Exiled Belarusian Sociologist Critiques the West’s Belarus Policies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 60

(Source: San Diego Tribune)

On April 5, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a visit to Moscow for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that lasted six hours until 2:00 AM the next day (Myfin.by, April 6). Considering how frequently the two leaders have been meeting face-to-face—ten times in 2022 (Kp.ru, January 19) plus twice already in 2023, not to mention their numerous phone calls—such a lengthy rendezvous implies that issues of the utmost importance were likely discussed. During the part of the summit open to the press, economic considerations took center stage when it was mentioned that trade between the two countries has increased 12 percent to $45 billion in merchandise and $5 billion in services and that 28 Union State programs have been “implemented by 80 percent” (EADaily, April 6). The opposition-minded commentators, however, suspect that the central question debated was control over the proposed tactical nuclear weapons to be redeployed in Belarus, with Lukashenka demanding his share of that control (Svaboda, April 6). Additionally, much has been made of Lukashenka’s casual remark that Putin looks tired, with some trying to characterize it as a verbal jab of the sort Lukashenka practiced with respect to Boris Yeltsin.

Just a couple of days prior to the Putin-Lukashenka summit, the news broke that Bernard Emié, head of French intelligence, had traveled to Minsk on March 24. This is now being considered as a last-ditch effort to talk Lukashenka out of increased engagement in the ongoing war in Ukraine (IntelligenceOnline, April 3), which helps cast light on the Belarusian president’s reference to his discussions “with influential people from leading Western countries” (see EDM, April 5). In recent days, Ryhor Astapenia, who directs the Belarus Initiative program at Chatham House and who, in that capacity, has conducted 14 online public opinion surveys in Belarus since 2020, published the programmatic narrative “Rethinking Western Policy Towards Belarus” (Chathamhouse.org, April 5). It appears that one of Astapenia’s key recommendations—“the West’s policymakers should establish a direct channel of communication with Lukashenka”—is almost like pushing on an open door, which is what Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has suggested (Svaboda, April 5).

Astapenia’s overarching recommendation—“above all, Western policymakers need to assign a higher priority to Belarus”—is hard to disparage. And the same is true for his selective criticism of Western sanctions that unduly penalize ordinary Belarusians, including with “the ban on overflights and on access to EU [European Union] airports for Belarusian carriers … which blighted travel opportunities for Belarusian individuals.” The Belarusian sociologist believes that sanctions must be supplemented with incentives, like sticks with carrots, and that Western countries should stop discriminating against Belarusians applying for a visa or residency; he specifically mentions Lithuania’s newly adopted law impeding Russians and Belarusians who are willing to relocate to that country (34travel.me, April 4). Among other measures, this law lumps Russians and Belarusians together, which is what Astapenia resists. In his opinion, every effort should be made to distinguish Belarus from Russia. That pertains to the helm of power, too, as “Lukashenka is no Putin. Whereas Putin is the mouthpiece of an ideology that has been around for centuries, Lukashenka is simply an immoral person” (Svaboda, April 5).

According to Astapenia, the West ought to render more support to Belarusian civil society and independent media. Additionally, the Belarusian opposition’s opinion ought to be taken into account when making decisions about Belarus so that the opposition will no longer come across to many as “losing.” Indeed, according to Alexander Rodnyansky, assistant professor of economics at Cambridge University and advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “Belarusian opposition is irrelevant today,” which is why the Ukrainian president has declined meeting with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. If “we” meet with her, we would boost the relevancy of the Belarusian opposition, whereas it ought to make it first on its own, averred Rodnyansky (NashaNiva, April 4).

Astapenia’s suggestions are not overly consistent in winning the support of ordinary Belarusians. For example, he suggests that “international sports federations could take the step of banning pro-regime Belarusian athletes from international competitions. Imposing such bans,” he claims, “could enable their eventual revocation to be used as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the regime on the release of political prisoners” (Chathamhouse.org, April 5). Astapenia’s observation that “prior to 2020, Belarusian-Western relations alternated between phases when Belarus would ease repressions and the West would lift sanctions and times when Belarus would tighten restrictions and the West would penalize it again” is accurate. However, his statement that “since 2020, this fluctuating pattern of relations has been broken” is a bit premature. It took about five years to restore relations with the West following the crackdown on postelection protest rallies in December 2010. Today, the disruption of ties seems more profound. Therefore, the cycle could take more time to resume.

Nevertheless, Astapenia has a notable precursor. On April 1, 2011, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States House of Representatives held a hearing devoted to the human rights situation in Belarus with two invited experts, David Kramer, then-president of Freedom House, and Matthew Rojansky, then–deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Whereas Kramer’s hawkish suggestions were sticks only with no carrots at all, his opponent’s advice resembled Astapenia’s current proposal both in letter and in spirit (GovInfo, April 1, 2011). That implies that the Belarusian sociologist’s current critical narrative is itself inseparable from the cycle that he says is broken, and Belarus policy failures may in fact have deeper roots.

It could be that pursuing the geo-strategic interest in making Belarus a more “West-friendly” country ought to be decoupled from democracy promotion so the latter stops being seen as the exclusive vehicle of the former. That would mean staying in touch with the actual decision-makers in Belarus (or elsewhere) and not merely accepting a casual suggestion by a well-meaning advisor—a suggestion offered out of desperation when every other means has failed. In that sense, Astapenia is on target: the West’s contacts with Lukashenka should precede those with his junior subordinates.