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In 2010, Europe’s so-called last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, was fraudulently reelected president of Belarus with almost 80 percent of the vote. Thousands protested in the capital city of Minsk, more than 600 were imprisoned, and the EU and the United States imposed harsh sanctions on Belarus. In the October 2015 elections, however, Lukashenko claimed an even bigger majority of the vote—83.5 percent—and only 100 protesters turned out for a brief demonstration. The EU promptly announced that it would suspend most sanctions for four months.
So what changed? In a word: Ukraine. Russia has alienated its neighbors since the crisis in Ukraine began in 2013. Russia’s aggression has alarmed Lukashenko, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. Lukashenko doesn’t want to become a second Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine who now lives in forced retirement in Moscow, and he doesn’t want to see Russian “little green men” deployed against Belarus. Russia’s actions have shored up Lukashenko’s domestic support, even among elements within the Belarusian opposition, who want to close ranks in the face of a potential Russian threat. Events in Ukraine have also reduced Western pressure on Belarus to democratize.
At the same time, the Ukraine crisis and the fall in global oil prices have pushed Belarus into recession. Lukashenko’s attempts to reach out to China have had limited impact, and he has little room to maneuver in his relations with the West. Put simply, Belarus has entered a new period of uncertainty.
LOOKING BOTH WAYS
For Lukashenko, challenges to Belarus and its sovereignty are also challenges to his own rule. Russia’s infringements on Ukrainian sovereignty thus set a dangerous precedent. In the run-up to the Belarusian election, Lukashenko cracked down on pro-Russian parties and nongovernmental organizations, and his election campaign focused on national security. (His slogan this year was “For the Future of Independent Belarus,” in contrast to the economic slogan of 2010, “For a Prosperous and Strong Belarus.”)
But public opinion in Belarus is traditionally pragmatic and Russophilic. Ninety percent of Belarusians still watch Russian state TV. Only 15 percent of them say they would join even purely economic protests, the fear of unrest is widespread, and 62 percent support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. When asked in June 2015 what they would do “if Russia tried to annex Belarus” or part of Belarus, only 18.7 percent of Belarusian respondents said they would “resist with arms.” Just over 52 percent would “try to adapt to the new situation,” and about 12 percent would “welcome the changes.”
Sensible dictators need to listen to public opinion, although ordinary Belarusians were perfectly happy to see Lukashenko host the two key Minsk summits about Ukraine in September 2014 and February 2015. He gained considerable international credit for facilitating the two resulting cease-fires, however flawed, which allowed him to pose as a provider of regional security and stability.
To clear the ground for a potential rapprochement with the West, Lukashenko released Belarus’ six remaining political prisoners in August—the day after he excluded all radical opponents from the election campaign. Ironically, one purpose of a higher vote for Lukashenko this time was to claim national unity when talking to the West and in case of any pressure from Russia.
But Lukashenko has to tread carefully. An unprecedented row over a new Russian air base at Bobruysk, southeast of Minsk, preceded the election. Russia thought it had the deal sewed up, but when 1,000 Belarusians marched against it a week before the election, Lukashenko claimed that no decision had yet been reached. The base could turn into a Belarusian Crimea, but Russia also wants to use it as a signal that any hopes of normalization with the West or even genuine Belarusian neutrality are unrealistic. Russia’s redlines are therefore sharper for Belarus than they are even for Ukraine, where Russia could tolerate neutrality better than Kiev’s current Westward course.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Lukashenko’s other major problem is the economy, which has plunged into recession. For 20 years since his first election in 1994, he has skillfully exploited his usefulness to Russia to earn subsidies from Moscow worth up to 20 percent of Belarus’ GDP. Economic growth averaged eight percent a year in the 2000s. But the Russian economy, which still takes half of Belarusian exports, is now in recession, so Russia’s willingness to subsidize its neighbor has been sharply reduced. The drop in world oil prices is also bad news. Few would know that Belarus was briefly one of the world’s top ten net oil exporters: it hasn’t got any oil of its own, but two late Soviet–era refineries processed cheap Russian crude and played a crucial role in keeping the economy afloat. Now, however, Belarus’ oil revenues have tumbled.
Belarusian GDP is forecast to fall by at least three percent in 2015. International reserves are down to a perilous $4.6 billion. In July 2015, only 35 percent of the country thought it was headed in the right direction, and 49 percent thought it was headed in the wrong direction. After the annexation of Crimea, Lukashenko joked, “I’m not Europe’s last dictator anymore. . . . There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I’m the lesser evil already.” But he was always paternalistic and populist. At election time, wages and welfare spending traditionally go up sharply—one of Lukashenko’s main electoral strategies, along with padding the ballot and controlling who stands. This election, however, was the first time he was not able to indulge in such preelection largesse. This time, Belarus’ cautious voters seem to have accepted his security arguments, but if that’s all he has to offer, they may lose patience in the long run.
Belarus is not about to become a strategic ally of the West or a would-be member of the EU.
Recently, Lukashenko has made overtures to China in an attempt to diversify Belarus’ international dealings. Lukashenko made his eighth visit to Beijing in September, but results have been disappointing. Chinese officials have made the return trip only twice, although President Xi Jinping was in Minsk in May 2015. As Lukashenko said in 2011, “China's investment has never had any political strings attached,” in contrast to Western assistance. But China is not a source of free money and is merely using Belarus as a back door to both the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union by building a massive industrial park near Minsk National Airport. Belarus’ trade deficit with China in 2014 was $1.7 billion.
In this context, Belarusian gestures toward realignment with the West make more sense. But Lukashenko has limited room to maneuver, and Belarus is not about to become a strategic ally of the West or a would-be member of the EU.
So the West should not overreact. A more diverse geopolitical environment in eastern Europe may be in the West’s interest, as would a less assertive Russia. Ukraine does not want to be threatened from its northern flank, nor do the Baltic States want to feel extra pressure from their eastern flank. A stronger and more sovereign Belarus is also in the West’s interest—Russian adventurism in its near abroad both requires and exacerbates state weakness. But democratization is not yet on the agenda. The election was fixed, after all—the last reliable poll before the election had Lukashenko winning 46 percent, rather than the 83.5 percent he ended up garnering. The West risks hypocrisy if it defends democracy in Ukraine, but to do so helps prop up dictatorship in Belarus.
The West’s relations with the Belarusian opposition must also change. The West has always viewed the opposition as a group of pro-Western democrats standing in stark contrast to Lukashenko’s pro-Russian dictatorship. Western support has helped the opposition survive but kept it isolated from the broader, more Russophilic Belarusian public. The opposition had therefore already begun rethinking its strategy before the crisis in Ukraine, which accentuated the need for a new approach but also left the opposition divided about its next steps and about how far it should close ranks behind the authorities.
The only real opposition candidate in the election was the youthful Tatsiana Karatkevich, who was officially awarded 4.4 percent of the vote, although the last reliable poll had her at 7.2 percent. She campaigned for “peaceful change” and rejected calls for a boycott or for mass demonstrations à la Kiev’s Euromaidan. She favors dialogue with regime “moderates.” Others are not so convinced and think that the West has been too keen to accept cosmetic changes by the regime. Karatkevich officially won fewer votes than the 6.3 percent who voted “against all.” The nationalist wing of the opposition is divided between its traditional antipathy to Lukashenko and its growing fear of Russia.
Belarus is in flux. Its foreign policy environment is dangerous and unpredictable. Its dictator is rethinking his power base. The opposition is trying to reinvent itself. And whatever Russia does next is likely to exacerbate the region’s uncertain future.