Yauheni Preiherman

Опубликовано в Europe Policy Paper 3/2014, GMF

Belarus has long been considered Russia’s close ally, and in both domestic autocracy and international estrangement, the government in Minsk indeed resembles the onein Moscow. It would seem only rational if, in the course of the Ukraine crisis, Belarus clearly sided with Russia. However, developments in Ukraine have presented an extraordinary, perhaps even unprecedented, challenge for Belarus. They raise numerous geopolitical and economic concerns, and they touch upon multiple hot-button issues in the mentality of the Belarusian authorities. 

The Situation Before the Ukraine Crisis

Since 2010, when Belarus last held presidential elections, several crucial developments have shaped its domestic politics, economy, and international relations. During the 2010 electoral campaign, the government generously allocated social benefits to buy popular support needed for the re-election of long-time leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. These populist measures destabilized the economy and caused a serious financial crisis, resulting in a massive devaluation of the Belarusian ruble and skyrocketing inflation in 2011. This near meltdown led to a steep decline in Lukashenka’s approval ratings and resulted in a wave of public protests.

As these so-called “silent protests”grew in size, the authorities dispersed them forcefully and launched repressions against their most active participants. Thus warned, the government has since tried hard to buy back popular support by raising salaries, which grew by 20 percentage points in 2012-13,far ahead of labor productivity (2 to 4 percentage points).

At first, this move did not help to improve Lukashenka’s approval rating, which fell to 25 percent of the population at the end of 2011[1].An overwhelming majority of Belarusians blamed Lukashenka for the financial turmoil and did not trust his ability to improve the long-term situation. However, his ratings resumed steady growth, with his rising approval attributed to renewed increase in real incomes.

With the next presidential election scheduled for 2015, increasing social spending seems the government’s natural option. Yet funding for such large-scale electoral bribery is scarce, with hard currency reserves shrinking and foreign trade and current account deficitsgrowing. The regime is worried more by poor economic performance and alarming forecasts than by the political opposition, which is weak and divided.

The opposition’s weakness is also a result of the crackdown by state authorities on protests following the rigged presidential election in December 2010. Police brutality against a peaceful rally, over 700 arrests including of seven presidential candidates,a series of political trials, and long-term prison sentences against leaders effectively silenced the opposition. These events also led to a prolonged freeze in EU-Belarus relations. At present, restrictive measures are in place against 243 Belarus officials and 32 Belarusian enterprises.

Slowly Turning Toward the EU in 2012

By late 2012, the former head of the presidential administration, Uladzimir Makey, was appointed minister of foreign affairs and began diplomatic attempts to normalize ties with the EU. While Belarus failed to deliver on the EU’s main condition that all political prisoners be released, the number of working diplomatic contacts with representatives of EU member states and institutions increased considerably.

Diplomatic normalization culminated at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013 when Makey announced Minsk’s intention to start visa liberalization talks with Brussels. This surprise offer was welcomed with a moderate degree of optimism by the EU, whose own offer on visa talks had long been ignored. Two months after the Vilnius summit, Belarus and the EU undertook the first practical steps toward visa liberalization talks. Thus, after several years of diplomatic confrontation, a constructive agenda seemed to take shape in Belarus-EU relations. In going beyond visa liberalization, Belarus and EU diplomats held meetings to establish a government-level forum on modernization issues, such as economic policy, financial restructuring, privatization, and the development of small and medium enterprises in Belarus.

Relations with Russia

For a long time, Belarus’relations with Russia were marked by turbulence. In response to Belarus’earlier rapprochement with the EU following Lukashenka’s refusal to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia and culminating in the EU invitation to join the Eastern Partnership, Moscow launched painful attacks against Minsk. These included Russia’s broadcast of a TV documentary that directly accused the Belarusian president of numerous crimes, most notably the murder of his political opponents. Russian pressure eventually forced Lukashenka in December 2010 –just days before the presidential elections –to sign the documents to establish the Common Economic Space of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

From that moment, Belarus’relations with Moscow acquired an important Eurasian component. Bilateral relations, however, remain central as the Customs Union and Common Economic Space retain numerous exemptions from the free movement of goods, services, capital, and workforce that can only be settled in direct negotiations between Minsk and Moscow. The former tries to play its Eurasian card –by promising to sign further documents on the Eurasian integration process or by threatening not to –as leverage in bilateral talks. The progress of integration naturally limits the sovereign powers of the Belarusian government and, therefore, Lukashenka is reluctant to advance it, and tries to get as many economic concessions from Russia for his signature of integration agreements as possible.

In so doing, Belarus negotiates much-needed financial injections from Russia, which remain a source of about 15 to 17 percent of Belarus GDP, especially through discounted oil and gas prices. Russia also provides loans to support the macro- financial stability in Belarus, either directly or through the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Development Bank that the Kremlin controls. This assistance was central to overcoming the 2011 financial crisis in Belarus.

Belarusian Reactions to the Ukraine Crisis

Against this background, the Ukraine crisis presents an extraordinary challenge for the Belarusian authorities.

Firstly, growing tensions and open conflict between Russia and Ukraine pose a serious threat to Belarus’balancing act between Russia and the EU. Minsk is gravely concerned that Moscow will coerce Belarus to strictly adhere to its allied obligations and take a clear anti-Ukrainian stance, which would harm Belarusian relations with Kyiv and undermine a new rapprochement with the EU.

Secondly, the ongoing crisis involves Belarus’top trading partners. In 2013, the trade in goods with Russia accounted for almost 50 percent of foreign trade, and Ukraine for 7.8 percent[2].Ukraine represents 11.5 percent of Belarusian exports, which generated $2.1 billion in surplus, crucial revenue for Belarus given its current account and foreign trade deficits and poor economic outlook.

For both reasons, the Belarusian authorities remained cautious when the internal crisisin Ukraine broke out and transformed into a confrontation with Russia. Eventually, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Lukashenka himself had to provide some official position on the crisis. Numerous contradictory and vague statements later, three elements appear to form the Belarusian position:

  • Belarus will cooperate with any Ukrainian government;

  • Belarus supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity; and

  • Federalization will create chaos in Ukraine.


In all three respects, the Belarusian position clearly contradicts Russian interests. To mitigate this, Lukashenka has resorted to rhetorical tricks. When supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, he added that “de-facto”Crimea has become part of Russia[3].While declaring his readiness to help Ukraine restore peace and order, he added that if Belarus were forced to choose, it would always be on Russia’s side, given common history and bilateral agreements[4].

In this vein, the Belarusian government has tried to establish itself as a mediator in the crisis, also aiming to improve its international image and domestic ratings. Indirectly, Lukashenka made this offer in a long interview for a popular Ukrainian talk show, and held a confidential meeting with interim President Oleksandr Turchynov[5].However, his mediation offers have fallen on deaf ears in the Kremlin, which does not seem interested in bringing the instabilities in Ukraine to an end.

As the crisis has worn on, the Belarusian rhetoric has shifted focus from a Russia-Ukraine conflict to a confrontation between Russia and the West. Minsk began to emphasize the role of the United States and NATO in the Ukrainian events and pointed to the conflict with Russia’s security perceptions. It was in this context that Lukashenka offered in mid-March that Russia had deployed up to 15 war planes on Belarusian territory in response to increased NATO activity in Poland and the Baltic States. In so doing, Lukashenka has brought the conflict to a territory familiar to him, hoping to capitalize on tensions between Russia and the West.

By comparison, responses to the Ukraine crisis in Belarusian society have been somewhat more linear. Russian TV channels enjoy wide popularity in the country, and even though they get censored, the anti-Ukraine hysteria they promote reaches the Belarusian audience. It is, therefore, not surprising that opinion polls conducted in March recorded a surge of pro-Russian feeling and a decline of pro-EU sentiment. The number of Belarusians who would opt for integration with Russia, if they were to choose between Russia and the EU, shot up from 36.6 percent in December to 51.5 percent in March, while the share of those favoring EU integration decreased from 44.6 percent to 32.9 percent[6].

Yet this shift in public opinion does not please Belarusian authorities, who fear increased Russian influence. Lukashenka therefore devoted a great deal of time to the implications of the Ukraine crisis in his April State of the Nation address[7].Opening the speech in an alarming way, he called on the nation to unite in protecting its independence against the instabilities in Eastern Europe[8].

“I am addressing you in difficult times. The surrounding states have got in motion: Ukraineis boiling, the Russian Federation is trying to rise to its full historical status. State borders are being shifted in front of our eyes. [...] We must defend our most precious value —the independence of Belarus,”he said, adding that Belarus stayed calm and uninvolved in any external conflicts. But “we have reasons to worry,”without specifying those reasons. The essence of Lukashenka’s address was to fashion himself as the key defender of Belarusian statehood, threatened as it is from all sides.

Finally, the Belarusian opposition and civil society organizations also have reacted to the developments in Ukraine. Numerous opposition leaders and activists traveled to Kyiv to join the Euromaidan protests. Belarusian civil society quickly expressed its support for the new authorities in Kyiv. A Belarusian Committee of Solidarity with Ukraine was launched[9].And the traditional opposition rallies on March 25 (marking the unofficial Freedom Day) and April 26 (the Chernobyl disaster anniversary) carried Ukrainian flags en masse to demonstrate solidarity. The authorities did not try to prevent these demonstrations of support.

Strengthening Relations with the EU

With the Ukraine crisis still in full swing, its consequences for Belarus remain difficult to predict, as further turns of events are likely. However, several immediate effects can be discerned.

Given its economic dependence on Russia and suspended relations with the EU, the Belarusian authorities cannot (and, probably, would not) pursue a new far-reaching rapprochement with the EU. Instead, Lukashenka signed the founding treaty of the Eurasian Economic Union on 31 May, after the Kremlin had agreed, according to the Belarusian president, to provide Belarus with a fresh loan of $2.5 billion and allow it a further $1.5 billion in revenues from the export of oil products[10].

At the same time, Russia’s assertiveness in Ukraine has augmented the intrinsic fears of the Belarusian leadership. Lukashenka is an authoritarian ruler and worries about any possible limitations to his powers. The fact that Russia puts its own interests in the post-Soviet space above all else exacerbates his fears that Putin may turn the Eurasian Union into another USSR. With all decisions made in the Kremlin and partner states’sovereignty limited, this would mean the end to Lukashenka’s personal power.

In view of all this, Belarus will now double-hedge against the various risks associated with closer relations with Russia and against its political and economic dependence on the Kremlin. It will become even more reluctant to give up national powers in favor of the supranational bodies of the Eurasian Economic Union. And it will also seek more stable relations with the EU (but not a profound reorientation), in order to have some counterbalance to Russia’s dominance in its foreign policy.

The EU should use this new situation to try to create additional, and strengthen existing, linkages with Belarus. This should be done on five different levels:

  • Civil society organizations in Belarus already enjoy the support of Western donors. However, stronger efforts are needed to broaden their reach among the population and to work towards sustainable change. In this respect, it is important to note Russian designs to address civil societies in its “near abroad.”The Kremlin plans to overhaul its strategy of international development assistance, putting more emphasis on bilateral projects that promote Russian national interests. A new area of competition will open between Russia and the West, a contest of soft power tools in the “shared neighborhood,”including in Belarus, that the EU should be ready for.

  • The political opposition risks further marginalization by the Ukraine crisis asthe majority of society sees Western forces behind the chaos in Ukraine. This is mainly the result of the Russian and Belarusian official propaganda, and the opposition does little to counter such perceptions. The EU could encourage the Belarusian opposition to become less focused on symbolic activities, and to present substantial policy ideas and programs to offer to society. Such policy-oriented work may not change the authoritarian regime but will help prepare a generation of opposition leaders able to grasp the challenges facing Belarus no less than Ukraine.

  • The business community should be another priority for the EU. As part of the Customs Union, Belarusian businesses have a natural orientation towards Russia. This has not only commercial but also social and political implications, including for business culture, and businesses’role and interests in societal processes. The EU should promote programs and inter-state agreements that will facilitate intensive cooperation and exchange between businesses from Belarus and the EU.

  • Universities also have untapped potential for developing more linkages with Belarus. The EU should not only offer more education opportunities for Belarusian nationals, but also intensify exchange in the opposite direction with EU professors teaching courses and EU students studying in Belarusian universities. This is increasingly important given Russia’s plans to boost its impact on civil societies in the “shared neighborhood.”

  • The Belarusian government is also a necessary partner for the EU. Cooperation on the highest government level should be a matter of political consideration but technocratic programs with civil servants should not depend on the current political climate and relations. Officials should know how to work with the EU and see that the EU alternative is open for them. This cooperation can take multiple forms in various fields, and the ongoing negotiations on visa liberalization and modernization issues may kick-start such broader engagement.


 

[1]“The Most Important Results of the Public Opinion Poll in December 2011,” Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, December 10, 2011, http://www.iiseps.org/reliz/13.

[2]Belarus’ total trade turnover with the EU (29 percent in 2013) is significantly larger than that with Ukraine. But in the individual countries’ ranking, Ukraine was second after Russia in 2013.

[3]Quoted in “Belarus Says Russia’s Annexation of Crimea Sets a ‘Bad Precedent’,” The Moscow Times, March 24, 2014. http://www. themoscowtimes.com/news/article/belarus-says-russias-annexation-of- crimea-sets-a-bad-precedent/496633.html

[4]Alyaksandr Lukashenka, “State of the Nation Address to the Belarussian People and the National Assembly,” President of the Republic of Belarus, April 22, 2014, http://president.gov.by/en/news_en/view/ alexander-lukashenko-to-deliver-state-of-the-nation-address-on-22- april-8550/

[5]Ibid.

[6]“The Ukrainian Crisis and Lukashenka’s Rating,”Grigory Ioffe, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 76, April 24, 2014, http://www. jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42266&no_cache=1#. U7WfpvldXz4

[7]Lukashenka’s approval rating also seems to have benefitted from the Ukraine crisis. Despite the ongoing economic difficulties that have further slowed income growth in recent months, his ratings, according to the IISEPS, went up from 34.8 percent in December 2013 to 39.8 percent in March 2014.

[8]Lukashenka, “State of the Nation Address to the Belarussian People and the National Assembly.”

[9]An early example is the January 24, 2014 public statement by a broad range of Belarusian NGOs; see http://belngo.info/2014.belarus- unites-in-support-of-ukrainian-civil-society.html. The mentioned committee conducts its information and advocacy work through social media, including Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ groups/218388188359907/.

[10]See the Lukashenka statement of May 9, 2014, quoted in “Belarus intends to sign Eurasian Economic Treaty on May 29,” Minsk Capital Television, May 9, 2014. http://www.ctv.by/en/belarus-russia-reach- agreement-on-gradual-abolition-of-oil-export-duties