The political crisis in Belarus is far from over. Its internationalization along the lines of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West began well before the current showdown over Middle Eastern migrants. Stuck at the Polish border (see EDM, November 11), the masses of people apparently being compelled westward by the Belarusian authorities have placed Belarus at the center of global attention, just like the harsh government crackdown on post-election protests did in August–September 2020. It is, however, safe to say that the “balance sheet” of this tug-of-war does not tilt in the West’s favor, at least at the present time.
Almost all Western-funded non-governmental organizations (NGO) have been forced to close inside Belarus, and Western and domestic pro-Western media outlets lost their registrations. Most opinion leaders among the local Westernizers are in jail. Multiple voices on social media networks (Facebook.com/wereszczaka, November 12) and those made available through personal interviews suggest that the reaction of the Polish and Lithuanian border guards to potential refugees camped out on their eastern borders has disillusioned many Belarusians about the vaunted “European values.” Meanwhile, military cooperation with Russia is on the rise, with Russian bombers patrolling Belarusian borders; and the Kremlin’s plan to locate a Russian airbase in Belarus, heretofore steadfastly thwarted by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, may allegedly finally come to fruition (T.me/nosovichchannel, November 11). Additionally, short-term effects include the postponement of the much-touted fifth package of European sanctions as well as the removal of new economic sanctions from that package despite initial pronouncements to the contrary (see EDM, October 13). Moreover, the Belarusian economy has shown a growth of 3 percent over the past year; the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty posted a haphazard explanation after its numerous predictions of a truly dismal economic outlook for the country (Svaboda.org, November 9).
To summarize, today, the collective West’s potential to influence political life inside Belarus is almost as weak as before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And notably, that influence has diminished most drastically during the run-up to the constitutional referendum, scheduled for February 2022, and in the face of much-anticipated change at the helm of power (whenever it may actually occur).
Why so? The respective debate has already begun. For example, Witold Jurasz, a former Polish diplomat once stationed in Minsk, poses these questions. Who is responsible for the fact that for 25 years Poland or the collective West have neither built a relationship with Lukashenka nor succeeded in overthrowing him? Who is responsible for the fact that a year ago politicians decided, erroneously and hastily, that Lukashenka would lose power. And how is it that a policy was conducted based on these false premises? (Onet, November 10).
Some recent publications may cast light on these issues, however partially. Thus, according to Maxim Samorukov of the Carnegie Moscow Center (Carenegie.ru, November 5), the belief that the West’s growing ties with Belarus were the biggest source of distress for the Kremlin are worth reconsidering, if only in part. If this were the case, reasons Samorukov, then why did Moscow extract so few concessions from Minsk within the framework of the Union State programs that were just co-signed? Now that Minsk’s ties with the West have diminished, would this not be an opportune moment for the Kremlin to insist on Belarusian acquiesce to supranational power structures, a common currency, and so on? The only reason Russia did not seize the opportunity, suggests Samorukov, is that its true concern has been about Lukashenka’s stranglehold on all aspects of life in Belarus, not about Western influence, which, truthfully, could never compete with Moscow’s sources of leverage, such as discounts on Russian oil and natural gas (Onet, November 5). So using utmost caution in relations with Lukashenka became the Kremlin’s imperative. The repeated suggestions conveyed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to contact Lukashenka directly regarding the brewing migration crisis dovetail with the above assessment; although an alternative explanation is that Putin is simply “trolling” the West over a situation that has strategically shifted toward Russia’s favor (Mukola.net, November 11; UDF, November 13).
In a subsequent article, Samorukov calms down passions over the migration crisis by putting it in perspective. Indeed, fewer than 3,000 migrants are presently sitting on the Polish border, and the Lukashenka regime is now assisting them with firewood so that they no longer attempt to cut down trees (Intexpress, November 11). “For comparison, 55,000 refugees have landed on the shores of Italy this year alone—a serious decline because, in the mid-2010s, 150,000–200,000 arrived annually.” In Greece, with a population of ten million people, 41,000 asylum applications were filed last year. In 2019, there were 80,000 such applications. And at the last peak of the migration crisis, in 2015, the number of refugees who reached the country exceeded 850,000 people (Carnegie.ru, November 11). Nobody is interested in fanning the flames of an all-out war because of a modest migration crisis at the Belarusian-Polish border, Samorukov believes.
In his turn, Pavel Matsukevich, who has risen to the position of one of the most level-headed voices on Belarus, opines that under external pressure, the Belarusian regime will not loosen its grip on society. And in the atmosphere of fear and likely impoverishment in the wake of economic sanctions, the desired political change and even a fight for it are unlikely. Under current conditions, believes Matsukevich, the most realistic scenario of resolving the situation on the border boils down to “contacts between Belarusian government officials and colleagues from Western countries in a closed format without the participation of democratic forces” (New Belarus, November 12). At issue, though, is if Minsk is interested in such contacts, or whether a feeling that it has outmaneuvered its opponents will cloud its judgment.
Judgments on the Western side may also be confusing the situation. Back in 2006, the analyst Andrei Lyakhovich observed that the prevalent view in the Belarusian opposition was that Lukashenka is “stupid and incompetent” (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 131). And due to the incessant articulation of this point of view for much of Lukashenka’s tenure, it has become etched in the minds of the Western sponsors of those opposition forerunners. Disposing of this belief is long overdue. Likewise, moral indignation over Lukashenka’s exploits is justifiable, but it does not constitute a policy, and neither does the monotonous and unimaginative language of sanctions. Acknowledging one’s opponent’s raison d’être is where effective policymaking begins.