What can and what should the EU and Russia do to help solve the crisis in Belarus?

ince the presidential election on 9 August 2020 Belarusian citizens have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest against vote rigging and repression. As a result, the country finds itself in a precarious stalemate between an opposition movement that has yet to organize itself and a president who has lost his legitimacy. Belarus is an important neighbour to both Russia and the EU. What can, and what should they do to solve this dangerous crisis?

EUREN Members Answer
24 August 2020

MAXINE DAVID | Leiden University, Leiden :

The EU has the finest of tightropes to walk in respect of Belarus, as it wishes to support democratic processes without worsening a situation that is already on a knife-edge. Comparisons with Ukraine are understandable, even if not wholly useful, but one imperative is that the EU shows it has learned lessons there. If the Belarusian people are forced to pay a similarly high price as Ukrainians, the EU will not have recourse to arguments about naivety vis-à-vis Russia's reaction this time.

«russels cannot be unaware that Putin sits very much between a rock and a hard place in terms of the alternatives he has for reaction, but it has no responsibility to help Russia resolve the consequences of Moscow's past actions. This is especially so given the EU's own considerable, and not irrelevant, problems: considering developments in Hungary and Poland, any claims that it holds the moral high ground for supporting democratic principles is shaky. Then there are accusations of hypocrisy already being levelled at the EU by supporters of an independent Catalan. An additional obstacle is the fact that the EU has little leverage in Belarus, other than sanctions, as years of interactions within the framework of the Eastern Partnership have shown.

This empty toolbox makes it clear that the EU must clean its own house if it is to be of any use in the task of defending the democratic rights of peoples outside its own territory. More immediately, with a view to responding to events in Belarus, it must use Russia's own rhetoric and claims to a deeper cultural and historical affinity with Belarusians to hold Russia to account. The leaders of member states and Brussels should resolve to stand together in support of a Russian non-military intervention (accepting that some form of intervention will come) that adheres transparently to democratic principles and offers viable solutions, such as re-running the election, making sure it is monitored properly this time with foreign media permitted accreditation. Whether this is something that Moscow can allow is entirely beside the point. To reiterate, it is not for the EU to solve problems of Moscow's making. Rather, it is for the EU to expect Moscow to behave according to the norms of behaviour it has signed up to, even if it has not lived up to them yet.

LARISA DERIGLAZOVA | Jean Monnet Centre for European studies, Tomsk State University, Tomsk :

The situation in Belarus is a test not only for Belarus, but also for Russia, especially in the aftermath of the Ukrainian events of 2013/2014. The unfolding political unrest discloses several features that political systems in post-Soviet countries share. It demonstrates the tremendous gap between the political elite and the people. The political elite that is meant to represent people seems to exist in a separate realm and uses the power structures to preserve its place. Lukashenka's behaviour has rightfully been called shameless by some Russian observers. This lust makes the political elite deaf to any opposition or criticism, as they think they are the only ones and the best to serve their country, and any change in political arrangements is a drama for the country. The words of Lukashenka illustrate this bluntly. The power-holders believe they are the saviours of the country and its protectors from external intrusion. Lukashenka insists that external forces hide behind the 'girls' leading the protests and denies the opposition leaders any legitimacy or representation.

Since the election day on 9 August Belarusians have been protesting peacefully all over the country and across societal classes and age groups. They stand firmly for their vision of the country's possible future without Lukashenka. Mass protests for change have been seen recently in many countries around the globe. This again raises the question that many social scientists are trying to answer: Why do people rebel? How can social and political change be achieved without mass suffering? This is a big question for Russians, and for Russia as a country, with its rebellious history and current dictum of political stability.

It would be best if Russia stayed completely neutral with regard to the domestic conflict in Belarus. Lukashenka's calls for protection from external intrusion should not be answered. Would the Russian political elites be able to distance themselves from a political leader who has lost legitimacy in his own country? Would they be able to abstain from supporting the collapsing power structures of a country with which Russia has a Union state, however dysfunctional it may be? The answers to these questions will determine the future relationship between Russia and its last 'brotherly' neighbour.

NICOLAS DE PEDRO | The Institute for Statecraft, Barcelona :

Unfortunately, it seems to me there are no realistic options for EU-Russia cooperation on Belarus that would be mutually satisfactory. The ongoing attempt by Mr Lukashenka to present the protests as Western interference, backed by previous statements that warn of foreign meddling from Mr Putin and Mrs Zakharova, has left no room for such cooperation to take place. The Kremlin made it clear that any EU involvement will be unwelcome unless it fully adheres to Moscow's agenda, which up until now has been far from unequivocal. It is still unclear whether Moscow aims to back or replace Mr Lukashenka, but its desire to seal its geopolitical clout over Belarus, including even the possibility of de facto absorbing it, seems out of the question. Framing the civic protest in Belarus as Russophobic, pro-NATO, and nationalist is a clear attempt to intimidate and divide the Belarusians, as well as blackmail the EU. The underpinning message for Brussels is that any move – or perhaps even statement – would inevitably lead to further escalation, akin to what occurred in Ukraine. Nevertheless it tends to be ignored that escalation can only come from Mr Lukashenka's regime forces, Russian ones, or both, but never from the EU (or NATO) side. The EU should avoid this blackmail and stick to providing political and humanitarian support to the Belarusian people. The EU has limited tools and admittedly not the political will to decisively shape events on the ground but should convey a clear message that it supports human rights and the free will of the Belarusians, no matter what they decide. The future of Belarus should belong to the Belarusian people only.

TONY VAN DER TOGT | Clingendael Institute, the Hague :

The present crisis in Belarus poses the serious risk of developing into yet another geopolitical battleground between Russia and the EU, but it is still not too late to prevent such a situation.

After the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus and the brutal repression of peaceful protests, an internal political stalemate seems to have emerged. The incumbent refuses any constructive dialogue with the opposition, which has set up a Coordination Council to prepare for a peaceful transition, new elections and the liberation of political prisoners.

In this situation, the EU has refused to accept the official outcome of the elections and stands ready to assist any mediation effort, preferably under the aegis of the OSCE. Furthermore, the EU demands that the individuals responsible for violent repression and election fraud should be held accountable and promises support for the victims and Belarusian civil society.

However, the Belarusian population at large has not displayed a willingness to become part of the EU or challenge Belarus' position within the EAEU, CSTO or Union State. Contrary to the Euromaidan revolution, no European flags were on display; only the old white-red-white Belarusian flag, indicating both their own free choice and independence.

For the moment, the Russian Federation has excluded supporting President Lukashenka by military means, but still seems willing to offer other forms of support to keep the present regime in power, irrespective of its clear loss of legitimacy in the eyes of many Belarusians and the ongoing brutal repression. One can only hope that Russian politicians will still come to an understanding with the Belarusian opposition and support them in finding a peaceful way out of this crisis.

Both the EU and Russia could have a joint interest in supporting a peaceful and inclusive political transition in Belarus, which would restore legitimacy and lead to a sustainable and stable solution. Although the OSCE has recently been seriously weakened, it still constitutes the only platform for cooperative security in Europe and could contribute towards a broad and inclusive political dialogue in Belarus and new elections that are monitored and recognised by the international community.

ERNEST WYCISZKIEWICZ | Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, Warsaw :

Presidential elections in Belarus were rigged as usual with an unusual follow-up and the fall-out is still unknown. A brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators triggered an unprecedented call for change throughout the whole country. The scale of the mobilization and perseverance of the protesters exceeded even the wildest of expectations.

«elarus has changed fundamentally, even if nothing changes when it comes to political composition, which seems highly unlikely now. Lukashenka's regime is doomed. The myth of the autocrat as stability provider, read status quo defender, has now gone. Belarusian society unintentionally brought their country back on the international scene from a political fridge. Now, it is time for all the other actors to adapt to these new circumstances.

Russian policy, for now, is to keep their options open with the ultimate goal of becoming the manager of the incoming transition, with or without Lukashenka. It seems that conclusions have been drawn from the aggression against Ukraine. There is no open drive for intervention, but there is no clear idea of what to do either, which is understandable when you are unable to perceive society as a political actor.

The EU is divided as usual, this time between those rightly focusing on Belarus itself, where the long-declared policy objectives of the Eastern Partnership are being achieved without EU backup, and self-declared realists seeking a great deal to prevent alleged war.

If the worst-case scenario of bloodshed unfolds, provoked by Lukashenka or Russian intervention, the EU should be ready to immediately impose harsh restrictive measures. It is now more important to focus on empowering the Belarusian people as being solely responsible for their future. The EU should also be ready and willing to provide economic aid in the course of the upcoming transformation. It would be advisable for the EU to forget about 'bridges', 'buffers' or any other geopolitical gibberish invented to legitimize the great powers' appetites. Policies based upon these clichés will push Belarus and other actors into a corner with no way out.

A decent long-term outcome for both the EU and Russia would be simply to have a modern, prosperous neighbor with a representative political system, free to choose its path of development. Is Russia ready to accept Belarus moving forward by applying its own inner logic rather than as a consequence of the pressure it is under from outside? I hope so, but I doubt it.