Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine demonstrated not only its unpredictability but also its willingness to violate agreements and use force to alter borders and destabilize countries in its neighborhood. These events not only shocked the West; they also shook Russia’s allies to the core, not least Belarus. Long branded as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” this Eastern European state is considered Russia’s staunchest ally. And indeed, no country is culturally closer or politically, militarily, and economically more integrated with Russia than Belarus.
Precisely for these reasons, both Russia and the West tend to consider Belarus a mere Russian satellite, incapable of developing an independent foreign policy or of making any significant moves toward the West or the European Union in particular. Yet, since 2014, Belarus has done just that in what appears to be a cautious strategic hedging. It has accordingly raised expectations in the West as well as raised eyebrows in Russia. However, the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime and its record of failing to embrace substantial political and economic reform suggest that Western observers should temper their expectations for meaningful change any time soon.
Belarus, Russia, and the Shock of 2014
Belarus is highly integrated with Russia in several respects. In the military realm, Russian and Belarusian armies conduct regular large-scale joint exercises and operate a joint — in reality, Russian — air defense system. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus’ economy has depended on Russian energy subsidies worth several billion dollars per year. Currently, 50 percent of Belarus’ trade is with Russia, and it receives 70 percent of its loans and foreign direct investment from its eastern neighbor. Belarus is a founding member of all Russian-led integration projects, notably the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance. On top of this, Belarus and Russia have taken integration a step further: they are linked through a vague Union State, which includes the free movement of labor and persons. Culturally, the two countries are deeply connected too. Seventy percent of Belarusians speak Russian at home, and Russian outlets occupy two-thirds of the Belarusian media space.
But the relationship is not without its issues. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine since 2014 raised concerns in Belarus that Russia might use similar tactics to limit Belarus’ freedom of action. The regime elite in Belarus also worried that a Euromaidan scenario could threaten the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Given Belarus’ history of foreign interference and tragic experience with great powers fighting on its soil — one in four Belarusians died in World War II — the country has no desire to become a battlefield in a new struggle between East and West. Not surprisingly, Belarus has staunchly resisted pressure to set up a Russian airbase and to allow the deployment of Iskander missiles under Russian command on its soil. The downturn of the Russian economy as a result of sanctions and counter-sanctions has additionally led to an economic slowdown in Belarus.
These developments have caused Belarus to question its close alliance and economic dependence on Russia. Since 2014, Lukashenko has intensified efforts to increase his country’s independence and to foster a soft, state-led nationalism. In the words of a Belarusian colleague, Yauheni Preiherman, Belarus is strategically hedging its bets. Given its starting point in Russia’s close embrace, one interpretation of these moves predominates: Belarus is moving westward, away from Russia.
Flirting with the West, Alienating Russia
The manner in which Belarus reacted to the Ukraine conflict is indicative of its foreign policy since 2014. Belarus declared itself neutral with regard to the war. It did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it quickly endorsed new governments in Ukraine after the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich, and it intensified military and energy cooperation with Ukraine. It also offered the Belarusian capital Minsk as a platform to negotiate a solution to the conflict. The Minsk Agreements are the only formal attempts at peace in Ukraine to date. Further meetings on its terms and implementations are ongoing in Minsk. Belarus has also offered substantial contributions to a prospective peacekeeping mission in Ukraine — for which Ukraine and Russia’s visions currently differ widely.
In addition, Belarus is pushing for increased transparency with regards to the military exercises it conducts with Russia. As a means of emphasizing its potential role in fostering trust and building confidence, Belarus held advance briefings on and invited observers from the West to the Zapad 2017 exercises, which were preceded by a great deal of alarmism. These efforts were widely appreciated by the West. When Russia countered Western sanctions by imposing an import ban on Western food products, not only did Belarus disregard these Russian measures, it thwarted them by infamously relabeling Western foodstuff. As a result, seafood and kiwis labelled “Made in Belarus” ended up on Russian supermarket shelves.
Further Belarusian moves are especially aimed at rapprochement with the West and represent a remarkable break with the hostile rhetoric and isolationism of the past. In 2017, Belarus granted visa-free travel for short-term visits by citizens of Western countries. In May 2018, I attended the Minsk Dialogue Forum— an unprecedented gathering of mostly Western officials and experts on foreign and security policy — where Lukashenko reiterated that Minsk strives to become a platform for negotiations and peace talks. In that vein, he had invited the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in 2017 to Minsk, and he hosted meetings of the core group of the Munich Security Conference in 2018. Belarus also encouraged the United States to increase its diplomatic presence by lifting a cap on the number of U.S. staff allowed on Belarusian territory. It suggested a Partnership Priorities agreement with the European Union, which Lithuania is currently blocking, to pave the way for deepened relations. In March 2019, Lukashenko even openly called for closer ties with NATO.
Initiatives to diversify its foreign relations and economic ties have also looked to China. Belarus hopes to decrease its dependency on Russia by participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is a transit point for goods transported by rail to Europe. In addition, in 2014, Lukashenko inaugurated a much-touted industrial park, a tax-free zone to attract Chinese and European investments, near the capital’s airport. In the military realm, the Belarusian military now sometimes uses Chinese weapons or investment as a substitute for Russian hardware. When the latter refused to deliver the latest model of rocket launchers, a Belarusian-Chinese joint venture developed the Polonez, a multiple launch rocket system.
Apart from its role in hosting peace talks on Ukraine, these Belarusian moves were met with harsh criticism from both Russian officials and media. Belarus, and Lukashenko personally, were accused of breaking trust and a lack of loyalty. As a reaction to Belarus granting visa-free travel to Western citizens, since the Union State of Russia and Belarus entails the free movement of persons, Russia temporarily re-introduced controls at their land border.
The conduct of regular summits and negotiations between Russia and Belarus are another indicator of bilateral tensions. In early 2019, three meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko failed to lead to an agreement on the modification of Russia’s energy subsidies to Belarus. Instead, Russia insisted on deeper integration within the Union State as a precondition for subsidies. Commentators even hinted at a secret plan to keep Putin in office, as he is currently barred from seeking another term in 2024. The plan involved merging Russia and Belarus and making Putin the president of a new state.
The Belarusian population, meanwhile, is pragmatic and prefers the status quo of close ties with Russia. Surveys of public opinion in Belarus remain difficult considering the limited freedoms there, but some polls are trustworthy. Those show that Belarusians would prefer good ties and economic relations with both Russia and the West, with both the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union, or even neutrality. They increasingly regard the European Union positively. Nascent civil society organizations and independent media, as well as a marginalized political opposition, exist in Belarus, and they enjoy some freedom of expression as long as they do not criticize the core of the Lukashenko regime. Yet, they still risk police crackdowns on protestors and intimidation, even though they are the regime’s natural allies in its efforts to promote national culture and sovereignty.
A Cautious, Yet Supportive Western Response
Belarus’ mediation in Ukraine, its efforts to host gatherings on a range of European security issues, its opening towards foreign visitors and civil society, as well as its willingness to offend Russia to some extent in the process amount to a tangible change of course, particularly since 2014. This has not gone unnoticed in the West. Gradually, the West has both encouraged and reciprocated such moves. European governments, notably Germany, and the European Union are in the lead in engaging Belarus, a member of the E.U. Eastern Partnership. The United States has thus far largely taken a back seat.
The release of most political prisoners and a soft reaction to popular dissent after rigged elections in 2016 encouraged a lifting of almost all E.U. and U.S. sanctions against Belarus. The European Union is currently in the final stages of facilitating its visa regime for Belarusian citizens, notably cutting prices for a Schengen visa in half. The E.U.-Belarusian dialogue on human rights was also intensified. In its latest assessment, however, the European Union described a deterioration of the country’s human rights record in 2017, lamenting intimidation of the press, a gender gap, and restricted political rights.
The European Union nonetheless boosted its financial assistance for Belarus. Investments by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development reached an all-time high in 2018. The same year, trade volume between the European Union and Belarus increased by a staggering 30 percent. However, a number of trade barriers remain from both the Eurasian Economic Union and European Union. These barriers also serve the Belarusian regime in protecting its largely state-controlled industry and its officially high level of employment from international competition. For similar reasons, Belarus did not agree to the conditions for a loan by the International Monetary Fund in 2018, despite the dire state of the Belarusian economy.
Previously shunned as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko is now regularly receiving and received by high representatives of Western states, among them then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia A. Wess Mitchell in October 2018, the highest-level U.S. official to meet with him in 20 years. This increased level of interaction and support has largely geopolitical reasons, however. The West realized that an isolated Belarus would be particularly vulnerable to Russian meddling. Nonetheless, the list of Western concessions is not impressive. An arms embargo until at least 2020 was even recently reaffirmed. The West’s embrace of Belarus’ gradual foreign policy realignment thus remains hesitant.
The Limits of Rapprochement
Despite the changed geopolitical situation and a general willingness to engage, distrust between the West and Belarus is still high and looks set to remain so. Belarusian rhetoric that goes unsubstantiated by policies continues to be just that: rhetoric. On the ground, little has changed in terms of civil liberties, human rights, economic reforms, or the level of state control and censorship. Belarus continues to apply capital punishment, which is a normative obstacle to European states. Belarus had made advances towards the West to increase its independence from Russia in the past, albeit more cautiously, but they have not led to political advances within the country. For example, despite reaching out to the West after the Georgian War in 2008, the regime cracked down on protests after fraudulent elections in 2010, and it inadequately adopted structural reforms as required by a loan the International Monetary Fund granted for 2009-2010. In more informal conversations with representatives of European governments and experts, I also sensed a lack of creativity and some indecisiveness about how to engage this authoritarian, bureaucratic state.
Ultimately, the very nature of the Belarusian regime is the main impediment preventing further integration and the building of trust. Hesitation is somewhat mutual: Lukashenko is more comfortable dealing with other autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet space. He is more familiar with realpolitik and murky deals than with the conditionality of democratic governments, including demands for greater transparency and respect for the rule of law and human rights.
So, what should we make of Belarus’ cautious move towards the West? Overall, it is a desire to hedge against strategic dependence on Russia, reinforced by tactical maneuvers and rhetoric, but limited by the nature of the regime and the fear of alienating Russia. At present, there is no viable alternative to closeness to and reliance on Russia. Moreover, the latter does not need to invade Belarus to keep the country in its fold — a move the Russian public would disapprove of in any case; it has several economic and cultural levers with which to do so. Belarus continues to do what it does best: pragmatically navigating its way through crisis, trying to reduce dependence on Russia, and being rewarded for its loyalty by both sides. Lukashenko is gifted at this. Russia can rest assured that Belarus will not follow Ukraine’s path toward the West and Europe can cease worrying about it becoming Russia’s fully compliant satellite as long as he is in office.
Lukashenko’s succession is currently a remote topic given the Belarusian leader and the elite around him seem firmly in place. They even enjoy some support among the population for steering Belarus away from conflict and instability. Moreover, Lukashenko is only 64 years old and in seemingly good health. A successor, likely to be an insider of the regime with similar attitudes and intimacy with Russia, may be able to strike a similar balance of strategically hedging while maintaining the alliance with Russia, and could thus avoid a Ukraine-like scenario in Belarus.
For the time being, Lukashenko does genuinely wish to diversify his country’s foreign policy and economic ties and to emphasize Belarus’ distinctness and independence. The Belarusian government should be encouraged along those lines, focusing on pragmatic steps for economic reform. The West should focus on slowly building mutual trust. It should continue to criticize a lack of human rights and the rule of law and democracy and use incentives and design its assistance in a way to cautiously broaden the participation of domestic actors and the space for civil society. However, as the underlying nature of the regime will not change, the West should reluctantly accept that this authoritarian regime could help mediate between the West and Russia and that its stability has certain benefits for the Belarusian people, its Ukrainian neighbor to the south, and the wider region.
About the Author
Benno Zogg is researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich, where he focuses on the international politics of the post-Soviet space and of Belarus in particular, and co-head of the Peace & Security Program at foraus, a Swiss think tank on foreign policy.
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