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.
While speculation about whether Russia may repeat the Crimean scenario in Belarus should not be totally dismissed, exaggerated alarmism would not be appropriate either. Rather, Moscow’s policy is aimed at making sure that Belarus and its leadership remain critically dependent on Russia.
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.