Belarus’s 2023 Year-in-Review

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 3

(Source: President of the Republic of Belarus)

On December 31, 2023, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared in his New Year’s address that the “Year of Peace and Creation” has come to an end in Belarus and that 2024 will usher in the “Year of Quality.” He emphasized the importance of the connection between peace and creation and how those who work together in unity to “selflessly serve and love their motherland” help pave the path to peace (President of the Republic of Belarus, December 31, 2023). Lukashenka’s speech was one of inspiration and hope for the nation, reflecting only on the positives of the past year and the potential for Belarusian greatness in 2024.

Earlier Pavel Matsukevich, senior researcher at the Center for New Ideas, an émigré think tank, released his summary of 2023 developments in Belarus (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023). One of Matsukevich’s main theses was built on the notion that “not everything that is good for Belarus is good for the political regime and vice versa.” There are, however, a number of exceptions to this standard. For example, the Belarusian army staying out of the fighting in Ukraine and the fact that no shelling has taken place from Belarusian territory for over a year represent positive outcomes of the past year (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023). Likewise, Belarus is on the verge of acceptance to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the country’s increased participation in the BRICS format (originally a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) is good for both the Lukashenka regime and the country.

Matsukevich highlighted several other wins and losses for Belarus over the past year. Despite heavy Western sanctions, the Belarusian government managed to boost its international standing. In 2023, new ambassadors from 20 countries, including South Korea, Mexico, Panama, and Hungary, handed their credentials to Lukashenka. Altogether, since Lukashenka’s inauguration in October 2020, 60 countries representing all continents but Australia have done the same (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023). In October 2023, a Minsk-based international security conference featured such participants as Thomas Greminger, former secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. In contrast, officials from Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania missed the main photo-op at the Dubai-based World Climate Summit in early December precisely because they did not want to appear in the same picture as Lukashenka (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023).

Before Western sanctions, Minsk preferred to direct Belarusian exports through Latvian, Polish, and Lithuanian seaports. Almost 90 percent of Belarusian exports now transit through St. Petersburg (only 15 percent were run that way before sanctions). Altogether, Belarus now uses 19 Russian seaports for export operations. Largely thanks to cooperation with Moscow, the Belarusian economy grew by 3.8 percent in 2023. The past year also saw Minsk increase its cooperation with Beijing. Beginning in 2022, China became Belarus’s second-largest trading partner. In 2023, the previous record of 1,000 container trains transiting from Belarus to China was surpassed by September (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023).

As Matsukevich pointed out, few serious attempts were made in 2023 to facilitate the release of political prisoners in Belarus. Many Belarusian democrats-in-exile believe the solution for triggering the release of more political prisoners lies in exerting more pressure on Minsk through Western sanctions. This has been met with increased skepticism, as, so far, this tactic has been a dead end (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023). For Western leaders, few have incentives to negotiate the release of political prisoners, as the citizens of their countries are not currently among them. Matsukevich places special emphasis on this point. When such people as the dual US-Belarusian citizen Valery Shkliarov and the dual Swiss-Belarusian citizen Natalia Hersche were prisoners, their release was ensured through simple communications between US and Swiss officials and Lukashenka (NewBelarus, December 22, 2023).

In his summary of 2023, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) observed that repressions in Belarus continue unabated but have hardly increased. According to Drakakhrust, “At the end of last year … there were 1,441 political prisoners in the country; this year, as of December 27, there were 1,474. In the meantime, hundreds of people sentenced back in 2020–21 to one-, two-, three-year terms were released. Several hundred were imprisoned in 2023” (Gazetaby, December 27).

Drakakhrust points to a strange contrast in recognition of Belarus’s leadership in the West. On the one hand, the “creeping recognition of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya,” leader of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile, is in full swing. This has led many to frequently refer to her as “Madam President,” with some Western countries recognizing her influence. On the other hand, these same countries have their official representatives in Minsk to negotiate with Lukashenka. “In 2021, [then-German Chancellor Angela] Merkel called Lukashenka,” writes Drakakhrust. “Last year, Macron did. One cannot say for sure that someone will not call Lukashenka tomorrow.” This is a typical contradiction between wishful thinking and reality, with Tikhanovskaya potentially replicating the experience of Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó (Gazetaby, December 27).

Other realities may become clearer in unlikely ways. For example, on December 25, Lukashenka called High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell a “moron” for his warning that Russia may invade North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries (Belta, December 25). RFE/RL qualified this statement as a public insult (Svaboda, December 25, 2023). Lukashenka’s remark is reminiscent of how he labeled José Manuel Durão Barroso, who led the European Commission from 2004 to 2011, a “bastard” in 2011 (EuObserver, April 27, 2011). Just one day later, Politico Europe bestowed upon Borell its “Borat award for diplomacy” because “he never misses an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth” (, December 26). Should Minsk propagandists be more inquisitive, they could easily present that award as a vindication of Lukashenka’s insult.

These same propagandists have not hesitated to highlight the seemingly double-standards coming from Belarus’s neighbors. For example, while Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia continue to ostracize Belarus, Minsk extended visa-free travel to those countries’ citizens. Vadim Gigin, director of Belarus’s National Library, observed, “It was predictable that the visa-free regime will be extended because the effect is colossal. Hundreds of thousands of people have entered the country since April 15, 2022. … When the visa-free regime first began to operate, especially at the Lithuanian border, all kinds of extremist radio stations and channels asked: What is there for you in terrible Belarus? And people responded: What’s terrible? In Belarus, gasoline is cheaper, cigarettes are cheaper, buckwheat is cheaper” (SB, December 11).

Minsk remains hopeful that the new “Year of Quality” will bring significant geopolitical and economic victories. While political prisoners and cheap buckwheat are non-parallel constructions, there is little doubt that, in 2023, Minsk won some modest propaganda victories. The Lukashenka regime hopes to build on these successes in consolidating domestic support and carving out more room for maneuver in its foreign policy. The parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2024 may stand as an important barometer for Minsk’s progress in both endeavors, though both the Belarusian opposition and Western policymakers would beg to differ.