The authorities’ crackdown on the massive 2020 post-election protests resulted in a cardinal change to Belarus’s international relations and its regional security nexus. From aspiring to be a middle ground between Russia and the European Union and even a would-be Switzerland (see EDM, November 18, 2019), Belarus seemingly turned into a player squarely on the Russian team. Russia’s 2022 full-scale war against Ukraine solidified this shift. The break with the past appears so fundamental that the series of major international forums that the Minsk Dialogue (MD) Council on International Relations had organized between 2015 and 2019, which brought together Western and Russian (not to mention Belarusian) experts, now seem as though they took place in a different world. And yet MD is still around, albeit with a diminished scope of activities. Yauheni Preiherman, MD’s director, recently authored a revealing article in the newspaper Belarusy i Rynok. The latter also continues to operate, despite its opposition-minded focus and a recent brush with the Belarusian KGB: on May 18, the media outlet’s offices were searched, and its director and bookkeeper was arrested (Zerkalo, May 18).
Devoted to the May 22–26 World Economic Forum in Davos, Preiherman’s aforementioned article makes two notable points. First, the author states that globalization, long a major trend pushed by Davos, has come to a halt. “If it were necessary to pick one quote that most reflects the spirit of the historical moment,” writes Preiherman, “then I would undoubtedly choose the words of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: ‘freedom is more important than free trade.’ This seemingly simple phrase overflows with symbolism and breaks away from the ideological mainstream of several previous decades, when it was believed that free trade was just one of the main prerequisites of freedom in general.” It is symbolic, posits Preiherman, that a new reading of the “formula of freedom” was articulated at one of the major sanctuaries of globalization. “It is even more symbolic that it was done by a representative of a [military alliance].” Whether or not Davos regulars, especially among businessmen, share Stoltenberg’s opinion, “we were once again made to understand that at critical moments in history, politics is primary and economics secondary.” Committed supporters of economic liberalism have little chance of reversing the growing trend, thinks Preiherman. “And if so, we are talking not only about a new culture of canceling Russia but also about a significant revision of the entire philosophy of globalization” (Belarusy i Rynok, May 30).
His second point is about the influence of that development upon Minsk. It will be significant now, Preiherman writes, “when we find ourselves in the very epicenter of deglobalization that has just begun and that drew the division line in Eastern Europe.” That means that the only way for Minsk to adapt to the abrupt change is to finesse Belarus’s ability to look at the world through the prism of its own interests, not the slogans emanating from the West or East, the MD director concludes (Belarusy i Rynok, May 30).
By most accounts, however, room for pursuing its own interest has noticeably narrowed for Minsk. Still, there are at least two examples of Minsk attempting precisely that. One of them was issuing visa-free travel for citizens of Latvia and Lithuania who cross the border in their cars. This was first done for the period between April 15 and May 15; then it was extended to December 31, “due to high demand.” Moreover, on May 28, Minsk stopped requiring COVID-19 PCR tests and vaccination certificates from those crossing into Belarus. Between mid-April and mid-May, 17,000 Lithuanian and 10,000 Latvian citizens took advantage of the no-visa travel permission (GPK, May 15; Sputnik.by, May 15, 28). It is hard to imagine a visa-free regime between Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave today.
Preiherman’s second example of Minsk trying to maneuver are the continuing negotiations on potentially transporting grain from Ukrainian Black Sea ports via Belarus to Lithuania’s Klaipeda, in exchange for lifting the Western ban on Belarusian potash exports. The Belarusian itinerary has the advantage of a wide rail track gauge, also shared by Ukraine and Lithuania. Though the result of these negotiations is unknown, Preiherman believes that the main problem standing in the way is political speculation around this topic. “If […] this proposal is packaged in the media in such a way that in Russia it is […] perceived as an attempt to tear Belarus away, then this option will be unacceptable, since it will lead to huge risks for Belarus” (UDF, May 27). Notably, “The Baltic States and Belorussia [Russian name for Belarus] Play Games With Ukrainian Grain” was the evocative title of a May 28 article on this topic in a “patriotic” Russian newspaper (Vzglyad, May 28). However, based on official Belarusian sources, six day later, this “game” was still on (SB, June 3). Russian President Vladimir Putin himself approved of the Belarusian transit option for Ukrainian grain as the simplest choice (Kremlin, June 3). But on June 6, his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, demurred on cooperating with Belarus (Ukrinform, June 7).
That Minsk is still, to some degree, able to pursue its own interests and—in case of grain—help the world as well, is certainly noteworthy. At the same time, expectations of regime change in Belarus are on the wane. The opposition is once again divided, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on the verge of becoming the “second [Alexander] Milinkevich,” a 2006 presidential hopeful who was sidelined by his own comrades-in-arms; her popular support is shifting away. Based on Chatham House’s surveys, Artyom Shraibman, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nonresident scholar, estimates that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s core supporters account for 25 percent of the electorate; the devout protesters are within the 30–35 percent range; but the loyalty of the remaining part to the regime has increased due to the war next door. The latest survey, “whose results will soon be published,” reportedly testifies to this fact (Svaboda.org, June 2).
Due to their online format, surveys like the Chatham House poll that Shraibman cites are skewed in favor of the opposition. Therefore, the pessimism vis-à-vis the opposition that the survey expresses is presumably justified. And so Belarus watchers may be back to square one when it comes to trying to understand the country: that is, to a situation predating Belarus’s internal and external disturbances of 2020–2022 but in an international setting inimical to regime change.