Belarusian Political Crisis: Untenable Risks and Achievable Goals

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 186

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Source: Atlantic Council)

According to Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from June 2020 to the end of July 2021, Polish consulates issued a total of 178,711 visas for Belarusians, of which 12,190 were so-called humanitarian visas, used by de facto political refugees. For comparison, during 2019, Poland issued 358,421 visas to citizens of Belarus, of which only 7 were humanitarian (Polskie Radio, August 4). Belarusians fleeing repression also migrate to Lithuania, Ukraine and other countries. Those repressions have not yet shown signs of abating. Alexander Knyrovich, a formerly successful Belarusian entrepreneur, predicts that the number of political prisoners in Belarus will peak at about 6,000 people, up from around 1,000 today, and that the Belarusian political regime will last decades. Its longevity, he argues, is contingent on the current political regime in Russia, for which supporting Minsk is sustainable and popular among significant segments of the Russian population. That, in turn, means that emigration of the most creative and enterprising Belarusians will continue, up to a point when regime loyalists will indeed command a majority in Belarus (YouTube, December 4). Knyrovich currently resides in Poland and plans to pursue a business career there.

Not all political émigrés are this pessimistic. According to well-known opposition-minded analyst Artyom Shraibman, currently living in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, all Belarusians at home and abroad share a perception of imminent change at the helm of power that will produce a thaw even under the tutelage of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s most trusted associates. That is why, if you are to leave Russia for political reasons, suggests Shraibman, this is for a long time because Russia’s political regime is stable; but if you leave Belarus, this is probably quite temporary because Russia itself is interested in Lukashenka’s retirement—provided it can keep his successor and the process of political change itself under control. Moreover, Russia’s regime is not nearly that repressive, so it is likely to leave some breathing space in Belarus, too (YouTube, December 7).

Shraibman’s reasoning is probably realistic. After all, the Kremlin’s Lukashenka fatigue has been demonstrated on many occasions. Also, whereas in Minsk even the likes of non-governmental organizations (NGO) concerned with wildlife protection were recently banned, not to mention opposition-minded media outlets like and, in Moscow the Carnegie Center, of which Shraibman is a non-resident scholar, does operate, let alone Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, just won a Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike the sole Belarusian Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexiyevich (for Literature), who resides abroad, in Germany, Muratov works in Moscow.

It appears that both judgments, that of Knyrovich and that of Shraibman, hinge on Belarus’s closeness to Russia. However, if for Knyrovich this is a bad omen, Shraibman’s reasoning is more like conceding to the lesser evil. Whether or not there is any room for a more consistently optimistic/pessimistic view, two considerations seem to be in order.

First, Belarus and Russia are discrete entities only from a thoroughly formal point of view. The April 2020 survey conducted by the Belarusian Analytic Workroom, headed by Andrei Vardomatsky, exposed one facet of Belarus’s attachment to Russia. When asked whether they were ready “to preserve the sovereignty of Belarus even at the cost of lowering the living standards of citizens,” only 24.9 percent of respondents answered positively. However, maintaining the standard of living even at the cost of giving up sovereignty was supported by 51.6 percent. For comparison, in 2013, the respective share was 70 percent and in 2010, 82 percent (Nasha Niva, July 24, 2020; Baltic Course, April 19, 2013). So the value of independence has grown with time, but still only a quarter of Belarusians considered sovereignty an unconditional value worthy of defending in 2020. This result testifies to a major vulnerability of Belarus vis-à-vis its powerful eastern neighbor, a vulnerability that goes far beyond economic dependency. It is important to underscore the timing of Vardomatsky’s survey: April 2020 was just a few months before the fateful August elections. In all three cases, in 2010, 2013 and 2020, face-to-face, not online interviews were conducted, the former being much more accurate. These surveys are never invoked in debates on Belarusian statehood and identity, but they are essential precisely in those contexts.

But if this is the case, what puts Belarus’s sense of separate identity, as vulnerable as it already is, to a test it may not be able to withstand? (This is the second consideration that comes to mind.) Arguably, Western ostracism does. “At the moment, our country is entirely dependent on Russia, and that is a result of a blanket blockade that our country has been subjected to,” opines Belarusian historian Sergei Bogdan (UDF, December 9). Pavel Matsukevich and Rygor Astapenia of the Center of New Ideas analyzed recent and ongoing change in the intensity of Belarusian-Russian ties across such dimensions as foreign policy, trade, industry, energy, investments, labor markets, defense, cohesion of the two national elites, religion, etc. and came to the conclusion that an unprecedented convergence is under way in each of those areas (New Belarus, December 10).

Against this backdrop, the favorite trope of sanctions advocates—that it is the Lukashenka regime itself, not sanctions that brings about this convergence between Belarus and Russia, and, therefore, sanctions should continue (e.g., Svaboda, December 7)—defies common sense. Yes, the regime is there, and it is what it is; but one has to set achievable goals, not bang one’s head against the wall. Negotiations, not ostracism is the way to go. Pavel Matsukevich suggests three recent examples to prove this point (YouTube, December 7). When then–US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo asked for the release of Belarusian-American prisoner Vitaly Shklyarov, the Belarusian authorities let him go. When the Vatican interfered, the former head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, Tadeusz Kondrusewicz, was allowed to return to Belarus. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel called, the migration crisis on the border with the European Union began to be resolved. Already, a ninth passenger plane has delivered quite a few would-be migrants back to the Middle East.

Stopping repressions and releasing prisoners is an achievable goal, believes Matsukevich. But only contacts between the West and Minsk can facilitate this; in contrast, sanctions exacerbate the situation and put Belarusian statehood at untenable risk.