A Game of Chess: International Moves in Belarus

Protesters in Belarus have been flooding the streets of Minsk for nine weeks straight, marching against the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko. These demonstrators demand his resignation and freedom for political prisoners following the August 9 elections, which, according to the official count, have been won by Alexander Lukashenko with a seemingly implausible 80% of the popular vote. Outside observers including the European Union and the U.S. State Department claim that the election has been rigged

Even after three months, Belarusians continue to take the streets in large numbers; however, Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s so-called “last dictator”, has proven reluctant to give up his power without a fight. Having Russia on his side, Lukashenko seems more confident and complacent than ever in his victory. At this point, it is clear that a change in regimethe first in 26 yearswill not happen without the wholehearted support and action of the international community. The key element in this approach must be prioritizing the promotion of democratic standards over geopolitical interests. 

Western Inaction

The West’s skepticism towards having a strong stance on an issue concerning a post-Soviet country (especially one with historically deep ties with Russia) is understandable. Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated over time, given the scandal surrounding the Russian interference in the 2016 American elections and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. However, the tensions between Russia and the western countries, starting with the U.S., are deep-rooted and should be analyzed in the context of the Cold War. The competition over influence in the post-Soviet space is the issue at the core of the disputes between Russia and the West. The current situation in Donbass (Ukraine) illustrates what happens when either side makes a move to assert its dominance in the region. The demonstrations that started in Donbass in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution escalated into armed conflict between the Russia-backed separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and the Ukrainian government. Therefore, there definitely are risks associated with the West’s involvement in Belarus, one of the post-Soviet countries; interference could create even more turmoil and give Russia an excuse to deploy its military in the region. Nevertheless, timid reactions and indifference from the international community will cost opposition leaders their freedom and protesters their only real chance for a democratic future. 

Initially seeming to accept the cost of their inaction, the European Union and the United States gave quite feeble responses to Belarusian uprisings. Until a month ago, they had only declared their solidarity with the protesters. On August 19, following a meeting of heads of government, the European Council issued a statement declaring that “The 9 August elections were neither free nor fair, therefore we do not recognize the results”. At the same time, on the day after the election, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued a statement professing to be “deeply concerned” about the vote that was “neither free nor fair”. 

What Next?

The logical question that follows is: are these declarations enough? Applying diplomatic pressure may be efficient in certain situations, but Lukashenko’s tactical moves are a clear signal for the West that they need to up their game. Even in the first days of protest, Lukashenko was convinced that “at the first request, Russia will provide comprehensive assistance to ensure the security of Belarus in the event of external military threats”. Later, Russia made actual promises to Lukashenko, offering military assistance to stop the protests, which have been labeled by both Putin and Lukashenko as part of a NATO plot aiming to transform Belarus into a “bridgehead against Russia”. Taking into account Lukashenko’s previous reticence regarding any collaboration with Russia, this appeal to Putin shows that the Belarusian dictator is ready to go all the way in order to secure power. Now is the time for the West to make their move as they must navigate how to respond to Russia’s promises and whether or not they will interpret Putin’s words as a credible threat or a bluff.

On the one hand, Belarus’s vulnerability could be exploited by Russia, which has continuously tried to increase its military presence in the country, particularly after the loss of Ukraine as one of its allies in the region in 2014. Ironically, this argument was used by Lukashenko in the early days of protests before radically changing his strategy and turning to Russia as his protector. On the other hand, Putin, of course, has his own best interests in mind, and he is aware that alienating his only friendly neighbor will create yet another obstacle to increasing Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. Previously, opposition figures have emphasized that they are not fighting against Moscow, but against a president they believe is illegitimate. However, if Putin goes too far, he risks depicting Russia as equivalent to Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime in the eyes of Belarusians. And if there is one thing that Putin does not need now, that is another enemy close to Russian borders. Additionally, there is a realistic chance that a Russian military intervention will have a serious backlash, forcing the West to respond both militarily and with sanctions, regardless of its reluctance towards getting involved in conflicts in the post-Soviet region.

An International Game of Chess

The tumultuous state of affairs in the region has turned the international community’s responses to the Belarus protests into an elaborate game of chess. Each side calculates its move after an extensive series of cost-benefit analyses. Nevertheless, everyone knows that the best way to win a chess game is to see several moves ahead. Therefore, the West should be prepared for both scenarios: one where Russia decides that supporting Lukashenko is a lost cause, and another in which Russia remains loyal until the end to its union state counterpart. The European Union’s actions have reflected its democratic ideals thus far, showing its commitment to protecting human rights and democratic principles, not only on paper, but also by imposing sanctions on 40 individuals identified as responsible for repression and intimidation against peaceful demonstrators, including the interior minister and the head of the election commission. More recently, the E.U. has agreed to penalize Lukashenko as well through a travel ban and an asset freeze. The United States has since followed the E.U.’s example, also imposing sanctions.  In addition to Lukashenko, the U.S. sanctions also target Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev and his deputy. Nevertheless, the limited scale of existing sanctions could render them ineffective. On top of that, Lukashenko has responded with retaliatory sanctions for E.U. officials, and these sanctions are also applicable in Russia. Moreover, the Belarusian dictator has the financial support of Putin, who has agreed to a $1.5 billion loan. This move makes it pretty clear that even stricter economic sanctions from the E.U. and the U.S. will be necessary in order to counteract the measures taken by Lukashenko and his Russian supporters. 

All things considered, although the current state of affairs looks like a deadlock, it is just a matter of time until one side prevails. In order to ensure that Belarusian protesters and democracy are not on the losing side, the E.U. and the U.S. should fervently fight for democratic principles and values without fear of upsetting Russia, even in the post-Soviet space. 

Image Credit: “Belarusian Protests” by AP Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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