Why Do Western Belarus Policies Miss the Mark?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 190

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Belarusian presidential candidate in 2006 (Source: dziennik.pl)

In addition to the ten themes of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s October 11 press conference for Russian journalists identified earlier (see EDM, October 18), one more topic deserves to be reflected upon. Lukashenka was unusually harsh on Lithuania. When asked whether he believes that Russia’s Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko is being deployed—by the Kremlin—as an instrument of political retaliation and what his (Lukashenka’s) attitude to this is, the Belarusian president replied, “My attitude is negative, but if Lithuanians keep on behaving the way they do, they will get a slap in the face” (https://www.president.gov.by/press147530.html). Lithuanian-Russian trade has, in recent weeks, been suffering from uncommonly thorough and excruciatingly slow border inspections of Lithuanian tractor trailers with dairy products bound for the Russian Kaliningrad exclave. This treatment may be in retaliation for Lithuania’s extradition of the Russian citizen Dmitry Ustinov to the United States, where he is accused of illicit arms trading (https://lenta.ru/news/2013/09/17/complaint/).

Although Onishchenko’s vigilantism was on several occasions used against Belarus as well, Lukashenka chose to shift the blame to Lithuania. Why? A response to this question is inextricably linked to a lingering idealists-versus-realists debate about Belarus policies pursued by the West in general and by the European Union in particular. Idealists or human rights hawks have so far gained the upper hand in this debate. Consequently, Minsk’s expectations that Lithuania’s rotating presidency in the EU would bring about reconciliation between Minsk and Brussels without major concessions on the part of the former have not been realized. Apparently Minsk wanted a personal invitation for Lukashenka to the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit, which will be conducted in Vilnius on November 28–29. But the invitation actually issued on October 15 was to the country at large, so Minsk has yet to decide who, if anybody, it will dispatch to Vilnius (https://news.tut.by/politics/371102.html).

Back in 2009, Lukashenka did receive an invitation to the first such summit (https://bdg.by/news/politics/4516.html) but sent Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Semashka instead. At that time, however, Brussels was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with Minsk in the wake of trade wars between Russia and Belarus, and following the brief but destructive August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Today, the EU position is more intransigent, and Lukashenka sees this as a slap in his face. The other Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) may well have received personalized invitations, and Minsk realizes this—hence, Lukashenka’s stern message to Lithuania and to the EU at large. “We do not conduct any negotiations [with the EU] because they do not want to talk to us at all. To them, I am a dictator, an enemy of the people, etc.” (https://www.president.gov.by/press147530.html).

Despite the idealists’ grip on the West’s Belarus policies, however, a debate over these policies is building. Noteworthy in this regard is a September 25 article in the Polish daily Gazeta Prawna by Witold Jurasz, Warsaw’s former charge d’affaires in Minsk. Jurasz believes that it is in the national interest of Poland to retain an independent Belarus (much like Ukraine), even at the expense of less active democracy promotion to the east of the Polish border. That the issue of democracy was elevated to the highest status in Poland’s Eastern Policy provided that “our” [EU’s] offer came across to the political elite of Belarus as less attractive than Moscow’s offer, Jarusz argues. The same applies to Ukraine, which “will not become an EU member even in 10 or 20 years” and only needs an association agreement with the EU as a bargaining chip in its relations with Moscow. But the Orange Revolution is dead, and Poland was dumbfounded by the scale of political stupidity, mismanagement and corruption on the part of the Orange elite. Under such conditions, overemphasizing democracy draws from several mistaken assumptions or “myths,” which Jurasz is committed to debunking.

First, it has been habitual for nations to the east of Poland to only accept change if it emanates from the top on down by the elites. Whereas democracy promotion efforts depend on bottom-up developments that have little chance of succeeding. Second, he argues, except for a certain number of idealists, by and large, Belarusians (as well as Russians and Ukrainians) are not quite so disturbed by the lack of democracy in their society. What their elites are concerned about is the security of their financial capital, and it is in that area, not in the area of democracy that “our” offers to Belarus and Ukraine may be seen as advantageous. But Poland has not been communicating with the Belarusian political elite, which is odd for a relationship between two neighboring countries. Third, out of four theoretical scenarios of Belarus’s political evolution—retention of the current regime, its self-styled transformation, allowing a part of the opposition into the power elite, and a triumph of the toughest opposition—the Polish Eastern Policy has been focused on the least plausible fourth scenario. Finally, Jurasz believes that one has to decouple the support rendered to the Polish minority in Belarus from the support rendered to the Belarusian opposition. One has to promote Polish language classes, popularize Polish culture, and intensify the diaspora’s contacts with Poland—but only the normalization of relations between Warsaw and Minsk can allow this to happen. A lack of normalization leads to an ironic outcome whereby ethnic Poles in Belarus are being Russified, not Belarusified. By and large, policymakers dealing with Belarus are too emotional, Jurasz contends, as they base their policy suggestions on their ideal image of what societies to the east of Poland should look like, not on a realistic analysis of the actual situation (https://forsal.pl/artykuly/734646,polska-polityka-wschodnia-rozprawiamy-sie-z-mitami.html).

Jurasz’s article has been intensely debated in Poland. One voice in support of his views is that of Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 Belarusian presidential hopeful. According to Milinkevich, the West will not make a democrat out of Lukashenka, but this is no reason to turn away from engaging the Belarusian political elite (https://wiadomosci.dziennik.pl/opinie/artykuly/440648,aleksander-milinkiewicz-nie-zrobicie-z-lukaszenki-demokraty.html).

It seems that a debate such as this one in the Polish media would be beneficial for other Western foreign policy communities and for the West at large. There is a great deal for the West to debate regarding its Belarus policies. The only unquestionable truth about those policies, however, is that they have little chance to succeed in their present form.