A Brief Overview…
Belarus is politically gridlocked. Ever since Alexander Lukashenko was declared as the President for the 6th term on the 9th of August 2020 there have been massive protests against a series of human rights violations. Citizens demand free and fair elections and the ousting of Lukashenko. While protests were successfully suppressed in the past this time around citizens from all sections of the society have joined in across the country creating a united front. The chances of being able to suppress these protests by the use of force seem rather unlikely. However, the impact that Russia and the EU have on the crisis in Belarus is significant as we shall further examine.
Belarus is also geographically landlocked. One look at the map of Europe will reveal the significance of what many experts refer to as the ‘geopolitical factor’. Belarus is located between the European Union and Kaliningrad (Russian territory) on the left and Russia to its right. Over the years president Lukashenko has made use of this fact to further his agendas and hold onto power. Whenever Russia has pushed him for further integration of the two countries he has run to the EU promising to implement democratic reforms. Similarly whenever the EU has asked him to come good on his promises he has gone back to Putin for support.
As the protests in Belarus continue the EU has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and many of his ministers. This has forced Lukashenko to seek support from Russia. Hence, it is now impossible for him to align himself with the West without actually ushering in significant changes. This brings an end to his long played act of balancing on a seesaw!
Belarus and Russia
It is true that Russia remains the largest trade partner of Belarus. The Belarusian economy is heavily dependent on the cheap supply of oil and natural gas being provided by its neighbor. However, Russian interests go far beyond economics. Russia under Vladimir Putin harbors imperialist motives. It frequently attempts to put pressure on Lukashenko for the creation of the much talked about union state. In the past, Lukashenko had managed to stall Russian advances. However, deteriorating relations with the EU over the past couple of months has pushed Lukashenko into a position where he could agree to increased Russian control over Belarus.
Some defense experts also point to a specific geopolitical factor influencing relations between Russia and Belarus the so-called Suwalki corridor. It is a small zone lining the Polish-Lithuanian border. It separates northwest Belarus from the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. Russian control over Belarus could also prompt radical Russian imperials to think about the possibility of the military occupation of the Suwalki corridor. This will essentially separate the Baltic States from the rest of the EU.
Belarus and the EU
The European Union which closely monitors the situation in Belarus has extended support to the Belarusian citizens and opposition leaders. As reports came in of the elections being rigged the EU made it clear that it does not recognize Lukashenko as the lawful president of Belarus. It has urged authorities to hold fresh elections that would comply with international standards for free and fair elections. It has condemned the violent attacks by the Lukashenko regime on the protesters. EU member states have granted asylum to many Belarusian activists and opposition leaders. This includes Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who contested against Lukashenko and claims to be the winner of the elections. The heads of States of several EU Nations have met with Tikhanovskaya and expressed their support for the Belarusian cause.
Is there a way out of this deadlock?
- Russia and the EU take a step back
Both Russia and the EU could refrain from getting further involved in Belarus. As the citizens have maintained they are not against Russia and that this fight is only to oust Lukashenko. The outcome of the revolution could then be left to the citizens to decide. However, given the strategic importance of Belarus, it is highly unlikely that either side will step back.
- Russia to accept a Democratic Belarus
So far there has not been any anti-Russian protest in Belarus. However, if Russia continues to support Lukashenko it could lead to anger against Putin. The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has already led to a slowdown in the Russian economy. This, compounded by Putin’s own authoritarian rule could mobilize sentiments against him in Russia. This does put Russia in a spot where it could have to accept a democratic outcome in Belarus.
- Russia and EU reach an agreement
The only way that a win-win solution can be found to the crisis in Belarus is for backchannel talks to be initiated between Moscow and the EU. If Russia can be persuaded to reach an agreement by using other diplomatic means it could ensure that the interests of Belarus, Russia, and the EU are met.
Finally, whatever approaches are being considered to help Belarus, the one and only demand of the Belarusian citizens must always be kept in mind – An Independent, Democratic Republic of Belarus!