Is time on the side Of Lukashenka?
Last week president Lukashenka declared his interest in good relations with Western countries.
His statement came against a backdrop of active contacts between Belarusian officials and their European counterparts in recent two months. Involved in them were a director of a department of the EU External Action Service, a delegation of the Council of Europe, representatives of Lithuanian foreign ministry, a delegation of Swedish foreign ministry, and Czech foreign minister.
Two weeks ago, Lukashenka said at a meeting with US experts that Belarus seeks "normal" relations with Washington, as well. Though all these developments are far from breakthrough in relations with the West frozen after 2010, they demonstrate that Belarusian government is aware that it cannot just stick to Moscow. At the same time it does display any haste in improving relations with the West. It hopes that the time is on its side on the international arena.
No Democracy for a Nickel
Sure, the prospects for a genuine rapprochement between Belarus and the West presently look bleak. The interests of all parties apparently do not require urgent mending fences. Belarusian regime feels himself secure with Russian protection and help. The European politicians who tried to strike a deal with Lukashenka in 2008-2010 would not like to risk it again. The European Union has more important problems to sort out and is quite happy to just demonstratively punish ugly yet rather harmless (for Europeans) dictatorship in Belarus.
Having tried to democratise Belarus and bring it closer to Europe in 2008-2010, the EU never had offered Minsk a serious deal capable of changing situation in the country. After all, Belarus needs to compensate possible loss of huge Russian subsidies after removing of existing model of relations with Moscow which is a fundament of existing regime.
To change this reality, extensive and expensive modernisation is needed, yet European politicians wanted to do it on the cheap. Of course, they failed because they ignored basic political economy of Belarusian state.
So, the EU began to fight against the Belarusian regime using isolation, threats and restrictive measures. Cutting links with Minsk the West played into hands of Moscow and Lukashenka. The isolation brought regime closer to Russia and did not threaten its existence. On the contrary, it drastically diminished opportunities of political alternatives to Lukashenka emerging among Belarusian nomenclature and business community allied with the state.
Removal of current regime cannot be achieved without changing political economy of the nation. Currently there is very little hope for that. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty quoted an anonymous Western diplomat who said while "your modernisation costs big money, defence of democratic values costs nothing."
The EU continues to condemn Minsk and demand release of political prisoners yet not ready to seriously invest in changes. Thus, last year the Polish-based Belsat TV – the only TV project supporting opponents of Lukashenka – had to suspend for weeks much of its broadcasting as its 2012 annual budget had been spent before the year ended.
Of course, two EU members – Lithuania and Poland – will always have interest in neighbouring Belarus, yet they are by far not the most relevant actors in the EU foreign policy. Other EU countries, and all major EU members have no interest in a small post-Soviet country lacking big assets like oil or gas and threatening no one even in its neighbourhood.
However, a country which is not important today may become important tomorrow. In better times of Russian-Western relations, the West could neglect Belarus dealing just with Russia. Worsening relations with Russia will increase geopolitical significance of the region and Belarus. The deterioration of these relations is evident in recent years and the tends will continue given the increasingly authoritarian methods of Kremlin.
It was Russian aggression in the Caucasus in 2008 which brought Western politicians to the idea of negotiating with the Belarusian strongman. He knows it and anticipates a new change of geopolitical reality. Moreover, if this time the confrontation between Russia and the West lasts longer Lukashenka could become for the West something like Ceausescu of Communist Romania in the time of the Cold War, i.e., a man with dubious views and background yet indispensable for geopolitical reasons.
Putin's efforts to establish the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet world by 2015 is just adding to a series of collisions between Moscow and the West in the Middle East and on ever recurring questions of human rights and democracy in Russia itself. Actually, Western countries may have to accept not only Lukashenka. The EU has also to deal with increasingly authoritarian Ukraine run by Viktor Yanukovich who may join Lukashenka in his defiance of democracy.
Dangerous Russian Ally
The hopes of Belarusian ruler for a new confrontation between Russia and the West makes him seek contacts with the EU without giving in to European demands concerning liberalisation and release of political prisoners. At the moment he is using contacts with the EU merely as leverage in negotiations with Russia. For the Belarusian ruling elite is clear, though Russia is their main sponsor, they shall beware of Kremlin.
Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey said once of brutal "jungle law" in international environment around Belarus. Some commentators were quick to interpret it as a reference to the Western pressure on the regime, yet there are signs that Belarusian officials consider relations with Russia in similar terms.
At the meeting with experts representing Jamestown Foundation, an American think tanks, Lukashenka emphasised contradictions of Russian-Belarusian relationship. He stated that Russia had changed its imperial thinking yet Belarusians were vigilant and constantly defended their independence. He brought up an example of a "forceful attempt [by Russia] to introduce common currency" which had been defeated.
This understanding is a positive development which created a precondition for a new age in Belarusian relations with the West. Just a dozen years ago Belarusian ruling establishment did not see the country outside the Russian realm at all. Yet no government in Minsk – neither authoritarian nor democratic – can introduce significant changes in foreign alignment of the country without changes in its political economy, i.e., freeing economy from total dependence on Russian energy subsidies.
Only when this strong dependence on Moscow will be overcome, Belarusians can change their country and build functioning democracy. Belarusian independence and democracy require serious investments and risky deals. And these investments and risk-taking initiatives by the West can materialise when Belarus becomes more important due to changes in its geopolitical situation.