Can Belarus Perform a Real Balancing Act between Russia and the West?

Autor: Arkady Moshes, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

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Nº: 2/2017 (28 February)


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Key findings:

  • The annexation of Crimea in 2014 aroused concern in Belarus, which feared for its sovereignty in the face of an increasingly interventionist Russia.
  • Despite Lukashenko’s continuing authoritarianism, the EU decided to lift sanctions against his regime, expecting to facilitate a more pro-Western and less pro-Russian geopolitical orientation.
  • However, it would be premature to talk about Belarus’s “balancing act” between Russia and the West, since that country is still unable to overcome their excessive dependence on Moscow.

Minsk and Moscow: An Uneasy Relationship

Before the Ukraine crisis, the ruling regime in Minsk enjoyed a rather comfortable foreign policy position vis-à-vis Moscow. On the one hand, Belarus declared itself Russia’s closest ally, a bulwark against NATO and a committed participant of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). As a member of the bilateral Russian-Belarusian Union State – a unique quasi-confederate format of post-Soviet reintegration, founded in 1999 – Belarus was receiving cheap energy, massive direct financial assistance and privileged access to Russian markets. On the other hand, Minsk often behaved contrary to Moscow’s apparent wishes. Belarus kept control over its key economic assets, instead of transferring it to Russian economic actors. It maintained close relations with Georgia even in times of the peak of Russian-Georgian conflict and refused to follow Russia in recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2009, Belarus joined the EU’s Eastern Partnership, despite Moscow’s extremely negative attitude to the initiative.

Even after the presidential elections of 2010 in Belarus, followed by the most brutal repression against the opposition – to which the EU and the US responded by imposing individual sanctions against regime officials – the situation did not change critically. Moscow chose not to exploit the worsening of Belarusian-Western relations for squeezing more concessions from Minsk, but, on the contrary, continued to provide support.

There are several explanations. The Kremlin needed Belarus as a partner in building the Eurasian Customs (later – Economic) Union (EEU), a primary instrument of Russian policy in the post-Soviet space. Moscow and Minsk belonged to the same community of values, which rejected liberal democracy, shared the fear of popular street protests, and was inclined to view them as the result of a “Western conspiracy”. On top of everything, even if Moscow had wanted, it would have had little chance to replace Alexander Lukashenko – Belarus’s leader since 1994 – with somebody more to its liking through elections. Lukashenko’s domestic positions were solid, not least because he had successfully neutralized all possible opposition, including pro-Russian. Furthermore, a protracted and publicized conflict with Lukashenko could also backfire inside Russia, where the Belarusian president was popular thanks to his effort to preserve a Soviet-style egalitarian economic and welfare system.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, also changed the rules of the game for Russian-Belarusian relations. Formal recognition of territorial integrity of any country by Moscow was no longer a guarantee against the appearance of “polite green men”. If the ruling regime in Minsk now wanted to defend its power inside Belarus, it would have to become seriously concerned about Russia’s revisionism towards Ukraine; and, consequently, start protecting their country’s sovereignty from the potential challenge coming from their large eastern neighbour. For this reason, Minsk rushed to distance itself from Moscow regarding the Crimean issue, recognizing the annexation de facto but not de jure,[1] and became the venue for negotiating the settlement of the conflict in the east of Ukraine. Eventually, along with Russia’s other EEU partners, Belarus managed to stay outside of the reciprocal Russian-Western regime of economic sanctions. Furthermore, it allegedly became a corridor for smuggling Western goods into Russia.

The European Union rewarded Minsk for taking such an approach, prioritizing geopolitics over values. Diplomatic interaction quickly intensified. In February 2016, the EU sanctions against the regime were lifted, even though the initial conditions on domestic political liberalization had not been fully complied with. In May 2016, Lukashenko – previously banned from travelling to the EU – paid a visit to Italy; a symbol of the new period in the relationship.

Is Rebalancing Coming?

Talks about “Lukashenko’s drift to the West” and “Belarus’s balancing act” have become common in the analytical community, raising concerns in some quarters and hopes in others. From this author’s point of view, however, applying this terminology to Belarus would be premature at best, if not completely incorrect. While it is fully logical to assume that Minsk would like to overcome its excessive dependence on Moscow and explore possibilities for finding new – this time Western – sources for maintaining the country’s economic and political model, it remains questionable how much it can actually do.

There are four fundamental problems which seriously limit Belarus’s freedom of maneuver.

  • First, Belarus is totally addicted to Russian economic assistance. Only in terms of oil subsidies, Belarus is estimated to have received from Russia approximately 40 billion USD since 2000. All energy subsidies combined – adding preferentially-priced gas – have reached 72 billion USD in 2000-15 according to some calculations. Besides, Minsk receives direct state loans from Russia and macroeconomic assistance from the Eurasian Economic Union, which would not be possible without Russian consent. In March 2016, the Eurasian Development Bank – an EEU institution – agreed to grant Belarus a loan of 2 billion dollars in 2016-18, out of which 800 million arrived in 2016. Moscow is certainly aware of its economic clout and no longer shies away from using it. For instance, in the second half of 2016 Moscow cut supplies of crude oil to Belarus from 12 to 6.5 million tons, which immediately incurred a 1.5 billion USD loss in export revenues for the latter. To be fair, Moscow had to undertake this step to compensate itself for Minsk’s refusal to pay the full earlier agreed price of gas, which by January 2017 resulted in a debt of 550 million USD. All in all, for a country with a current GDP of 47 billion USD these figures look colossal.
  • Second, Belarus is militarily integrated with Russia. The new Belarusian Military Doctrine, adopted in July 2016, speaks about coalition military policy, joint defence space with Russia, and the regional group of forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Russia has military installations in Belarus. Practical cooperation in training and defence procurement is very active. The next large-scale Zapad (West) exercises, conducted bi-annually, will be hosted by Belarus in September 2017; a sign that no policy change should be expected. Not surprisingly, NATO views the two countries as a “single whole” from the military point of view, according to Lithuania’s defence minister Linas Linkevicius. It is often noted, as it should be, that Minsk has refused to grant Moscow permission to open a new air force base, which was requested in 2015. At the same time, Russian pilots regularly practice in the Belarusian air space, while military experts have reached a consensus that the formal absence of the base does not prevent a quick redeployment of Russian planes to Belarus if necessary.
  • Third, Russia possesses significant soft power in Belarus. This should not be explained only through cultural and linguistic proximity or the influence of the Russian media in Belarus, although the latter fact should not be ignored either: even according to official estimates, 65 percent of content in the Belarusian media space comes from Russia. What is, perhaps, even more important is the fact that throughout all his period in power Lukashenko has cultivated Belarus’s belonging to the “Russian world”, often at the expense of Belarusian language and culture, and praised the “sister relationship” with Russia. Although the geopolitical orientations of Belarusians are volatile and do fluctuate often, according to a December 2016 poll by the Warsaw-based Belarus Analytical Workshop, 65 percent of Belarusians would prefer to be in a union with Russia – though, importantly, not as citizens of the same state – and only 19 percent in a hypothetical union with Europe.
  • Finally, the West in general and the EU above all are scaling down their regional ambitions. In view of the absence of any prospect for future membership, EU capitals are reluctant to pursue a conditionality policy backed with significant funds. Western policy has become bureaucratic, process-driven and non-strategic. It is channeled through ambiguous “partnerships” and “dialogues”. Presumably, the West would rather be willing to avoid one more geopolitical clash with Russia, this time around Belarus. On a separate note, the current round of diplomatic rapprochement between EU and Belarus is not based on mutual trust. There is a clear understanding on both sides that Minsk does not seek a value-based interaction and while it may have to allow some cosmetic improvements, it is not ready for systemic reforms. There is also institutional memory in the EU about the previous round of rapprochement of 2008-10, which looked very promising at the start but ended with the regime’s return to repressive internal policies, and this memory does not leave much space for any illusions.

Future Prospects

All these deficiencies would have to be addressed before a real balancing act of Belarus could become possible. Yet, the problem is that it would require a lot of time and effort, as well as the commitment of both the Minsk regime and the West, which are very doubtful at the moment.

Reducing Belarus’s economic dependence from Russia would require market reforms, but the hardship associated with economic liberalization would undermine the support for the regime. As Ukraine’s case attests, IMF conditionality can be quite tough, and no assistance should be expected in exchange for mere words. Not only an attempt to formally withdraw from the military alliance with Russia, but even an incremental de-intensification of military cooperation and the resulting doubts in Moscow about Belarus’s loyalty could trigger a scenario of Lukashenko’s removal and replacement by Kremlin. In order to fight Russia’s soft power influence, the regime would have to not only find a common ideological ground with the national-democratic opposition, which is possible on the platform of sovereignty and independence, but also give them the chance to propagate their views more broadly. This would again constitute a challenge for the regime. And even if all this is done, the West may still be unwilling or unable to provide necessary diplomatic and financial resources to rescue a regime that until recently was known as the “last dictatorship of Europe”.

Meanwhile, it must be clear that, economically, the Belarusian regime is in dire straits. In 2014-16 Belarus’s GDP measured in dollars fell by 40 percent, to 2007 levels. In 2017 alone, debts of 3.4 billion dollars are due; whereas the country’s gold and currency reserves, as of January 2017, are less than 5 billion dollars. The discussion about a possible default has started.

In these circumstances, whether we like it or not, the temptation to seek relief in Russia will be too strong for Lukashenko. A new compromise may be less beneficial for Minsk that it would probably want: it may require painful concessions in order to demonstrate full loyalty. Yet, the deal would bring Lukashenko’s regime the opportunity to survive for now, and another victory over time. Compared with that, any attempt to take a more balanced position between Russia and the West would look like a much riskier strategy.

Notes

[1] Nuances, however, matter here. In March 2014 and December 2016, Belarus cast its vote in the UN General Assembly together with Russia: in the former case refusing to express support to the confirmation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in internationally recognized borders, and in the latter rejecting the term “occupied Crimea”. Both resolutions were adopted by the General Assembly, but this demonstrates that Belarusian position is much closer to the Russian one than both Minsk and its Western partners would be comfortable to admit.

* * *

The opinions expressed in these publications are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent GEurasia’s own position.

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