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August 19, 2020

Europe

BELARUS: Lukashenko might go, but Russia’s influence will remain

BY Andrius Tursa, Carsten Nickel

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( 5 mins)
  • Targeted EU sanctions against individuals in President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime are symbolic and will, as such, not affect regime stability.
  • As Russia seems well-positioned to retain its influence in Belarus regardless of the regime’s future, this increases the chances of preventing another escalation with Moscow.
  • The EU seems relieved to play a less prominent role in the Belarusian domestic crisis than back in Ukraine, but this balancing act might pose challenges over the medium term.

EU sanctions and strategy

Today, 19 August, EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions on individuals considered responsible for the irregularities in the 9 August presidential election and the ensuing violence. New restrictions will complement the existing arms supply embargo as well as travel bans and asset freezes on four Belarusian citizens. These measures are, therefore, mostly symbolic. However, EU leaders are expected to refrain from imposing wider economic and financial sanctions for as long as possible.

The EU’s goal is to prevent another military escalation involving Russia. The outlook for preventing greater violence is better than in previous episodes because a potential westward shift has not been on the domestic political agenda in Belarus. Unlike Georgia in 2008, Minsk has not considered joining NATO. Nor have there been any preparations for an EU association agreement like the one that became a bone of ethnic contention in Ukraine, facilitating Russia’s intervention in 2014.

While the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland traveled to Kiev in 2014, to push for a presidential resignation and salvage the prospect of closer EU ties, the bloc today appears to be relieved that in Minsk, no EU flags are being flown among the protestors. In public statements, leading anti-regime activists have instead voiced their willingness to respect the country’s existing ties with Moscow – despite President Alexander Lukashenko’s attempts to portray the protests as the product of foreign intervention and as a “new Maidan.”

Russia’s role and interests

Moscow is well-positioned to achieve its traditional goal in its post-Soviet neighborhood: preserve – or even expand – its influence in Belarus, whether or not Lukashenko remains in power. Most importantly, public sentiment remains favorable to Moscow. A poll conducted in late 2019 showed that around 75% of Belarusians wanted to maintain the current level of relations with Russia. However, support for the joint Union State was lower – at around 40% (and declining) – which should remind Moscow not to overplay its hand by pushing too hard on political integration.

But that might remain unnecessary for Russian President Vladimir Putin anyway. The 1999 treaty establishing the Union State of Russia and Belarus already provides for joint policies and institutions as well as a legal basis for deeper bilateral cooperation. In recent years, Putin has been pressuring Belarus to accelerate the implementation of the treaty; despite Lukashenko’s cries for Russian help now, he has been a rather hesitant ally for Putin so far. Moreover, Belarus’ dependence on Russian support in the fields of the economy and energy gives Moscow considerable leverage over the country’s geopolitical direction.

Economic and regime stability

While the EU sanctions will not affect regime stability, employee resignations from state companies/agencies and ongoing strikes at major enterprises cause a much deeper concern for Lukashenko, as they could grind the economy to halt and further weaken his position. However, if Lukashenko manages to overcome the initial wave of protests and strikes, his chances of staying in power will rise.

The political crisis will further affect the country’s embattled economy, which is already projected to fall by 6% in 2020. Sufficient financial buffers and a successful USD 1.25bn Eurobond placement in June support the country’s ability to service its debt in the near term. However, the weakening of the ruble could increase risks, as around 90% of the country’s external debt is denominated in foreign currency. Russia is the largest creditor, which is another reason for Minsk’s dependence on bilateral political relations.

Ways forward

Despite limited involvement in the post-election crisis to date, Russia would likely prefer a weakened Lukashenko to remain in power. This would make him even more dependent on Moscow, potentially facilitating Russia’s long-standing interests in gaining control of valuable economic assets and opening a military base in Belarus. Moreover, facing declining popularity at home, Putin is not keen on seeing a long-standing authoritarian leader being overthrown. Meanwhile, the risk for the EU is that the domestic political conversation within the bloc ultimately leads to calls for a stronger reaction.

If, however, Lukashenko does not manage to cling on to power, the Kremlin will seek to mediate a power transition on terms favorable to Moscow. Even though all of Lukashenko’s main opponents in the presidential vote favored close relations with Russia, this would be a riskier scenario requiring skillful political play from the Kremlin. The EU would face no less of a challenge over the medium term. The bloc would have to scope out the prospects for a less exclusive economic relationship than in a Ukraine-style association agreement, instead allowing links with both Russia and the EU.

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