Perspectives on Belarus from the European Union, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia.
On August 9, Presidential elections took place in the Republic of Belarus. The incumbent President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, claimed 80% of the vote that has been widely regarded as rigged. A number of critical violations have been reported, no independent observers were allowed to participate and the electoral process did not meet the international standards of democracy. Therefore, publicly announced evidence showed that the election was neither fair, nor transparent.
The citizens of Belarus have not accepted the result numbers and have taken to the streets to protest peacefully against Lukashenko who has been ruling the country for 25 years with an iron fist. The protesters were confronted with police brutality and excessive force. Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s political opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has fled to Lithuania for security purposes.
Belarus is considered as the most authoritarian country in Europe and is often branded as the last “dictatorship in Europe”. Belarus has been witnessing manipulated elections for the past three decades; however, this time the situation is different and people have been fed up with the Lukashenko regime. High levels of corruption and nepotism; high unemployment and COVID-19 mismanagement pushed people to become increasingly skeptical and dissatisfied with the regime.
Lukashenko has been adopting bold measures such as cutting off the internet and deployment of national troops where the latter is considered to be the most radical measure during his rule. While he’s been undermining the Belarusian economy from the top by knocking Belarus offline (IT sector constitutes 6% of Belarusian GDP), workers strikes have been exerting pressure from the bottom by leaving the country running on its limited oil and other reserves.
What stands in the way between the regime and citizens is the police, their loyalty to the country or the President, will determine the future of the Belarus. As the situation is still unfolding, the Young Professional Advisors reflect on the current situation in Belarus from different angles including the European Union, Lithuanian, Ukranian, and Russian perspectives. All contributing authors have provided their unique insight from a local perspective.
A look at Belarus from Russian binoculars
Russia finds itself in a very unique position and is very interested in how the situation evolves further in Belarus. The government sees it as an imminent threat to its security architecture. Russia has a strong record of ensuring its interest in the so-called “near abroad” countries, referring to former republics that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the peculiar constellation of factors in place, puzzles Moscow and forces the government to adopt a wait-and-see position.
Belarus serves as a buffer state between NATO countries and Russia. Moscow cannot afford to deteriorate its relations with Belarus; however, it does not intend to meddle in its domestic affairs. For one, the unrest appears to be purely anti-Lukashenko and although Russia is interested in the continuation of cooperation with the long-standing partner; similarly, it is also interested in further integration with Belarus and preservation of the existing balance of power which is now being contested by the opposition. The fragile anti-Lukashenko riot risks turning into anti-Russian. Nevertheless, in the light of close attention from Western partners, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, cannot take a completely passive stance either.
The internal turmoil in Belarus can produce consequences for Russia. Moscow is now afraid that the Belarusian example may create a blueprint for Russians who have been consistently becoming more sceptical of the current government at home. A potential success on the part of the protesters in Belarus may jeopardize the prevailing “stability” in Moscow.
The unrest in Belarus is a domestic matter although Lukashenko expresses his constant concerns over NATO movement along the Belarusian borders. Putin in his turn refrains from any direct interference and expects the West to follow suit. Putin’s readiness to provide support as part of the union state and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) should be perceived as an intimidating factor for both protesters and the West for multiple reasons. Suffice it to mention, that members of the CSTO can resort to the use of force only in case of external aggression.
Despite concerns for Russia’s interference, Putin apparently prefers Belarusians to weather their political storm on their own. For Putin, the change in leadership does not seem relevant as long as the successor is benevolent to Russia and is interested in further integration. After all, it was Lukashenko who acted more belligerent towards Moscow in the run-up to presidential elections, not the opposition.
Is Belarus the next Ukraine?
As other European countries, Ukraine also has doubts on the legitimacy of the Belarusian presidential elections. During an interview for the Euronews, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed new elections. The Ukrainian leader stated that he would hold another vote in one month and would invite international observers if he was Alexander Lukashenko. According to Zelensky, Lukashenko should not fear new elections. If he got 80% of votes, then he could make it again, this time transparently.
Later, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba announced that Ukraine had frozen the dialogue with Belarus. Even though Belarus did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and hosted discussions on the conflict in Donbas,it did not help Lukashenko to get support from Ukraine. At the same time, Kuleba considered the option for Belarusians wishing to escape political persecution at home to cross the Ukrainian border and get the special permission to stay there.
The protests in Belarus are reminiscent of the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. Both nations wanted to have more democracy in their countries. The difference is the way how it was launched and organized. First of all, in Ukraine, many assembly members supported the opposition whereas in Belarus the parliamentary opposition is weak. Moreover, in Ukraine, people built tents and demonstrated for weeks nonstop, in Belarus, on the other hand, the government uses brutal crackdowns to prohibit tents and people gatherings. Finally, in Ukraine a critical factor was the army which declared itself neutral, whereas in Belarus, this has not happened yet.
Ukraine seeks for closer ties with the EU whereas Belarus rejects any assistance coming from the EU because the regime views the EU involvement as a direct threat to the government. Ukraine wishes peace and stability in Belarus. However, Lukashenko does not hear people in his country and shows his military potentials to protestors offending them literally and in fact.
Lithuania was the first country to react to the situation in Belarus. Lithuania and Belarus have a long history between them, which has helped create a special bond despite their differences. The symbolic action of such a massive support took place on 23 August 1989, the commemoration day of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. While still annexed by the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia formed the Human Chain called the Baltic way from Vilnius to Tallinn that day. More than two million people gathered back then. This time, to support peaceful protests of Belarussians, more than 50,000 people in Lithuania made a human chain of 35 kilometres from Vilnius to the border with Belarus. The action was joined by Lithuanian communities and supporters in around 27 other countries.
Though Lukashenko’s regime is blaming Lithuania for provoking, mobilizing troops or using other propagandic arguments of foreign interference, Lithuania’s position reflects the fight for freedom, respect and fundamental human rights. It does not seem to be a geopolitical power game, Lithuanians, including citizens and authorities, feel passionate and supportive because most of them went through the same path towards democracy, independence and sovereignty.
Being one of the key advocates of the EU Eastern Partnership Programme, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has been known as the capital of the Belarusian opposition, hiding from the regime and forming civil society initiatives. Even in the case of former presidential candidate Svetlana Thikhanovskaya, she and her key staffers had Lithuanian visas, her children were brought to Lithuania even before the election in order to guarantee security. Currently, she is residing in Vilnius and shaping key messages on behalf of protesters not only for the regime, but for the international audience as well.
Lithuania in cooperation with regional partners, in particula Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia, has become a mediator and an agenda setter for the EU in terms of its response to Belarusian political crisis. Having a firm position and reacting quickly with openly declared points (to hold emergency meetings, impose individual sanctions, call the election illegitimate) have become key driving forces compared to rather late and moderate voices from other EU member states.
The European Union on Belarus
The EU supports the self-determination of the Belarusian people and their “desire for democratic change”, without however rendering itself a player that takes major action inside Belarus. So far, the EU appears to approach the incidents in Belarus with caution trying to learn from bad past experiences such as the one with Ukraine where Europe stood powerless to impact events on the ground.
On Wednesday, the European Union took a step in the right direction by holding an emergency summit devoted to Belarus, in which the EU refused the results of the recent elections as characterized them as “neither free nor fair”. At the same time, the parties that jointly constitute a majority in the European parliament urge for new elections that will be supervised by independent bodies.
The EU also prepares sanctions against individuals that were involved in the serious human rights crackdown and violence that took place in Belarus. It is worth mentioning that no sanctions against companies or the whole country are currently under consideration. The European commission will also channel $63 millions away from Lukashenko’s regime and direct part of the relatively small amount to independent media, victims of violence and civil society.
However, the EU must have to consider that the protests in Belarus are not about that country’s place in the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. They are about the struggle between the citizens of Belarus and the Lukashenko regime. What we know from past experiences is that sanctions usually do not achieve a desired outcome. Moreover, this could push Lukashenko to fall in Putin’s arms, a country which is worried about the possibility of a successful pro-Western Revolution in Belarus. It should also be noted that Putin was the first to congratulate Lukashenko on his victory, before the results were final.
Considering present safety and geostrategic concerns, the EU should take a more proactive role on Belarus and do more than impose sanctions on Belarus. The EU should push for a closer coordination between the EU and international organisations to approach the social unrest and protests in Belarus. Close coordination between the EU and international orgnisations is crucial to deter Lukashenka’s further use of force against civilians. Moreover, the West could pressure Lukashenka by offering financial incentives and further assistance on COVID-19 relief package. Most importantly, the West must send a clear message to Putin not to intervene unilaterally in Belarus, something the West failed to do in Ukraine.
A message from United Europe
The situation in Belarus impacts Europe as a whole; the shockingly violent response to those peaceful protests and tourture perpetrated by the security forces against the country’s citizens must be condemned. As Young Professional Advisors of United Europe, coming from all across the continent, we express our deep concern of the situation in Belarus we have been following since the election day.
As people keep peacefully protesting for their rights and requesting new democratically arranged free and transparent elections, we call on Belarusian authorities to release all detainees unconditionally and provide all necessary health support for those injured severely.
We welcome steps taken by the EU in supporting Belarusian nation and requesting the authorities to take their responsibility for violating human rights and using excessive force against peaceful protesters.
Civil actions taken in recent days show that the Belarusian society deserves openness and freedom, therefore, all necessary diplomatic tools should be provided to build such competences and strengthen leadership and civic space.
Stelios Kavvadias, Karina Matvienko, Yevgen Lantsuzovskyy, Justinas Lingevicius, Mihaly Szabo, Visar Xhambazi
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