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Belarus is not Ukraine: a radically different game for the EU

The similarities between the situation in Belarus today and Ukraine in 2014 are evident. The differences, however, are so significant they should prevent us from making easy comparisons.

August 24, 2020 - German Carboni - Articles and Commentary

Mourners carry the casket of Belarusian citizen Mikhail Zhyznevskiy, shot on the streets on 22 January 2014, from Saint Michael's Monastery to Independence Square in Kyiv. Photo: Mikola Vasilechko (cc) wikimedia.org

The ongoing protests in Belarus are unprecedented. In comparison to the previous manifestations in 2006, 2010 and 2011, they are different in terms of duration, location and magnitude. The 2020 manifestations have been compared to Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan protests.

Today in Belarus the spontaneous movement enjoys widespread support, involves the entire national territory and fights against an authoritarian leader to attain, in the short term, democratic elections. The similarities with the Ukrainian events are crystal clear. The substantial differences should prevent us from making easy comparisons, however, especially when it comes to the perspectives of the current events in Belarus.

During previous protests in Belarus, the opposition failed to represent large sections of society. Today the situation is radically different. The strikes in BELAZ and MAZ, two of the biggest Belarusian enterprises, are even more significant than the high numbers of protesters in the streets. In these enterprises workers enjoy high levels of welfare, and are direct beneficiaries of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s economic policies. These workers previously represented the bulk of Lukashenka’s support. It is the first time that workers have joined protests en masse in solidarity with the urban intelligentsia. Frustration with the President is widespread.

Why such a change? Due to the global economic crisis and more importantly, the reshaping of Belarus-Russian relations after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Lukashenka’s economic model proved unsustainable. Russia was not willing, too caught up in its own economic problems, to provide oil and gas subsidies to Belarus without greater security and political reassurances from Minsk. Those subsidies accounted for 15 per cent of the Belarusian GDP

This brings us to the second contextual change. After 2014, Lukashenka reinforced the pre-existing tendency of multi-vector foreign policy. More specifically, he tried to open new channels of communication and cooperation with the West (the EU, US and international financial institutions) to reduce economic and financial dependency on Russia. Moscow tried to curb these attempts by using a revision of the Union State of Russia and Belarus Treaty to force Minsk into a federative process.

This means that Russia, even before the elections, refused to support Lukashenka to the extent it did in the past. Russian actions only reinforced Lukashenka’s rhetoric in defence of the country’s independence, sovereignty and policies supporting Belarusian national symbols, language and traditions. It was only in 2014 that Lukashenka delivered his first speech in Belarusian, eighteen years after the 1996 constitutional reform consolidating his executive powers.

Russians promptly reacted through their media, supporting a “russified” version of Belarusian national history and identity. Furthermore, several pro-Russian or Kremlin-connected organisations have begun to emerge, for example, Bessmertniy Polk. All of these attempts have been repressed by Lukashenka. Yet they demonstrate Russia’s capacity to intently act in the Belarusian media-sphere (TV is dominated by Russian channels and products), and consequently, the political arena.

It should be remembered, however, that the repression of pro-Russian actors probably has been prompted by the belief that they could set roots in Belarusian society. Indeed, despite the support for independence, it should be remembered that according to pollster Prof. Andrei Vardomatski’s survey, 40,4 per cent of Belarusians believe they would live better in a Union with Russia. Only 32 per cent agrees they would lead better lives as a member of the EU.

Even during the election campaign, with the mounting popularity of the opposition, Moscow made no vital economic concessions that could have strengthened Lukashenka’s position. Russia stopped supporting Lukashenka to the extent it did before. It probably had, and still has, a safer alternative. The Russian plan is still undetermined. It would not be surprising, however, to witness a rise of pro-Russian political and administrative elite, and of popular pro-Russian parties during an eventual future election campaign.

Belarus is right in the middle of the geopolitical and cultural fracture between Moscow and the Euro-Atlantic space. Despite the liberal-democratic character of Tsikhanouskaya’s candidature and the support given by the EU to the protesters, Belarus is not Ukraine.

Widespread support for change, especially if silent, does not indicate support for a specific political proposal. Anything could happen. Unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians are not overtly speaking out against Russia in favour of an existential choice like Brussels. Workers who support the protests could do so for the same reason they used to vote for Lukashenka- the prospect of prosperity. It is more realistic to think that the fight is not for liberty as an abstract value, but for the concrete freedom to pursue socio-economic development after the failure of authoritarianism to provide the promised standards of living. A liberal democratic or pro-European outcome is not an obvious matter and Russia is not going to give up on one of its most strategic partners. Anti-Russian sentiment is not widespread and Russia can reactivate the subsidising policy that in the 2000s allowed Belarusians to have one of the best performing economies in the world. A geopolitical standoff that the EU is not able to sustain could have very different consequences than those in Ukraine. It could lead Belarusians easily into Russia’s arms, this time forever.

There is no going back from these protests. The destabilisation of the country will have consequences, although how explosive is still unclear. Belarus is more puzzling than ever. If the democratic forces are not able to provide quick answers to the economic issues in the country, a Russian option will probably not be viewed that badly.

Assuming that Lukashenka manages to stay in power, nothing is going to be the same. A political process able to answer Belarusian citizens’ requests of justice and freedom will likely unfold. The EU should already reason carefully to help the country in its political transition and it would be best for the EU to act right now in a mediating role with Russia.

Careful international management of an impending transition is the only way to guarantee the protection of the most important freedom of Belarusians- their independence. A geopolitical game in Belarus in which the EU lacks the instrument to play could lead to bloody outcomes. The EU can make right what it got wrong in Ukraine. Brussels should keep its channels of cooperation with Russia open when it comes to Belarus and offer all the technical, organisational and financial help that the Belarusian people need to take the road of democratic self-determination, while avoiding dangerous geopolitical adventurism.

German Carboni is a fresh M.A. graduate of the College of Europe in European Interdisciplinary Studies. His research interests are variegated and mainly cover post-Soviet, EU Affairs and Energy Policy.

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