By Nathalie Heidema
Often described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ the Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. The demonstrations that erupted as a result of the August 2020 elections that saw Lukashenko’s sixth presidential term confirmed have changed little – if anything – and the gap between the West and Belarus is widening. On the other hand, the Minsk-Moscow relations have always been based on asymmetric dependency, yet the cooperation has recently even intensified in the economic, security and defense aspects.
Where does Belarus stand on… Human rights?
As the (Western) international community condemns Belarus for the infringement of human rights, its leadership continues to reject and repress any political opposition and its alternatives. A recent resolution from the European Parliament has evaluated the situation in Belarus one year after the protests and stated that the authorities continue to violently repress its citizens, organizations, and businesses that are opposed to the regime. It is estimated that authorities have detained around 40.000 Belarusians for participating in the protests, including hundreds of filed cases of ill-treatment, torture, and other severe violations of human rights. Moreover, there are thousands of neglected reports referring to police brutality, as well as 120 unfair and arbitrary verdicts in politically motivated trials. Opposition politicians are targeted and imprisoned for up to 14 years.
The Belarusian regime has undertaken repression campaigns against civil society and human rights defenders to silence the remaining independent voices in the country. Since the protests initiated, the regime has liquidated around 250 civil society organizations, thus testifying to the justice system failing to equally enforce and independently adjudicate the rule of law in Belarus.
Notably, in May 2021, Athens-Lithuania commercial flight was diverted to Minsk, where young Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner were immediately detained and imprisoned. The international community has responded with outrage about the fact that Belarus resorted to such extreme measures as hijacking a plane. The EU leaders agreed to impose additional sanctions on Belarus and considered it an act of state terrorism.
Lukashenko has also recently suspended the accord on migration that had been signed with the EU before the 2020 elections. He says it is a response to the EU's sanctions, however, the EU condemns such instrumentalization of people. Poland claims that Lukashenko has been using refugees as political weapons, and has even alarmed the army to guard the border. Fellow NATO allies Latvia and Lithuania find themselves in a similar situation, as hundreds of migrants are encouraged to illegally cross the border into the EU.
Where does Belarus stand on… Economic development?
The economy in Belarus is founded and sustained on large state-owned enterprises, as is the majority of production assets. Belarus deviates from the principles of democracy and market economy, which continues to challenge cooperation therewith – meanwhile consolidating its relations with Russia and the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union).
Belarus is heavily dependent on Russian energy, and simultaneously serves as an important transit route for Russian oil and gas to Europe. And thus, despite having had several oil and gas disputes in the past decade, Lukashenko and Putin met in Moscow in September 2021 and agreed to deepen their economic integration and set up a unified oil and gas market. Further, they agreed on 28 integration road maps encompassing common approaches to macro-economic policies; including monetary policy, taxes and custom rules.
To lessen its reliance on Russian energy, Belarus is constructing a nuclear power plant Ostrovets, near the border with Lithuania. Nuclear safety is a topic that highly worries the EU, yet is not actively elaborated on nor engaged with from the Belarusian side. The EU, however, encourages Belarus to cooperate with international authorities and especially its neighboring countries, to build on cross-border trust and the overall nuclear safety in the region. The nuclear power plant operation is part of an important strategy for Belarus’s energy empowerment, but paradoxically, the project is financed by Russia itself.
One of the greatest challenges for Belarus will be sustained economic growth without structural reforms. Historically, economic development has been guaranteed through energy subsidies from Moscow. Looking ahead, however, especially oil subsidies are expected to decline as of 2030, due to the energy transition policies at the global level. Market reforms will be thus necessary (even if pushed from Moscow), and their effects are expected to bring a change to Lukashenko’s political and societal status. This could mean even greater subordination to the Kremlin’s influence, and it begs the question - is Lukashenko willing to risk trading off Belarus’s sovereignty in exchange for more support from Russia?
Where does Belarus stand on… Relations with Russia?
Due to the deteriorating relations that isolate Belarus ever more from the West, Lukashenko has recently been fully compliant and willing to cater to Russia’s aid – political, economic, and military. Accordingly, Lukashenko has removed the neutrality clause in Belarus’ constitution in July 2021 while publicly displaying his full allegiance to Russia. Moscow supported the decision and affirmed that Belarus has relinquished any obligations to the West and demonstrated full involvement in Moscow’s strategic priorities.
Militarily, Russia is increasing its military presence in Belarus, as it deployed fighter jets for joint patrols of airspace along the borders. The two countries have established a joint air force and defense training center in Grodno, less than 15 kilometers from the border with Poland. In an already sensitive political environment, the joint Zapad 2021 military exercise was held in Belarus in September 2021 – involving 200.000 troops, hundreds of planes, armored vehicles, and ships. The EU reiterated that this exercise, including other similar large-scale exercises, testify to Russia’s offensive posturing and provocations. Putin stated that it was purposefully held near the western borders as a reaction to NATO’s expansive presence in the region.
Belarus is also highly susceptible to Russian influence on its (national) media. In fact, around 60% of the broadcasting and media content in Belarus is produced by Russia, which consequently has a conditioning effect on its population. The problematics here are rooted in the fact that private national media are largely limited and prohibited, and thus there is a lack of alternative media sources in Belarus. As already mentioned, the government persistently violates freedoms of speech and persecutes journalists, hence making it difficult for independent media to work without fearing consequences.
Therefore, amidst such frozen relations between Belarus and the West, countries should be pragmatic rather than optimistic in observing the next (geopolitical) developments in our shared neighborhood space.
About the author: Nathalie Heidema Nathalie is passionate about the EU external policy, international cooperation and security, specializing in the Latin American and East European region. She holds a double Master degree in Political Science and East European Affairs. Coming from a bi-cultural background, she is eager in bridging the gap between the divided East & West, and thus being an avid mediator. She has field experience from both Latin America (Mercosur) and Eastern Europe. Nathalie now works for the EU Delegation to the UN. Her experience is mainly in the field of economics, environment, and other development programs. firstname.lastname@example.org
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