Belarus’ continued autocracy between the EU and Russia

Belarus’ continued autocracy between the EU and Russia

President Lukashenko is running for his sixth term; no other leader has held power in the post-Soviet era.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Belarussians will vote on August 9 in an election that is almost certain to result in another win for President Alexander Lukashenko.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Recent protests have given strength to opposition activists, but they have little recourse to challenge Lukashenko
– Lukashenko may be inspired by Putin’s power grab in Russia to seek a further extension of his rule
– Belarus is critical to the EU given its ability to mediate with Russia on sensitive issues like the conflict in Ukraine
– The EU likely poses little risk to Belarus’ regime, but to the bloc, it is stubbornly autocratic, nostalgic for the Soviet Union and reliant on Russia

Belarusians will go to the polls on August 9 in what is likely to be another uncontested and decisive victory for President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the nation since 1994. Prominent EU and US officials have called Lukashenko ‘the last dictator in Europe’, a term the president has even used to describe himself. Since 1994, Lukashenko has presided over a repressive and autocratic regime that is firmly integrated with Russia and the political and economic vestiges of the Soviet Union.

However, the (northern) summer months have brought protests against Lukashenko’s rule and his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The demonstrations have been sparked by financial unease amongst Belarus’ younger population coupled with demographic decline. Economic growth and increased immigration are often touted as methods to stem this demographic tide, but both present risks to Lukashenko and his image of Belarus as a proud post-Soviet state built upon a common identity and tradition, in contrast to the multicultural and pluralistic EU. The unrest has given strength to opposition activists, but Belarus remains a dangerous country in which to be a member of the opposition or a journalist willing to challenge the government. Lukashenko has no intention of appealing to the EU and presenting an image of Belarus as a democracy, and the election is unlikely to be free or fair by EU or international standards. Instead, Belarus is likely to move even closer to Russia and draw inspiration from President Vladimir Putin’s power grabs.

While Belarus is a pariah state in Europe in terms of its political and democratic development, it remains critical to the EU for its ability to mediate sensitive issues between the EU and Russia. Belarus has facilitated discussions with Russia and the EU over the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the Minsk negotiations have received the support of major international actors. Belarus prizes its ability to be a responsible stakeholder and mediator of regional affairs, and, while the EU is likely to criticise Belarus’ election, it will carefully avoid ostracising Lukashenko in the process.

BELARUS AND THE CURRENT CRISIS

Photo: Aline (Алевтина) Mueller/Pixabay

The summer of 2020 has seen widespread anti-government protests in Belarus, which have resulted in the violent arrests of journalists and demonstrators. Lukashenko’s main challenger, Viktor Babariko, was detained in June on money laundering charges, which drew even more protesters to the streets. Lukashenko has warned that a foreign plot may be involved in the efforts to remove him from office, and even close ally Russia is not immune from being the target of Lukashenko’s ire when it comes to his ability to stay in office. The opposition will likely continue to use COVID-19 and economic malaise as talking points in efforts to unseat Lukashenko. However, with opposition figures imprisoned and few ways to campaign, Lukashenko is unlikely to lose power anytime soon.

Just as Russian voters have approved changes that will allow Putin to stay in office until 2036, Belarus will almost certainly grant similar license to Lukashenko. The president likely needs the façade of elections with a high percentage of support for him in order to reconsolidate power and claim legitimacy in the name of all Belarussians. Lukashenko has no intention of presenting the elections as a democratic exercise, and will likely benefit from the draconian but time-tested use of state power to guarantee the result. This mixture is alluring to voters — while autocratic, Lukashenko has given Belarus a degree of order and stability that has escaped some post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia.

BELARUS’ GEOPOLITICAL BALANCING ACT

Photo: The Kremlin

While Lukashenko is likely to remain the ‘last dictator in Europe’, he has a difficult balancing act to play, between appeasing Moscow and assisting the EU with negotiations related to Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ He has little need to kowtow to the EU and operates as an untethered agent who can say things the EU is unwilling to when confronted by Europe’s and Russia’s competing geopolitical agendas. The EU poses little risk to Lukashenko’s regime as the bloc has not commenced accession talks with Minsk or opened a path for deeper engagement, and thus has little leverage. To the EU, Belarus remains a stubbornly autocratic regime with nostalgia for the Soviet Union and no desire to become a member of the European family of nations. And unlike Ukraine, Belarus does not have the economic or demographic weight that further integration with Russia would cause the EU great concern. In fact, there may be little to no opposition from Brussels were such a union to happen.

The EU will likely respond to Lukashenko’s presumed victory in the election by condemning the atmosphere that led to the result and advocating for more democratic engagement. The EU has few formal mechanisms to use to censure Belarus and the status quo relationship is likely to persist. For Belarus, the EU likely seems increasingly unable to safeguard its liberal democratic principles in a time of crisis. In contrast to the bloc’s espoused liberal democratic principles and a united front on immigration and border controls, many states in Central and Eastern Europe have enacted emergency measures to clamp down on COVID-19, stifling dissent and even delaying elections in the process. The EU’s more autocratic member states like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have also had far fewer deaths than their Western European counterparts. This is mainly due to harsh lockdowns and dominant ruling parties in their respective legislatures that are able to enact legislation rapidly with minimal oversight or participation from opposition parties. Belarus’ closest interaction with an EU member state is with Poland, which is undergoing a period of weaking rule of law and judicial independence.

To Belarus’ east, Russia seems unlikely to move past Putin in the near future, and Lukashenko will likely study Russia’s internal political dynamics closely and possibly leverage them for his own political purposes. Putin has proposed the idea of uniting Russia and Belarus for energy security reasons and for Putin’s own longevity in office. Regardless of whether a merger occurs, Belarus will likely remain wedded to Russia, despite the risks of tying its economic and political system to a state with its own internal difficulties.

While the EU is currently content to push for greater addition of democratic principles in Belarus while asking Minsk to coordinate difficult negotiations with Russia, the EU will need to take real action once Lukashenko inevitably leaves office. Belarus is suffering from stagnant economic growth and demographic decline, which also plagues Russia and many EU member states. At the point of Lukashenko’s depature, the EU may feel compelled to extend an olive branch to Belarus’ younger population that desires economic prosperity and democratic development more in line with the West. For the time being, Lukashenko is a familiar character for Moscow and Brussels. His likely victory provides stability in the short-term, but masks an underlying unease amongst the next generation of Belarussians.