Jörg Forbrig is a Director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Against the backdrop of the massive protests in Belarus, a memorable rally will take place next Monday in Sochi, Russia. Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator fighting for power, travels to meet Vladimir Putin, his main supporter.
Their first meeting since the beginning of the popular uprising against Lukashenko’s false re-election is an indication of the further development of the crisis in Belarus. Lukashenko’s fate is at stake, as is that of the Belarusian democracy movement and the independence of Belarus. Russia undoubtedly plays a key role in all these areas. However, the EU can and must exert more decisive influence on this than before.
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The Belarusian summer came as a surprise to Russia, as it was to Europe and even to many in Belarus itself. The Kremlin had expected Lukashenko to take up office but would be weakened by the discontent in Belarus. society.
Moscow’s calculation was that this would force Minsk to make concessions to the closer political integration of the two countries, which Putin had long called for, but which Lukashenko has so far rejected on grounds of maintaining his own power. The fact that the survival of the Lukashenko regime would be at stake came unexpectedly to the Russian leadership. The first Russian reactions to the events in Belarus were correspondingly contradictory.
Only a week after the elections did a Russian line emerge. Moscow sent dozens of its own propagandists to the Belarusian state media, weakened by strikes. Putin announced the creation of a police reserve to support Lukashenko in an emergency. Executives belonging to Russia were installed in the security apparatus, probably after the intervention of Moscow. A realignment of Belarusian loans to Russia was promised.
There is also clear political support from Moscow, for example through the clear rejection of the Coordination Council, the platform for many of Lukashenka’s opponents, or groundless accusations of Western interference in Belarus. However, the Kremlin’s current aid to Lukashenko does not mean that Russia’s further course in Belarus is also marked. Four scenarios are conceivable for this.
First, Moscow could enforce immediate concessions from Minsk. In addition to the full integration of both states, the Kremlin has long been calling for the sale of Belarusian state-owned enterprises to Russian capital, the establishment of Russian military bases or the recognition of Moscow’s conquests, such as the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula. Putin may now want Lukashenko to pay these outstanding bills. This would add to the already complex and close Belarusian dependence on Russia.
Second, it is possible that the Kremlin will also formally promote the long-term integration of Belarus and Russia. The common trade union state existed only on paper for a long time, but has been the subject of violent conflict between Minsk and Moscow for two years. The latter could now, since Lukashenko’s future rests in Putin’s hands, demand the final agreement on still controversial issues of common institutions and currencies. That basically meant connecting the smaller to the larger neighbor.
Third, Russia could strive for a reorganization of the political and institutional system in Belarus. Lukashenka himself recently passed constitutional reforms and new elections to parliament and the president, albeit under his control. This is completely in the spirit of Moscow. His influence on Belarus has so far been limited because political control, security apparatus, state media, economic revenue and social redistribution have been entirely in the hands of Lukashenka.
Each of these scenarios aims to strengthen Russia’s long-term control over its smaller neighbor. In the short term, Lukashenko is still needed for this, but he cannot do it in the medium term. However, in none of these cases has the fundamental conflict between society and the state in Belarus really been resolved. Instability is pre-programmed. In addition, Russia risks turning many Belarusians against it by helping the hated dictator.
Moscow could safely allow new elections
There is a fourth scenario that avoids such a mood change, takes into account the legitimate demand of Belarusian society for change, and maintains Moscow’s influence over Minsk. Seen soberly, Moscow can look forward with serenity to a change of power in Minsk. Belarus has long been extremely dependent on Russia economically, politically, institutionally, financially, medically and socially. This gives any new government an extremely small room for maneuver.
The Kremlin could easily afford to allow its smaller neighbor free and fair elections without losing its hegemonic position. He should give up Lukashenko’s support, recognize the will of the majority of the population and its representation, the coordination council, and work for a negotiated change of power with early elections.
However, this also means that the EU can still influence the dynamics of events in Belarus. The EU must make it clear to Lukashenko that he is no longer the legitimate President of Belarus. If he is inaugurated again, he will immediately be on the EU sanctions list. At the same time, any cooperation with his illegitimate government must be frozen. Conversely, the Coordination Council should be recognized as the legitimate representative of the Belarusian people and should be involved in all international contacts and deliberations on Belarus.
At the same time, it must be made clear to Russia that any agreements it is still negotiating with Lukashenko will not be internationally recognized. To this end, the EU must urge the Kremlin to end its interference in favor of the current ruler and recognize that its interests in Belarus will remain unaffected by a change of power. A two-year moratorium on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project would be appropriate to highlight this question and open an opportunity for change in Belarus.
Today’s meeting between Lukashenko and his sponsor Putin is likely to be decisive for the outcome of the Belarusian crisis. The Belarusians themselves made it clear in nationwide protests yesterday that only the departure of their dictator is acceptable to them. The EU must clearly emphasize this demand in its own response to the Sochi meeting.