The crisis in Ukraine is making Belarus more dependent on Russia. But it has also made the Belarusian leadership keener to balance its close ties to Moscow with a warmer relationship with Brussels, writes Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:
Most Europeans think little about Belarus, a country of ten million people that nestles between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It has been politically stable for a long time: Alexander Lukashenko was first elected to the presidency in 1994, and is virtually certain to win the next presidential election, in November. But even though the authoritarian political system seems immutable, the economy and the foreign policy may be less so. The EU needs to wake up to the geopolitical opportunities that could arise in Belarus.
Small and lacking in natural resources, Belarus was always an easy place for the West to conduct a values-based foreign policy, The Economist notes:
The EU tagged Mr Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator” and placed its hopes in the opposition (the regime’s unpleasantness made alternative strategies hard to defend). But now officials acknowledge that the policy of disdain simply drove Belarus closer to Russia. Moreover, Mr Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine has raised the stakes. As Mr Lukashenko wryly pointed out last week in a swipe at Mr Putin, “there are dictators a bit worse than me, no?”
The EU, including hardline members like Britain and the Netherlands, is now rethinking its approach. It will not abandon its calls for democracy, or its solidarity with the Belarusian opposition, it adds:
But it is considering a range of ways to work with Mr Lukashenko’s regime, from speeding up its visa-application process to support for Belarus’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. An EaP summit in Riga next month will be watched closely for signs of a thaw, particularly if Mr Lukashenko is allowed to attend. But that would require him to free the handful of remaining political prisoners, and he fears giving the impression of bowing to pressure. Bigger changes, say officials in Brussels, will have to wait until after the presidential election.
Some opposition activists in Minsk fear that the West will ‘Azerbaijanise’ its relations with Belarus – meaning that it will ignore human rights for the geostrategic gain of strengthening Belarusian independence, adds Grant, who recently took part in a study trip to Belarus, organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations:
But much of civil society would welcome a rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels, in the hope that this could lead to a softer regime, and allow Belarusian NGOs greater access to Western funding and advice. …The EU should seek to engage not only civil society but also President Lukashenko’s regime. This could help to strengthen the country’s independence, encourage the government to treat NGOs and the opposition more kindly, reduce Belarus’s isolation and make it a little more European. Such outcomes, though far from certain, would be a worthwhile achievement.