to balance one another, like the innocuous-sounding Information Analytical Centre and Operational-Analytical Centre. The KGB has even seen modest cuts in personnel. Lukashenka now has many sources of information. Yet, the KGB is still powerful enough to act as a brake on an over-diversified foreign policy, or too much domestic liberalisation and even too many changes in economic policy.
The period between 2014 and 2016 saw a readjustment in military policy. A new Defence Plan was introduced in 2014 and a new Defence Doctrine in 2015, which broadened strategic thinking to include domestic subversion (“the sending of armed groups, irregular forces, or mercenary groups”), and in 2016 added the threat of hybrid war. Russia was not named directly, but would be the most likely source. Defence spending has increased to almost one and a half per cent of GDP. Belarus was noticeably more transparent and co-operative than Russia when it hosted the Zapad exercises in 2017. The new Defence Minister, Andrey Rawkow, has spoken of building a people’s army, with large-scale civilian mobilisation to bolster national defence. In 2006 Belarusian law enforcement units had 50,000 personnel. By contrast, the army had 48,000. Now it is the other way around – the army is bigger.
Change has been slower in the economic sphere, but it has still been significant. What was once touted as the Belarusian economic miracle in the 2000s was really a bubble based on Russian subsidy and high oil prices (Belarus is a major refiner and exporter of Russian crude oil). But since 2008 Belarus has been stuck for a decade in a low-growth trap. Belarus is also disappointed with the practical results of the Eurasian Economic Union that it joined in 2015. Membership has certainly not provided a way out of the economic dilemmas it now faces. For Russia, the Eurasian Union is a geopolitical instrument; for everyone else there was an expectation of gains from trade. Instead, Belarus has lived from hand-to-mouth. It has limited its foreign policy balancing by doing Russia periodic foreign policy favours to win back subsidies. But foreign exchange reserves are astonishingly low, at seven billion US dollars.
Belarus is pretty good at inventive solutions, but it also makes mistakes under financial pressure. Protests against an ill-judged “parasite tax” highlighted the problem of the “two Belaruses” in 2017 (crudely, Minsk versus the provinces, the declining parts of the public sector). The eventual solution – a deal between Putin and Lukashenka in St Petersburg in April – provided only short-term economic relief. If anything, it highlighted the fact that Russia no longer has the resources to bail out Belarus. It needs Russian money to survive, but Russia cannot offer enough for it to prosper.
Lukashenka has tried to confine changes to his macroeconomic policy, while keeping his basic socio-economic model intact, with big state enterprises, subsidised employment and directed lending. But there has still been a slimming process with significant cumulative effects. There has been no dramatic privatisation programme, but the organic growth of the private sector, particularly the IT sector, means that 25 to 30 per cent of the jobs are now in the private sector. At the same time, the private sector produces nearly 50 per cent of GDP. Belarus’s biggest employer is now a private company, the retail and trading conglomerate Yevrotorg with 40,000 employees. The new private sector expects a different kind of relationship with the state, and is often already resentful that its taxes are used for keeping the still bloated public sector afloat.
Keeping expectations low
In many ways all of the changes mentioned above have been put in place to avoid political change – to keep Lukashenka in power and to keep the sistema intact. Two, but only two, opposition MPs were allowed to be elected to parliament in 2016 (out of a total of 110 seats). Significantly, in early 2018 Lukashenka was floating the idea of constitutional change before the next presidential election (due to be held in 2020), shifting some powers away from the all-mighty presidency. He abandoned these plans after the recent unrest in Armenia, however. Nevertheless, there have been some changes in politics, though these are largely indirect effects of changes happening elsewhere. The protests last year were met with so-called smart repression (fines and administrative arrests) – unlike the hundreds of long-term detentions in 2010 – in order not to disrupt relations with the EU. Though this was a pretty cynical calculation, edging towards the maximum they could get away with rather than the minimum that might be needed. Progress towards a moratorium on the death penalty, however, has been minimal. The authorities still hide behind the excuse of the referendum in 1995.
For the EU, more can be done, so long as expectations of change are not too high, as they were in 2010. But the EU needs to be realistic as where exactly the changes are occurring and why. Belarus is manoeuvring to protect its sovereignty and the long-term viability of its political and economic system. It is not about to become a democracy overnight. Belarus is not about to dismantle the entire system that Lukashenka has built in the 24 years he has been in power.
Belarus is also manoeuvring under severe economic pressure. But the logic has never been to embrace long-term change. Instead, foreign policy diversification is used as a means to increase economic viability. Today Belarus is a different country from what is was in 2010 or 2014. The atmosphere is completely different. And the softly-softly strategy, taking small steps to balance against Russia without rupturing relations, may arguably work better than the more radical Ukrainian approach. The old black-and-white paradigm of civil society versus the state is out-of-date. Civil society and opposition political parties are split between die-hard opponents that find it difficult to operate and advocates of co-operation, who see both practical results from working with pragmatic counterparts in government and national security arguments for supporting the state from Russian pressure. Civil society itself is also increasingly hybrid, with the line between private organisations, state-supported organisations and GONGOs increasingly blurred.
One new paradigm is the Minsk Dialogue itself. It is a civic initiative, but co-operates closely with the authorities who need expertise and advice. The other paradigm might be the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The International Monetary Fund expects systemic change, but the EBRD works with the authorities on a case-by-case basis. So can the EU. This is not dramatic or world-changing news. But the EU can support a policy with small changes and see what happens. This is very much in the spirit of the Eastern Partnership.
This essay is adapted from a lecture given to the European Parliament during the forum titled “Belarus: The Voice of Civil Society” on June 5th 2018.
Andrew Wilson is a professor in Ukrainian Studies at University College London and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.