This graphic maps the different regional integration projects and organisations Belarus is a member of. For more on how Belarus’ relations with the East and the West will develop, see Benno Zogg’s recent addition to the CSS Analyses in Security Policy series here. For more CSS charts, maps and graphics on proliferation, click here.
The results of the ongoing normalization in relations between the EU and Belarus have been very modest, as have the domestic changes, which the turn in the European policy was intended to assist. Meanwhile, Moscow reacted to Alexander Lukashenko’s perceived “drift to the West” by toughening its approach towards Minsk. A new crisis in the east of Europe may be in the making.
On February 15, 2016, the EU decided not to prolong the sanctions it had imposed five years earlier on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in response to brutal repressions against the Belarusian political opposition. The sanctions were lifted as a reward granted to Minsk in return for the release of remaining political prisoners, for the less oppressive presidential campaign of 2015 and – perhaps above all – for Belarus’s refusal to fully support Russia in the conflict over Ukraine. At the same time, the decision was driven by hopes and expectations that the normalization of relations between Europe and Belarus would stimulate the latter to start domestic liberalization and economic reforms.
On 21 August the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that five presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year. In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publically admit it.
Belarus only had real elections during a brief period of competitive politics in the early 1990s, prior to the election of current President Alexander Lukashenko in 1994. This is why for many Belarusians, particularly older generations, elections are not an opportunity to change their leadership but something of an old ritual.
The Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Office for a Democratic Belarus had recently organized a conference on the subject of Belarus’ internal politics and its international position. “Why Belarus is different”, a “Food for Thought” event, took place in Brussels, on June 23rd. The importance of the topic for the EU states derives from the geographic proximity of the country to the communitarian borders and from the increasing instability in the Eastern European region, which could potentially expand its turmoil beyond the Ukrainian borders.
Alexander Lukashenko is still there, whether you like it or not. As president of Belarus since 1994 he has overseen the ostensible stabilization of his country, if you are willing to ignore how it has been achieved, that is.
But what are Lukashenko’s prospects after the next presidential election, expected to be held at the beginning of 2011?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union (a collapse it opposed) Belarus took a unique way, different from the 14 other former Soviet states. While the others went through political, economic and social turmoil, Belarus’ path resembled that of a light version of Soviet socialism with stability and modest prosperity.
Over the years, Lukashenko centralized economic and political power in the hands of his regime. Two thirds of Belarus’ economy is still state owned. This in turn assured loyalty from the bureaucracy and the political elites who could not get access to sources of national wealth, which would have allowed them to develop a political appetite and gain leverage. Unlike in Ukraine or Russia, no ‘oligarch class’ could develop, making the president the ultimate re-distributor of wealth and political power in the country.
After the constitutional reform of 1996 a semi-presidential system was established that led to a complete dismantling of a western-style system of checks and balances. The legislative powers of the parliament are weak, the president controls the executive branch and the judiciary is simply an extension of the presidential administration. Since there is no liberal elite, pressure for liberalization and cooperation with the West is practically non-existent.
Another pillar of regime stability is sustained public support, despite rigged elections and lack of freedoms. Opinion polls from 2006 and 2008 demonstrate public support for the Lukashenko regime and its ability to ensure economic growth, low unemployment and social welfare – underlying the regime’s sustainability in a very real, tangible way.
Yet, what looks like a success story comes at a price that will be increasingly felt in the future – dependence on Russia.