Four Scenarios for Belarus in 2025–2030

Executive Summary

At least three trends will define the future of Belarus until 2025. The role of the state in the economy will continue to decrease. Belarusian foreign policy will continue to become more sovereign. And, unless he drops his widely announced plans, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will amend Belarus’s constitutional framework so as to prepare for a smooth transition of power. However, in the long run (2030 onward), a lot may depend on two key factors, the development of which is hard to predict today: Russia’s policy toward Belarus, and the Belarusian regime’s capability to weather economic woes while avoiding domestic political turbulence and serious repressions. This study considers four possible future scenarios, examining various combinations of these two variables.

Introduction: The Kingdom of Stability?

Starting from the early 21st century, most of the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have experienced a series of headwinds—pivots of foreign policy, revolutions and even wars—all of which have changed the face of the region. Seemingly, only Belarus, according to its own strong truism, could boast a level of enduring stability. However, this impression is only partly true.

Indeed, Belarus has kept its borders and political system untouched, largely due to its personality-based authoritarianism, with no ruling party, clans or oligarchy, and buttressed by minimal social inequality and selective repressions against the most unwanted opposition members. Yet, this situation changed by the second half of the 2010s, when the country began to face mounting internal and regional challenges.

A spate of economic crises (in 2009, 2011 and 2015) forced President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, known for his conservative adherence to neo-Soviet-style management, to appoint to government positions a group of younger and pro-market technocrats, all united in their support for structural economic reforms.[1] Throughout these years, the generally ineffective state-run sector of the economy shrank, freeing up significant portions of the labor force that were ultimately absorbed by the growing private sector, including the IT industry.[2]

Economic friction and a lack of stable support from Russia, combined with the latter’s aggressive behavior in the region, have created daylight between the respective foreign policies of Minsk and Moscow. After the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin turned to full-on confrontation with the West. At the same time, Belarus began a gradual, and thus more sustainable, rapprochement with the European Union and the United States. Belarusian foreign policy exhibited more traits of neutrality while still performing many formal duties of Russia’s ally. The new policy manifested itself in a distinctive geopolitical position and motivated Minsk’s peacekeeping efforts in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Yet, the new Belarusian course did not stop there.

Minsk authorities refused to allow the creation of a Russian airbase on Belarusian territory,[3] started to look for new partnerships in the military-industrial sphere (China,[4] Ukraine[5]), lifted the freeze on Belarus’ dialogue with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),[6] as well as enhanced pro-independence rhetoric and a Belarusian-identity narrative domestically.[7] Belarus also started to open up to the world with its visa-free travel regime.[8] So as to not compromise the normalization of relations with the West, Belarusian authorities limited the extent of political repressions[9] in the country. They eschewed imprisoning more government critics, who could be considered political prisoners by the West, and, with rare exceptions, avoided brutal crackdowns of opposition protests. With the major setback in the protection of human rights in Russia, Belarus has arguably ceased being the last dictatorship of Europe, not only rhetorically, but also in the rankings of international human rights watchdogs like Freedom House.[10]

All of the above could not help but trigger tensions in relations with Moscow, which was not used to dealing with the smooth departure of an ally from its circle of control. At the end of 2018, after Belarus’s query to prolong the preferential terms it enjoyed in its oil trade with Russia, the latter suggested to advance the bilateral integration processes first. Since then, Minsk has indicated that it is not going to sacrifice its sovereignty and is not ready to be governed by any new supranational joint institutions or a single currency. Nevertheless, both sides started negotiations on harmonizing their legislation and creating a single market—a task that has proven elusive over the past decade and one that few believe will be accomplished in the coming years.

The following study does not seek to forecast what Belarus’s domestic and regional situation will look like in the short- or medium-term perspectives; rather, it attempts to glimpse over a more distant horizon, toward 2025–2030.

It is important to admit right away that any definitive forecast is bound to be wrong. Almost every significant event that shaped Belarus’ political course in the past decade was either a matter of chance or a hardly predictable foreign-driven process: this has included the global economic crisis in 2008 and that August’s Russia-Georgia war, Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012, the revolution in Ukraine in 2014, the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia and its intervention in Donbas, as the choice of Minsk to host negotiations on resolving the conflict. Almost certainly, the same sorts of unpredictable events will influence Belarus’s future pathway as well.

Therefore, in an attempt to glimpse where Belarus is headed over the next decade, this paper will utilize scenario-analysis. But before defining the factors for each potential future scenario, it will be helpful to identify the major trends presently shaping Belarus’s trajectory.

Trends Until 2025

Leaving aside the fact that the future is fundamentally unpredictable, in the case of Belarus there are a few midterm trends that already appear irreversible.

Growth of the Private Sector

The first relates to the Belarusian economy: the country is definitively attempting to decrease the role of the government sector. In fact, this process has already started, despite the absence of Lukashenka’s green light to undertaking the structural reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. From 2012 to 2019, the number of employees working for Belarusian state-owned enterprises (SOE) has decreased by over a quarter, from 1.71 million to 1.28 million people.[11] With the further deterioration of Belarus’s economic relationship with Russia and with continued private business development, the state-run sector will continue to shrink. The government itself admits that the state sector has for years now been, on average, 1.5 times less productive than privately owned companies, which drive economic growth while SOEs generally drag the country’s economic indicators downward.[12] Parallel to this process, support within the Belarusian society for a market economy has grown immensely in the past few years. Independent surveys conducted in 2019 indicate that all demographic groups, from young to the elderly, from rural dwellers to Minsk residents, consider private business more effective than SOEs.[13] The support is most dramatic among the youngest age cohort (between 18 and 24 years old): 63 percent favor private business, with only 9 percent holding the opposite view. Support for privatization has been growing for years, while support for state paternalism has declined.

President Lukashenka will hardly force this process. On the contrary, he will try as much as possible to preserve the state enterprises that provide jobs in the regions beyond Minsk, which would otherwise have long ago been overwhelmed by mass unemployment. Although, as developments in recent years have shown, the president can slow down the shrinking of the government sector, he can hardly reverse this trend. At its current pace of contraction, based on average rates recorded over the last decade, by 2030 the state-owned sector will likely employ no more than 15–30 percent of Belarusians. While this is not a small number, it only faintly resembles “the Communist reservation” the Belarusian economy was considered to be in the 1990s and 2000s.[14]

Two growing interest groups in the country—the young pro-market government functionaries, whose number and influence keeps increasing, and the emerging large private businesses—will push the Belarusian authorities toward the same direction. In 2017–2019, an informal alliance of representatives of these two groups lobbied for the unprecedented liberalization of the IT sector, thus creating a parallel legal system for this business.[15] Such instances of a sectorial or broader pro-market lobbyism will surely become more widespread.

Sovereignization of Belarusian Foreign Policy

The second major trend over the next five to six years is the sovereignization of Belarusian foreign policy. Russia’s wars with its neighbors in 2008 and 2014 not only alarmed Minsk but pushed Belarusian authorities to actively look for alternative partners and a new geopolitical self-identity. All this time, relations between the two countries developed in a wave-like mode: periods of prevailing pragmatism and economic frictions gave way to tradeoffs and new integration institutions.[16]

The divergence of Belarusian foreign policy from Russia’s has become a sustainable trend in the past five years, and it most certainly will continue. Minsk no longer considers its dialogues with Brussels, Washington, Kyiv or Beijing to be an attempt to bargain concessions from Moscow by scaring it with a potential drift toward a different geopolitical party. Starting from the mid-2010s onward, a multi-vector foreign policy with certain elements of neutrality have become intrinsically valuable for the Belarusian elites. This tendency is also fueled by Belarusian public support for a foreign policy based on non-alignment. When public opinion surveys go beyond the usual binary “union with Russia” versus “entering the EU” choice—for example by including more pro-independence or pro-neutrality options—the decisive majority of Belarusians expresses its support for a middle ground.[17]

In 2018/2019, Russia decided to make further economic preferences to Belarus—on oil, natural gas and loans—contingent upon the depth of bilateral integration. Moscow’s main lever of pressure has been Belarus’s aspiration to receive compensation for the so-called “tax maneuver” in the Russia’s oil industry.[18] This Russian taxation reform will gradually implement world market to its oil trade with Belarus by 2024. The consequent economic losses for Belarus are estimated at $10 billion over six years, a part of which Minsk has already suffered.[19] Some experts believe that the negotiations over closer integration may lead to a takeover by Russia. Though unlikely, it is nonetheless reasonable to always be aware of such a risk, especially bearing in mind Russia’s occasionally impulsive foreign policy.

A much more possible scenario sees Belarus further cooling its enthusiasm for integration due to the uncompromising position taken by Russia. Any forms of deep bilateral integration and creation of joint supranational institutions in which Russia would take the lead would be entirely unacceptable for the Belarusian authorities, as this would deprive them of important levers of power domestically. That is why Lukashenka has continued to hold firm on integration; he almost certainly will not change his mind on such an existential issue. On the other hand, giving an equal voice to Belarus in supranational institutions created as a result of deeper integration between the two states is unacceptable for Russia, since this would give Minsk veto power over the economic policies of both countries. Apart from military threats or a total economic embargo, Moscow lacks leverage over Lukashenka to force him to accept a deeper political component of bilateral integration. For now, such scenarios are highly unlikely and seem overly burdensome even for a highly assertive Kremlin.

The less ambitious vision—the harmonization or unification of the two countries’ legal codes—looks like a long bureaucratic process doomed to end with numerous national exemptions, such as maintaining their respective free economic zones. Even if both parties agree to undertake such a complex program, it will take many years. It is also rather improbable that such a superficial integration process—even if it moves beyond mere negotiations—will be enough to persuade Moscow to substantially compensate Minsk for the increasingly unfavorable (for Belarus) market terms of their bilateral oil trade by 2024.

More and more, Lukashenka is likely to view the financial losses incurred from the current and (to date) most serious phase of difficult relations between Russia and Belarus as a source of his domestic economic problems. This will, in turn, push Minsk toward further actions on rapprochement with its other next-door neighbors, as well as the US, EU and China, especially regarding alternative financial institutions to provide loans, markets for Belarusian products, and alternative supplies of oil. In the meantime, Lukashenka will likely accuse Russia of economic hardships and will broadcast this message to the Belarusian public

It is important to understand that Belarus distancing itself from Russia will not be abrupt. The decades of Belarus’s complicated friendship with Russia, combined with seeing the latter’s reaction toward Georgia’s and Ukraine’s attempts to turn toward the West, have taught Minsk which red lines are important not to cross. In the foreseeable future, Belarus will not exit its joint unions with Russia and will not take the path of European integration. Most probably, Lukashenka’s pro-Russian lip service, necessary for maintaining relatively cordial relations, will continue as well. However, instead of playing a zero-sum game, Minsk will seek to explore other vectors of its foreign policy while trying to maximize the benefits from its continued alliance with Russia.

The problems with the large eastern neighbor will strengthen the lobby within the Belarusian authorities in support for domestic policies that do not hinder the development of ties with the West. To keep in line with its aspirations, Minsk will have to stay below the human rights radar of Brussels and Washington, so as not to provoke a return to sanctioning and isolating Belarus. Thus, domestic persecution of the opposition, barring some particularly pressing need, will remain curtailed enough to prevent protests from the West.

The absence of conflict with the EU and the US is necessary for Belarus to be able to main its beneficial image as a regional peacekeeper and stabilizer. Western leaders and diplomats would find it difficult to attend multilateral negotiations on Ukraine in the Belarusian capital or conferences like the “Minsk Dialogue” were Belarus to regain the status of an international pariah.

Constitutional Reform

Finally, the third major medium-term trend concerns expected modifications to the Belarusian political system and constitutional reforms. This trend is not as certain or seemingly irreversible as the two previous ones, but it still qualifies as a rather likely development. Starting from 2016, President Lukashenka occasionally brought up the idea of revising the constitution. In 2019, he returned to the issue on a regular basis and tasked the Constitutional Court with preparing a new edition of the constitution aimed at strengthening the parliament and the government. Lukashenka himself has set the approximate timeline for change to occur between 2020 and 2024.[20]

Lukashenka was plain about the purpose of these transformations: he does not want to leave his successor the current constitution, according to which the head of state not only domineers over the other branches of government but also essentially offsets their political capabilities. The goal is clear: if an authoritarian leader wants to step down, he needs to put in place certain guarantees for himself and his family. Entrusting oneself completely to a successor is a dangerous idea, as oftentimes those people grow out of control. Thus, one can balance out the successor’s influence with other institutions in which the outgoing leader can maintain the levers of control. Something similar could be observed in Kazakhstan where, apart from the formal guarantees and powers bestowed on Nursultan Nazarbayev, his position is protected by his daughter as the Head of the Senate. Two years prior to the transition of power, authorities in Kazakhstan also broadened the mandate of the Security Council, which the first president now heads.

If Alyaksandr Lukashenka decides to make the government and the parliament the new centers of power in Belarus, he will likely encourage the institutionalization of political parties, including the establishment of a ruling party. Such a party is already much anticipated by many high-level officials in Belarus since it may open new resources and opportunities for them. Until now, Lukashenka opposed it, not wanting to create intermediaries between the people and himself and being all too aware of the disreputable history of the late Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He also does not want the political establishment to have a parallel, party-based hierarchy of loyalty. Yet, it is difficult to envision a different control mechanism over a legislature other than an empowered ruling party. Reluctantly, Lukashenka is starting to admit that he will eventually take this path.[21]

Unless constitutional reforms are blocked from gathering momentum, eventually—certainly before 2030—the institutional layout of the Belarusian regime will transform into something similar to Kazakhstan or Russia: with a domineering ruling party, a couple of satellite parties and a still strong president. Under such a scenario, Lukashenka would likely accept the necessary changes to the constitution by 2024; and then, after winning another term in office in 2025, he would presumably commence a transition of power to a chosen successor.

Transition of Power

The scenario described above is only one possible course, a map that Lukashenka seems to have in mind for now. But a deep economic or political crisis could compel Lukashenka to change tack: in such a situation, he may not dare to hand over his power or suspend even small-scale experiments with the constitution. Then, just like many other autocrats in similar systems, Lukashenka might choose to stay in power until he can no longer physically retain it. Despite the inability to guess the exact transition scenario, it is possible to identify and probably dismiss the least likely options.

One of them is a revolution scenario similar to those in Ukraine in 2014 or in Armenia in 2018. The Belarusian opposition has neither the will nor the capabilities to proceed in this direction without a drastic weakening of the current regime. Revolutions in post-Soviet countries were successful only if several key factors came together first: 1) the regime was neither unified nor eager to engage in a comprehensive crackdown on dissent, 2) the law enforcement agencies were inconsistent in their actions, and 3) the opposition was integrated in state institutions at least to some extent (for instance, by having factions in the parliament) and had access to effective mass communication channels (e.g. social media or TV).

None of these elements are currently present in Belarus, nor are they likely to be in the foreseeable future. The opposition is weak and disunited and, for the most part, abstains from street protests. The security services continuously prove their capacity to engage in tough crackdowns. Potential leaders would be arrested either preemptively or during the protests. The state has monopolized control over national television and, if necessary, can block localized Internet access or social media services that protesters use.[22]

The Belarusian nomenklatura is not united in clans or fractions: officials consolidate not around dispersed power groups but rather around the top-down vertical of power headed by the president. This situation inhibits a potential coup. Lukashenka also rotates higher officials quite masterfully[23] so that they do not linger and gain political capital or a clear constituency. The security and law enforcement agencies compete and keep a wary eye on each other. The attempts of potential coup-plotters to open themselves up to foreign (Russian) aid seem so risky for them personally that this scenario is also hard to contemplate.

Regimes like the Belarusian one often see the transition of power going in either of two directions: a controlled transition to a successor or the leader’s physical inability to maintain the position. By 2030, Lukashenka will be 76 years old. Theoretically, he might still be capable of ruling the country. This is a possible yet not the most likely course of events since, in this case, Lukashenka will have to be in good health as well as either cancel or significantly delay his current plans for transitioning power.

Therefore, the default future framework for now is a controlled transition of power in the second half of the 2020s, with immunity guarantees for Lukashenka. In such a scenario, he would likely maintain a significant role in the first years after the formal transition of power to his successor. His probable successor would come from the higher political establishment or, to be more precise, from among those people who have gained Lukashenka’s full trust after many years of working together. Most probably, this person already works at the highest levels of the state apparatus.

It is impossible to point to concrete names. First, there is no visible power struggle going on in Belarus that would allow for an assessment of the contenders’ chances. Second, at this stage, the pool of potential successors after 2025 includes dozens of people, all of whom deliberately avoid seeming too ambitious. For decades, Lukashenka himself has taught his subordinates that the most reliable way to lose one’s senior post is to become overly visible or active. Unless the president needs it, no “number two” will be allowed to emerge, because picking a successor prematurely might disorient both—the nomenklatura and Kremlin.

Could one of Lukashenka’s sons be his successor? It is not unthinkable, though a family handover is not traditional for Belarus, and thus it is unclear if the political class and people alike would welcome such a move. Lukashenka himself has promised dozens of times not to hand over power to his sons. Still, he may change his mind if the situation in the country deteriorates shortly before the handover, or if the handover will have to meet tight deadlines due to the president’s health issues.

Whatever the case, any options for the controlled transition of power suggest that Lukashenka himself will choose the candidate for the post, which means this person will hardly deviate much from the president’s basic worldview. Most probably, Lukashenka’s policies will continue to persist after the official handover. Deviations will come either with time or due to some unpredictable crises facing the new Belarusian authorities.

Uncertainty Factors

Two factors that may somehow shift Belarus’s development path include domestic trends and Moscow’s policy toward Minsk.

The resources for growth in the public sector of the economy are depleted, and Russian monetary support is decreasing and will continue to do so. According to IMF and World Bank forecasts, Belarus is on the verge of a stagnation period. If relations with Russia develop according to a worst-case scenario, in the medium-term Belarusian GDP may start to decline. Profound structural reforms may shorten the period of economic turbulence; but in the short term, they will send strong shockwaves across the economy.

Regardless of the future scenarios, the Belarusian state can be expected to continue to curb expenses in the coming years. This process dates back several years already: since 2016, the retirement age has been gradually raised,[24] the preferential home loans program is being downsized,[25] and fuel prices and utility bills have been growing slowly but steadily.[26] [27]

Continuous economic stagnation and reductions in the social safety net will trigger increasing social unrest. Two questions are worth asking in this case. Will the unrest lead to protests? And if so, what will be the authorities’ reaction? Thus, the first key variable introduced for this scenario-analysis exercise can be defined as follows: will the social discontent in the next 10 years trigger new waves of repression and toughening of the regime in Belarus? In other words: “domestic turbulence” versus “domestic stability.”

Another important factor will be Russia’s policy toward Belarus. Minsk’s strategic course has not changed in the past 20 years: it is extracting the maximum possible economic benefits from the relationship with Russia while making minimum political concessions to its partner. However, the cutting of Russian economic support to Belarus now seems irreversible. Once it becomes clear that Lukashenka does not want to integrate his country any further with Russia than he already has, the authorities in Moscow will reach a crossroads: to live with the gradual alienation between the two countries, or to keep insisting on closer integration and pressuring Minsk to fall in line.

Russian approaches toward Belarus differ among various groups of elites and stakeholders. Supporters of Russia’s imperial expansion and the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) doctrine—many of whom members of the Russian security services—prefer to follow a more proactive approach in relations with Minsk. That is, they judge any policy as beneficial if it ultimately ensures complete loyalty of and control over Belarus. On the other hand, pragmatic monetarists in the Russian government, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his team, desire greater market transparency in their country’s relationship with Belarus over extending the borders of the “Russian World” in the region at whatever cost.

In turn, President Putin appears to fall somewhere in between: his actions show features of both approaches. Currently, it is unclear what approach will become dominant in Russia’s approach to Belarus over the following years. It is even less clear how it might change after the probable transition of power in Russia in 2024. Thus, the second variable in our analysis can be framed as: will Russia choose an assertive approach in relations with Belarus in the mid-term perspective? Or in terms of a binary choice: “assertive Russia” versus “non-assertive Russia”).

It is important to note that in any probable scenario, Russia would hardly tolerate Belarus drifting toward European or Euro-Atlantic integration, the stoppage of oil and gas transit via Belarusian territory, or any serious discrimination against the Russian language and residents in Belarus. This being clear to Minsk, it is difficult to imagine that any Belarusian government will dare to cross those red lines in 2020–2030.

The following assessment will combine the two possible answers to the first question with the two possible answers to the second one, and analyze the results for the future of Belarus by 2030 under four potential future scenarios.

Four Future Scenarios

Scenario 1: Domestic Stability + Assertive Russia

According to this scenario, sometime around 2022–2024, Moscow becomes so frustrated with the obstruction or slowdown of integration negotiations that it starts to actively pressure Minsk. At the same time, Belarus enjoys relative political stability, and the authorities manage domestic social protests without exercising tough punitive measures. The brain drain of the most active opposition groups factors into that stability.

Under this course of events, Russia will use a mix of economic and informational pressure methods to force Lukashenka to comply. Yet, the integration tradeoff looks rather improbable: superficial integration will not satisfy Moscow, while a deep one will be flatly rejected by Lukashenka. Under increasing pressure from the Kremlin, the Belarusian authorities will promote national identity and consolidation while referring to the value of independence within the country much more actively than they do today. The claims about independence being under threat may help disarm the opposition and its street activism. If Russian propaganda decides to regularly attack Lukashenka, Minsk will limit Russian TV broadcasts.

The absence of serious repressions in the country and the promotion of the Lukashenka government’s image as a defender of Belarusian independence from Russia will allow Minsk to maintain a friendly dialogue with the West. Belarus will actively seek to enter Western capital markets, thereby involuntarily speeding up economic denationalization.

If Russia’s hard line toward Belarus prevails, it is doubtful that Minsk will force a political rapprochement with the EU and the US. Provoking further hardening might be dangerous. As a political alliance with the West will not be high on Lukashenka’s agenda, he will hardly make concessions in terms of democracy and human rights. The Belarusian authorities will also fear that domestic liberalization could embolden domestic pro-Russian forces that would likely receive support from a now-assertive Kremlin.

With neither serious repressions nor democratization, but with Russian pressure on Belarus growing, it will be up to Western decision-makers whether to lend financial support to Minsk. If the West fails to provide such support, Lukashenka will have to make concessions to Moscow, so as to reign in its antagonism and find sources to pay back the growing bills to Russia. This can take the form of selective privatization of state-owned assets (e.g. Belaruskali, oil refineries, defense industry producers) or a further tightening of expenditures for as long as Belarusians’ patience allows.

This scenario would be rather stressful for the Belarusian authorities. That is why any serious experiment with adopting constitutional changes would be unlikely. The transition of power—if it takes place before 2030—will follow a tightly controlled route, delegating significant powers to a handpicked successor to maintain the political status quo. The new Belarusian leadership will be selected in a way that allows avoiding a more aggressive reaction from Moscow. Consequently, Minsk’s Western drift is unlikely even after the handover. Yet this course of events will allow the Belarusian capital to remain a non-toxic platform for international negotiations on regional security. If the demand for such negotiations still exists, nothing will stop Belarus from strengthening its image as a promoter of peace and stability.

Formally, Belarus in 2030 will remain Russia’s ally, yet their relationships will be beset with more regular and heated conflicts than today. By contrast, the relationships with the EU and the US will become more sustainable due to the absence of mass repressions over the previous 15 years. However, these relationships will not take a quantum leap, so as not to irritate the more assertive Russia. The new Belarusian authorities, should they be in place by 2030, will maintain the previous political model of top-down governance. At the same time, the dominance of state-owned assets in the economy will diminish. This model will somewhat resemble contemporary Kazakhstan but with a lower standard of living.

Scenario 2: Domestic Turbulence + Assertive Russia

This is the most dangerous scenario for Belarus. Facing economic pressure from Russia, Alyaksandr Lukashenka will have to decide whether to give the green light to painful domestic market reforms or leave things unchanged. Should he undertake reforms, the economic decline and austerity measures following his decisions would then lead to growing political unrest and local protests stirred up of the opposition.

In this possible future, the Belarusian regime subsequently retaliates with internal repressions that completely reverse the previous thaw in relations with the West. Whether or not sanctions Europe and the US then reintroduce sanctions against Minsk, Lukashenka’s government will cease to be a friendly companion for Western powers. The European banks that opened up local branches in Belarus in 2017–2018[28] will cease any further expansion into the Belarusian financial sector or pull out altogether. After relations with the West cool down, Minsk will be unable to proceed with marketing itself as the “Eastern European Switzerland.” The EU and the US will lose their interest in engaging Belarus, leaving it de facto alone to deal with an ever more demanding Kremlin.

The expansionist Kremlin will hardly leave Lukashenka alone with his economic and political challenges. The Russian government would see the collapse of the Belarusian regime and chaos in a neighboring country as a potential threat to Russia’s interests. Thus, out of tactical considerations, the Kremlin may periodically ease the economic pressure on Minsk as part of a carrot-and-stick approach vis-à-vis the Belarusian leadership.

This scenario does not suggest Lukashenka compromises with Russia on losing independence. Delegating a big chunk of authority to Moscow would mean an inevitable loss of power, and the refusal risks remain manageable. Still, less radical concessions in this case are virtually imminent. This entails the entry of Russian capital into strategic Belarusian state-owned assets in return for a weakening of economic pressure. A Russian military buildup in Belarus is another possible option, as Lukashenka will no longer be bound by the idea to improve relations with the West. Belarus’s reputational gains of 2015–2020 will be lost. Attracting non-Russian investments will become close to impossible after the new problems with the country’s image and international businesses’ concerns regarding the prospect of Belarus losing its independence.

The role of the siloviki in the Belarsian government will increase, while reformists will be demoted and withdrawn from positions of influence. Moreover, domestic tensions, a toughening of the regime and the growing pressure from Russia would all be incompatible with undertaking constitutional reforms. In this case, Lukashenka stays in power for as long as his health allows for it, after which point he hands power over to either his eldest son or to an influential member of the security services establishment.

Even though, by 2030, Russia may fail to compel Belarus into closer political integration, the economic dependence of Minsk would only increase. Aligning economic legislation in tax, customs and other areas would stop being just a concession to Moscow, with Belarusian businesses necessarily blending with Russian firms. In this situation, a new attempt to create distance from Russia will require much greater effort and stronger political will.

Scenario 3: Domestic Turbulence + Non-Assertive Russia

According to this scenario, in the 2020s Russia withholds economic support to Belarus. Minsk does not want to offer concessions, but this does not result in additional counter-pressure from Moscow. Russia instead accepts a pragmatic approach toward Belarus, perhaps as a result of a transition of power in Russia to a faction of market-oriented technocrats from Medvedev’s inner circle.

The relationship between Belarus and Russia is largely confined to the transparent market domain. Pragmatism eliminates some causes of conflicts previously rooted in different understandings of “alliance” and notions of who owes what to whom. Both parties downgrade their expectations about each other and gradually dialogue settles at a lukewarm partnership level. Simultaneously, Minsk understands that Russia’s strategic red lines remain relevant and does not attempt to wholly quit bilateral integration and defense deals.

Yet, domestic stability in Belarus does not withstand the test of economic shocks stemming from the cutoff of Russian assistance. The country witnesses protests—and the authorities respond with brutal crackdowns. Thus, similar to Scenario 2, the West diminishes its enthusiasm regarding further rapprochement with Minsk. As Belarus becomes a less interesting destination for foreign investments, it succumbs to a prolonged political and economic depression. Third countries, like China or the Arab monarchies in the Gulf, may be able to benefit from this situation by offering investments that could cushion the crisis. But without having many choices, the Belarusian authorities would be limited in courting such investors on terms beneficial to Minsk.

Tighter control over the country, resulting from the suppression of domestic dissent, would allow the authorities to perform painful economic transformations forced by the decline in the support from Russia. If social tensions calm down, the president may return to his handover agenda by 2030. But Lukashenka’s successor would not wholly inherit his negative balance in relations with the West. This would allow the new Belarusian authorities to reset ties with the EU and the US around 2030. Moreover, if this is accompanied by resumed economic growth, the new regime could safely add some limited political liberalization to advance the new period of thaw in relations with the West.

Much would depend on the state of Russia at that point, as well as on the attractiveness of the Russian market for Belarusian manufacturers. If by that time Minsk and Moscow are significantly distant from one another, in the 2030s the new Belarusian authorities may start moving toward full-scale neutrality or even limited integration with the EU.

Scenario 4: Domestic Stability + Non-Assertive Russia

This is arguably the most comfortable scenario for the Belarusian authorities, although it does not imply that the country simply dodges its upcoming economic problems. Still, even if Russia’s reduces its economic preferences toward Belarus, Lukashenka may still manage to prevent social tensions or deal with them without resorting to excessive violence. Just as in Scenario 3, under this future, relations between Russia and Belarus transform and become more pragmatic and market-oriented. By 2025, many conflicts recede into the past due to the adoption of understandable, though less and less profitable, rules of the game.

After a failure or a slowdown of the integration negotiations initiated at the end of 2018, Moscow stops insisting on deep integration. The Kremlin is satisfied with simply keeping Belarus within the Russian orbit, knowing that it will not switch its geopolitical allegiance in the near future. Shifting bilateral relations with Belarus solidly into the market domain is enough of a penalty for Minsk’s inadequate ambitions for integration, the Kremlin decides.

Consequently, Russia energy supplies grow more expensive for Belarus, compelling the authorities in Minsk to sell off state-owned assets and cut social expenditures. As a positive side effect, this policy course makes it easier to negotiate a new loan with the IMF. The structure of the Belarusian economy continues to transform as the share of government revenues from SOEs and oil refining decrease.

A diplomatic cooldown with Russia encourages Lukashenka to diversify his foreign policy in a more proactive way. Here, a few possible concessions to the European Union may include the abolition of the death penalty and registering several opposition parties and organizations. Domestic stability (which is presumed under this scenario) allows Lukashenka to amend the constitution and commence his planned transition of power after 2025.

This favorable economic and political outlook is especially conducive to the rise to power of any representative of the Belarusian elite who can strike a delicate balance: avoiding antagonizing Russia, maintaining domestic political stability, and keeping peace with the West and its financial institutions. Most probably, therefore, in this scenario, Lukashenka’s successor would come not from within the siloviki but from a circle of moderately pro-reform officials—an effective manager who proved his loyalty after many years of service. Among current senior officials, two names come to mind: Sergei Roumas, the sitting prime minister, and Vladimir Makei, the minister of foreign affairs. In 7–8 years, the candidates may change, but their general background would be more or less similar.

Here it, is also possible to expect a similar course of events as was outlined in Scenario 3, but notably developing a few years earlier in the timeline. By the end of the 2020s, the new Belarusian authorities would already be more independent in their domestic and foreign policy. Belarus would progress in its neutral positioning on the international scene. The level of autonomy of Belarusian foreign policy would be reflective of the decrease in the economic dependency on Russia. A greater representation of Western capital and businesses in Belarus would have a modernizing effect on state institutions. The companies representing this capital would lobby for domestic and foreign policies that would not hinder these ties.

The key questions dictating the actual developments are how the Kremlin would perceive Belarus in the second half of 2020s, and how sustainable would be its original non-assertive approach. Should that non-assertive Russian approach persist, it is entirely plausible that after 2030 Belarus and Russia might more formally drift apart and be willing to undertake a review of some current integration formats that, by then, had become obsolete or wholly incompatible with the state of the relationship.

Conclusion: Resilience as Priority

Needless to say, all of the above scenarios are relative. Not only is it all but certain that a priori unpredictable “black swans” may meddle in the course of events, it is also likely that the variables in the analysis of these scenarios may impact each other in an even more complicated manner. For instance, once the Kremlin notices Belarus actively seeking pragmatic relations with other powers outside the Russian orbit, it could quickly switch from a non-assertive to an assertive mode of conduct. Alternatively, tired of several years of fruitless hard pressure, Moscow could reverse course from an assertive to a non-assertive approach.

The likelihood of domestic protests and the prospective reaction of the authorities are also unclear and may play out differently if Russia is factored in. For example, if the Kremlin tries to trigger or support social protests inside Belarus as a means to frighten and pressure Lukashenka, this may lead to the exact opposite results. Lukashenka may take it as a provocation and himself make quite a few confrontational steps toward Russia. On the other hand, he may sense that he is stepping dangerously close to a red line in his relations with Moscow and become more compliant only to stop the Kremlin’s interference in Belarusian domestic matters.

That said, it is worth mentioning that Russia currently does not have political infrastructure in Belarus sufficient for any serious meddling campaign. The popular myth that Belarusian siloviki and law enforcement are somehow more pro-Russian than the rest of society simply lacks evidence to support it. When ordered, these people unhesitatingly persecute pro-Russian bloggers[29] or prevent pro-Russian associations[30] or parties[31] from existing. As of yet, there are no sizable pro-Russian movements in the country, as the Belarusian regime does not tolerate the erosion of its monopoly on being the most pro-Russian political actor available for Moscow to deal with. No Belarusian region (like Crimea or Donbas in Ukraine) gravitates significantly toward Russia.[32] Within the Belarusian population, no pro-Russian constituency exists that feels discriminated against based on its support for closer ties with Russia, usage of the Russian language or adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church. That is partly why Lukashenka can occasionally resort to harsh verbal criticism of Russia without fear of domestic repercussions. Not every post-Soviet strongman can do this. For instance, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev—despite being less dependent on Russian energy supplies—has never made equally provocative statements toward Moscow precisely due to concern about how such anti-Russian rhetoric might affect domestic politics in Azerbaijan.[33] Bearing all these reservations in mind, there are a number of rather predictable and consistent patterns in how the situation in Belarus develops.

Russian pressure and the perceived threat of escalation narrow Belarus’s margin for maneuver in its foreign policy. If Lukashenka sees that his flirting with the West provokes Russia’s sharp response, he will become more cautious. On the other hand, if Moscow distances itself and decreases its support, this will push Minsk toward maximum possible diversification in foreign policy and trade. If political disruption inside Belarus leads to a new round of repressions, this will weaken the reformists in the government and strengthen their opponents in the uniformed agencies. Lukashenka, in turn, will become less willing to proceed with constitutional reform experiments or a transition of power; while Belarus’s relations with the EU and the US either lose their current momentum or start to deteriorate.

Presently, Lukashenka has obviously chosen to abstain as much as possible from brutal actions toward the opposition. For him, it is important to maintain momentum—or at least not to spoil the normalization of Belarus’s relationship with the West. In recent years, the authorities have continuously chosen carrots over sticks. In regional and social protests, the government has started to make more concessions and take the middle path with demonstrators so as to prevent their politicization. As regards the opposition, arrests in most cases gave way to fines. This tactic proved successful, and the Belarusian authorities will likely continue this practice. Yet, it is also obvious that domestic crisis and the growth of social unrest will seriously test the Lukashenka’s administration ability to preserve such a carefully calibrated approach.

Belarus is entering a turbulent period in its political development. President Lukashenka’s quiet days of governing are receding into the past. The looming transition of power, Russia’s changing ambitions as well as multiple impending, lingering headwinds in the economy are the most serious challenges Minsk has ever had to deal with since independence. The ability to tackle those challenges without losing the country’s sovereignty or a feasible pathway to its modernization will define Belarus’s future well beyond 2030.

 

Notes

[1] Artyom Shraibman, Belarus’s Lukashenko Appoints Market Reformer PM in Preparation for Storm (Carnegie.ru, 2018), https://carnegie.ru/commentary/77102.

[2] The authorities want more from state-owned companies. Reducing staff favors this and does not put pressure on the budget (TUT.BY, 2019), https://news.tut.by/economics/642304.html.

[3] Lukashenko: No need for a Russian air base in Belarus (BelTA news agency, 2017), https://eng.belta.by/politics/view/lukashenko-no-need-for-a-russian-air-base-in-belarus-98468-2017/.

[4] Big eastern brother (Lenta.ru, 2019), https://lenta.ru/articles/2019/02/12/luka_i_krasnyi_dracon/.

[5] Lukashenko invites Ukraine to collaborate in missile engineering (BelTA news agency, 2019), https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-invites-ukraine-to-collaborate-in-missile-engineering-124738-2019/.

[6] Minsk military cooperation: Belarus with both NATO and Russia? (Deutsche Welle, 2016), https://www.dw.com/ru/военное-сотрудничество-минска-беларусь-и-с-нато-и-с-россией/a-36734565.

[7] A.Shraibman, Why Lukashenko fell for the Belarusian language and national identity (Carnegie.ru, 2016), https://carnegie.ru/commentary/66512.

[8] Belarus extends visa-free entry to 30 days (BelTA news agency, 2018), https://eng.belta.by/president/view/belarus-extends-visa-free-entry-to-30-days-113548-2018/.

[9] Belarusian authorities abandon tough confrontation with opposition and soften repressions against opponents (Belarus in Focus, 2016), https://belarusinfocus.info/society-and-politics/belarusian-authorities-abandon-tough-confrontation-opposition-and-soften?page=3.

[10] Nations in Transit 2018: Table of Country Scores (Freedom House, 2019), https://freedomhouse.org/report/nit-2018-table-country-scores.

[11] Key performance indicators of public sector organizations for January–June 2019 (National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, 2019), http://www.belstat.gov.by/ofitsialnaya-statistika/publications/izdania/public_bulletin/index_14339/.

[12] Roumas: Labor productivity in state-owned companies is one and a half times lower than in private ones (TUT.BY, 2019), https://news.tut.by/economics/632831.html.

[13] A. Chubrik, Reforms without consequences, or Why should the Leviathan state come to terms with the “invisible hand” of the market (TUT.BY, 2019), https://news.tut.by/economics/656659.html.

[14] David L. Stern, Can Belarus’ communism-lite go on? (Public Radio International, 2010), https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-01-07/can-belarus-communism-lite-go; Serhei Bohdan, The European Myth of Belarusian Socialism (BelarusDigest, 2012), https://belarusdigest.com/story/the-european-myth-of-belarusian-socialism/.

[15] A. Mikhalkovich, The Belarusian hi-tech revolution: the government drafts an ambitious decree (BelarusDigest, 2017), https://belarusdigest.com/story/the-belarusian-hi-tech-revolution-the-government-drafts-an-ambitious-decree/.

[16] B. Zogg, Belarus between East and West: The Art of the Deal (CSS Analyses in Security Policy, 2018), https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/CSSAnalyse231-EN.pdf.

[17] Data from a representative survey conducted by the Belarusian Analytical in September 2018 and provided to the author. First reference: https://carnegie.ru/commentary/78226; Belarus National Poll 2019: Public Opinion Does Not Change (PACT, 2019), https://www.pactworld.org/news/belarus-national-poll-2019-public-opinion-does-not-change.

[18] Moscow claims Minsk violates its right on domestic tax policy (Interfax news agency, 2019), https://interfax.by/news/policy/raznoe/1266366/.

[19] “Lukashenko instructed [the government] to compensate for losses due to tax maneuver in cooperation with Russia,” BelTA news agency, 2019, https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-poruchil-kompensirovat-poteri-iz-za-nalogovogo-manevra-v-sotrudnichestve-s-rossiej-332166-2019/.

[20] Lukashenka in favor of new Constitution (BelTA News Agency, 2019), eng.belta.by.https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-in-favor-of-new-constitution-119172-2019/.

[21] “Lukashenko: I would not have become president without parliamentary experience,” Official Website of the Repiblic of Belarus, 2019, https://www.belarus.by/en/press-center/parliamentary-elections-in-belarus/lukashenko-i-would-not-have-become-president-without-parliamentary-experience_i_105332.html.

[22] Freedom on the Net 2018 – Belarus (Freedom House, 2018), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2018/belarus.

[23] M. Mironchik, Clear footage. How Lukashenko shuffles the security forces against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis, (Belarusian journal, 2016), http://journalby.com/news/chetkie-kadry-kak-lukashenko-tasuet-silovikov-na-fone-ukrainskogo-krizisa-710.

[24] Belarus raises retirement age (BelTA news agency, 2017), https://eng.belta.by/society/view/belarus-raises-retirement-age-97644-2017/.

[25] Belarusian authorities curtail social policy in housing (Belarus in Focus, 2016), https://belarusinfocus.info/by/regiyony/belorusskie-vlasti-svorachivayut-socialnuyu-politiku-v-sfere-zhilishchnogo-stroitelstva.

[26] N. T. Acosta, Rise in oil prices hits hard on Belarus (Center For Russia and Eastern Europe Research, 2018), https://creergeneva.org/2018/10/28/rise-in-oil-prices-hits-hard-on-belarus/.

[27] The government announced how much it will the increase the utility tariffs starting from New Year (TUT.BY, 2018), https://news.tut.by/society/613850.html.

[28] First ever EIB support for Belarus – development of water infrastructure and private sector, (European External Action Service, 2018), https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/belarus/54191/node/54191_en.

[29] V. Smok, Pro-Russian bloggers sentenced: Belarus draws red lines in propaganda war (BelarusDigest, 2018), https://belarusdigest.com/story/pro-russian-bloggers-sentenced-belarus-draws-red-lines-in-propaganda-war/.

[30] The Supreme Court refused to register the Immortal Regiment in Belarus (TUT.BY, 2019), https://news.tut.by/economics/638373.html.

[31] A.Shraibman, The authorities will fight the “sixth column” with the same tools as it fights the “fifth” one (Naviny.by, 2014), https://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2014/05/25/ic_articles_112_185609.

[32] Serhei Bohdan, The United Nation of Belarus? (BelarusDigest, 2014), https://belarusdigest.com/story/the-united-nation-of-belarus/.

[33] E-mail from Rauf Mammadov, Resident Scholar on Energy Policy, The Middle East Institute.