Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Mapping scenarios for Belarus

A recent study sought to design and investigate possible alternative (and mutually exclusive) futures for Belarus. The scenarios from that study presented here can act as a compass to help observers make sense of Belarus’s future direction. This is in spite of the dense fog of regional geopolitics and Lukashenka’s often unreadable black box of repression.

November 19, 2023 - Andrey Makarychev Stefano Braghiroli - AnalysisIssue 6 2023Magazine

Photo: Svet foto / Shutterstock

“Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in the square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.”

– From Italo Calvino’s Invisible cities

As in the case of Marco, a country’s future developments are a function of its past choices and experiences. This inescapable path dependence, affecting both internal developments and relations with other countries, implies that past events or momentous decisions constrain later events or decisions and make certain futures more likely than others. Given the intricacies and structural imbalances of the international system, some of these events and decisions are shaped by countries, while others are beyond their control and ultimately shape countries’ policies through a varying mix of internal and external factors.

With this context in mind, a recent study sought to design and investigate possible alternative (and mutually exclusive) futures for Belarus. These are summarised in this piece. It takes into account the geopolitical and security landscape in Eastern Europe, which was drastically transformed by Russia’s war against Ukraine, as well as the political developments in the aftermath of the 2020 fraudulent presidential election. After all, this was followed by mass scale protests and violent repressions.

In the context of war

Belarus’s domestic stability and international liberté de manoeuvre have been severely affected by the war in Ukraine. Three main implications can be highlighted in relation to the present status quo. First, Belarus’s international isolation and pariah status have worsened greatly with the start of the war, as the regime has been increasingly identified as Moscow’s partner in crime. Second, because of this, Minsk’s dependency on Moscow as a vassal has grown more apparent. Third, while the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has attempted to trigger a “rally around the flag” reaction to the war in Ukraine, this has proven generally unsuccessful. Belarusians’ disapproval of Lukashenka’s rule appears widespread. Additionally, negative feelings towards Russia and sympathy towards Ukraine are also growing in the country.

Despite Lukashenka’s diminished role, the regime’s agency has not completely disappeared and can re-emerge in unpredictable formats or contexts. These include Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march towards Moscow and the partial relocation of the Wagner group to Belarus. In addition, developments directly connected to Lukashenka’s vassal status, such as the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, can be instrumentalised by the regime to secure its position, given Minsk’s augmented relevance in Putin’s eyes. 

Setting the framework and designing alternative scenarios for Belarus

In drafting the future scenarios for Belarus, we began with two general presumptions. First, the scenario matrix views possible domestic transformations and foreign policy developments related to Belarus’s statehood and external relations as two variables of equal weight. Secondly, along the lines of analogical reasoning, all probable scenarios are based on identifiable patterns that have previously taken place under structurally comparable (but not identical) political conditions in the former Soviet space. We propose to single out three domestic and three international options that, with a reasonable degree of probability, might affect – in some shape or form – political change in Belarus and affect its relations with neighbours.

The domestic options of development include:

  • The Putin story: a life-long presidency of Lukashenka regardless of any constitutional or institutional changes;
  • The Nazarbayev story: a guided soft transition of power to a loyal successor;
  •  The Yanukovych story: another wave of mass-scale protests triggering Maidan-like repercussions in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the external options include the following geopolitical possibilities:

  • The Union State: the status quo within the framework of the Union State with the current degree of relative autonomy for Belarus;
  • Multi-vectorism: a more independent foreign policy, within which Russian influence might be balanced (or reduced) by the EU and/or China;
  • Belarus no more: Russia’s political-military absorption of Belarus means that it de-facto ceases to exist as an independent state.

As we cross domestic and external options, a matrix of potential future scenarios for Belarus emerges.

Union State


Belarus no more

The Putin story

1: The regime survives and keeps its vassal status in relation to Russia.

2: Lukashenka gains more freedom vis-à-vis Russia and opportunities to engage with other actors.

3: Lukashenka is downgraded to the head of a Russian federal district.

The Nazarbayev story

4: Fresh faces in the regime might attempt to reduce Belarus’s vassal status, while preserving the special relationship with Russia.

5: A changing regime engages in a more independent foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and engages with other actors, also in the West.

6: A chosen successor is incorporated into the Russian elite with some administrative autonomy.

The Yanukovych story

7: Following the toppling of Lukashenka, Moscow accepts change if protests do not become anti-Russian,  and tries to shape the transition and maintain the status quo.

8: The new “revolutionary” elites try to balance Russia’s influence and conduct an independent foreign policy. Attempts to break away from Russia are possible.

9: The new “revolutionary” elites pursue rupture with Moscow and Russia reacts by occupying Belarus (with or without a role for the CSTO).


Unpacking the nine scenarios

As we designed the setting of our alternative scenarios, we tried to address several underpinning questions related to the main shapers of change, the timing of the potential change (i.e. short, mid and long-term perspectives), the potential implications for the EU and NATO, the impact of escalation or de-escalation around Ukraine on the scenarios, and the effect of potential “black swans”.

From a static perspective, the scenarios presented below are considered mutually exclusive. However, from a more fluid perspective, initial scenarios can evolve into different ones, as we move from short to mid or long-term considerations.

Scenario 1: Lukashenka has more chances to stay in power in the case of a negative scenario for Russia in Ukraine, since it will not be in the Russian interest to dethrone him in times of geopolitical trouble and perceived insecurity for Moscow. In the short-term perspective, it is military might that matters the most here. Yet in the long run political and economic factors will prevail.

Scenario 2: This might be a mid to long-term scenario, subject to Russia’s weakening due to the costs of the war, new packages of sanctions, and international isolation. The more Russia is busy with overcoming the effects of the war against Ukraine, the fewer resources it has to invest in Belarus and the more incentives and freedom Lukashenka has for distancing himself from Moscow and finding new room for manoeuvre.  While a turn towards the EU is out of the picture, given western unity on isolating Lukashenka’s Belarus, engagement with China might – in the long term – represent a way to overcome over-dependence on Russia.

Scenario 3: Under this scenario Belarus ceases to exist as a sovereign state, with the implicit approval/acceptance of the current leadership of the country. The probability of such an option is low during the war. However, this might become more feasible in the long term following Russian success in Ukraine or the stabilisation of the war. Three sub-scenarios might be envisioned here:

3A: Lukashenka relinquishes Belarus’s statehood as he grows increasingly distrustful towards his state framework (i.e. praetorianism) that might not be able to guarantee his protection from societal pressure. He may also be fearful of a palace plot from within his power circle (i.e. Lukashenka as “governor of Belarus”).

3B: Russia intervenes without consulting Lukashenka but keeps him as a powerless puppet, fearing mass protests and a “colour revolution”.

3C: Russia creates a neo-imperial entity under its leadership to include de-facto states and recently occupied regions (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, occupied regions of Ukraine following illegitimate referenda, and Belarus). This scenario implies the tangible possibility of the further escalation of existing tensions, and a more accentuated western policy of containment.

Scenario 4: Lukashenka steps down for a number of reasons, ranging from health conditions to growing societal unpopularity and/or the dissatisfaction of the Kremlin. This scenario is more likely in the mid to long term. Due to increasing vulnerabilities and in an attempt to preserve a convenient status quo, Lukashenka may start a guided transition. The Kremlin might support this plan, given Putin’s declining faith in Lukashenka. While the war in Ukraine is likely to further reduce Lukashenka’s independence, its impact on the likelihood of this scenario is unclear. However, the more the current state of things progresses, the more Lukashenka himself becomes a passive actor, rather than an active player in the transition. New faces within the regime might also prove difficult to control in the mid and long term. Despite these new elites’ strong reliance on Russia, in case of growing difficulties in Ukraine, the possibility of contacts with the West could emerge (even with Moscow’s blessing). In this case, the West can try to influence the new generation of power holders in Minsk with political and economic incentives, though with rather modest outcomes.

Scenario 5: In the mid to long term, a new group of decision makers in Minsk manage to diversify Belarus’s foreign policy, which is preconditioned by Russia’s weakness and disengagement from close ties with the new regime, along with pressure from civil society (further development of scenario 4). China might start developing a more consistent policy toward Belarus, offering new openings. The West might also condition the country’s de-isolation on reforms by using economic and political sticks and carrots. A Russian reaction would be expected. In the case of the successful conclusion of the war with Russia, Ukraine might become a strong pole of attraction across the entire region of Eastern Europe. Under this scenario, the role of Belarusian civil society might prove key.  

Scenario 6: Under this option Lukashenka is hesitant to change the status quo himself and intentionally delegates this function to a successor, unable or unwilling to preserve Belarusian statehood. This powerless figure politically surrenders to increasing Russian pressure and agrees on the Russian conditions of de-facto capitulation (i.e. liquidation of Belarusian statehood). This is a long-term scenario and implies a relatively strong and self-assertive Russia after the war in Ukraine.

Scenario 7: A highly unlikely scenario in the short term. It might hypothetically be driven by domestic factors (i.e. worsening economic conditions or increased domestic repression) or by tectonic shifts in Belarus’s stance towards the war (i.e. the direct intervention of Belarusian troops in Ukraine). In the short term, although anti-war sentiments are very strong, they are unlikely to lead to significant societal mobilisation and, with Moscow’s support, Lukashenka’s repressive state framework can successfully deal with future protests. In the long term, if Lukashenka becomes too weak and societal mobilisation gains momentum, Russia will either intervene militarily (scenario 9) or agree to a controlled transition (scenario 4). However, if Russia grows increasingly weak due to disastrous outcomes from its war in Ukraine, it might have to accept the transition – provided that the revolution does not take an openly anti-Russian stance (i.e. Nikol Pashinyan in Armenia) – and try to influence its direction towards co-opting some opposition figures. Limited engagement with the West and other international actors is compatible with this scenario.

Scenario 8: Based on the Ukrainian experience of the Euromaidan, the more radical protests are, the stronger the demand for Europeanisation with openly anti-Russian overtones. These events can lead to radical political changes both domestically and in terms of international alliances. In this context, multi-vectorism might become either an alternative to full-fledged (and potentially dangerous) Euro-Atlantic integration, or military neutrality. For this scenario to become conceivable in the mid or long term, Russia should be considerably weakened and unable to prevent the loss of its monopoly over Belarus. Western institutions should be willing to engage with and integrate Belarus. Alternatively, China could show an interest in increasing its economic, financial and technological influence over Belarus at the expense of Russia. In the case of a Russian military intervention triggered by this state of affairs, the situation could evolve towards scenario 9 or scenarios defined by rows one or two of the table.

Scenario 9: This is an unlikely scenario in the short term. Even if a rupture with the Kremlin is pursued by new “revolutionary” elites, this scenario is only possible if the society and elites converge in their disdain for Moscow’s policies. In the mid-term, Russia’s war in Ukraine and its outcome will play a big role. In the unlikely case of Russia’s success in Ukraine, there is a bigger possibility of a “Belarus no more” scenario by the time Minsk holds the next election. This is because Russia will have more repressive energy to invest. Questions remain as to how the people of Belarus and the West would react to such an event. If Russia dramatically fails in Ukraine or the war effort drags on, the probability of societal mobilisation increases. Depending on how much Lukashenka gets dragged into the war, his involvement might also alienate the elites. A combination of Russia’s economic and geopolitical decline, resistance of the Belarusian population, and pressure from the West will make the “Belarus no more” scenario less feasible. The situation could then evolve towards scenarios 8 or 5, depending on the leverage of the ancien régime.

A few necessary caveats

We view the scenarios presented here not as a crystal ball, but as a sort of compass that can help observers to make sense of Belarus’s future direction. This is in spite of the dense fog of regional geopolitics and of Lukashenka’s often unreadable black box of repression. We do not imply in any way that other scenarios (or sub-scenarios) are implausible, but we tried to base our exercise on trends and dynamics previously identified in the post-Soviet space. We also limited our imagination to realistic limits as much as possible, with an eye on regional and contextual path dependency.

Of all the possible external variables, the outcome of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s defeat or success are the most likely to affect the likelihood of the scenarios identified. These will determine Belarus’s future distance from the current status quo. Lastly, it was our deliberate choice to avoid direct references to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, her team, or other opposition figures as we designed the nine scenarios. While this was done to guarantee an appropriate level of conceptual abstraction within our typology and not to deny their key impact in opposing the regime, their role in shaping Belarus’s future direction fits well with the logic of the scenarios we propose.

This study was conducted within the framework of the project “Raising awareness on civil society of Belarus through learning and research activities” supported by the 2020–2023 Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid programme of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Stefano Braghiroli is an associate professor of European Studies at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

Andrey Makarychev is a professor of regional political studies at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

, ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings