"Europe needs action plan for a Belarus Spring"
A revolution in Minsk like those in Egypt and Tunisia could catch European leaders unprepared. Experts believe the European Union needs a plan to address what would follow any ousting of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Certain parallels can easily be drawn between the Arab Spring and the protests in Belarus, sometimes referred to as Europe's last dictatorship.
In Tunisia and Egypt it was the younger generation that used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to organize their revolt. In Belarus, the capacity of groups to orchestrate demonstrations has also been boosted by the power of social networking sites. These include the country's own alternative to Facebook, Wkontakte.
But while many experts say a popular uprising is not imminent, some say that the country's economic crisis means that nothing can be ruled out.
Extreme situations almost always lead to change of those in power, according to Eastern Europe expert Alexander Rahr from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). But the European Union simply does not have a plan for such a scenario, he said.
"The EU is as unprepared for Belarus as it was for the events in North Africa or the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine," he said.
One problem, according Jörg Forbrig, an expert with the German Marshall Fund, is that in order to act, the EU member nations must reach consensus on the issue, which is notoriously difficult to achieve.
Forming new networks
Some analysts believe that Brussels' room for maneuver might be quite limited, because, as Rahr warns, the EU currently only supports the official Belarusian opposition. "But these are not the people who have the support of the people," Rahr said. "And they're not in a position to bring about a change at the top, either through revolution or through evolution."
Others disagree. Lauras Bielinis is a political scientist at the University of Vilnius in neighboring Lithuania, where many opposition figures have fled. He thinks close contact with the opposition could be a crucial asset for the EU, especially if the opposition ends up running the country.
Rahr, on the other hand, said he doesn't even dare to imagine such a scenario yet.
"But if that were to happen, then the people who would end up in positions of power are those that are already part of the state structures," he said. "They're in the ministries, particularly the security forces, or among the regional leaders. And the EU has no contact with these people."
An unpredictable future
Events in North Africa have demonstrated that riots can break out even in countries where the stability of the regime is taken for granted. And the upheaval in the Arab world has presented the international community with new challenges. What approach does one take with the new people in charge? What should be done about the refugees? How can economic collapse in those countries be prevented?
The challenge is not only providing short-term emergency aid, commentaters believe, but making sure state structures do not collapse.
"The EU looks at it this way: If Minsk is moving towards democracy, then we can help. But if not, then they have to figure out how to cope on their own," Rahr said. "So Brussels wastes an opportunity to have an influence on where Belarus is headed."
The EU's priority should be to make sure things remain non-violent in Belarus in the case of a revolution, Forbrig said, and to encourage the democratization of the country.
Looking east or west?
Neither Russia nor the EU have a plan B for the aftermath of a potential revolution in Belarus, according to Forbrig.
"If unrest and chaos were to break out in Belarus, the EU would not be ready," said Bielinis. "Many important transport routes run through Belarus, including energy transport between the EU and Russia that could be destroyed."
Neither a destabilized Belarus nor an alliance between Moscow and Minsk is in the interest of the EU, according to Rahr. So Brussels needs a plan B, he said. Rahr thinks it's time the EU showed Belarus that it will hold out a helping hand, if, in return, Minsk opens its economy to the West.
If Belarus were to take this path, politics in the country would inevitably change as well. "This is exactly what the leadership in Minsk is afraid of," Rahr said. "But the situation is gradually getting desperate. In other words, the longer the crisis lasts, the fewer options those in power have. They'll have to develop closer ties with Russia or with the EU."