How Long before Business as Usual: Tai Chi à la Lukashenka

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has an uncanny sense of balance. Elections and gas disputes occasionally threaten his equilibrium with a push to the West or East. But like the best Tai Chi practitioners, Lukashenka has learned that pressure to one side or the other already contains the forces needed to upright himself.

In this sense he has perfected the art of the weak nation stuck between more powerful actors. It also means that decisions in the West or East do not ever really change Belarusian policy; for example, decisions like whether or not to impose sanctions just determine how long the balancing process takes to reach equilibrium again. The latest case demonstrates just how much Lukashenka has perfected this process: his actions between the disputed December election and the EU Council of Ministers’ response on Jan. 31 ensured that only a slight nudge was in order this time.

The dialectic in the Minsk-Moscow relationship is Lukashenka’s hope that Russia will provide material support while forgoing dominance in the economy and foreign policy of its smaller neighbor. Unsurprisingly, the relationship is marked by tension. Lukashenka has refused to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He allowed the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan (an enemy of the Russians for refusing to evict an American air base) to settle in his country. During the ‘gas war’ in June 2010, Lukashenka even threatened the possibility of Russia ‘losing’ Belarus. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has accused Lukashenka of acting outside the rules of decency; he had used similar language in a letter that severed relations with former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. The Russian media has likened Lukashenka to both Hitler and Stalin.

To prevent his country from leaning too much in the Russian direction, Lukashenka has scoured the globe for other partners. Belarus has signed an agreement with China worth $3.5 billion in credits. Minsk has even tried to reverse Soviet era pipelines to import Venezuelan oil through the Baltic states and Azerbaijani oil through the Ukraine to be processed in Belarus and then and sent to Europe. Unsurprisingly, Russian companies have done their best to frustrate such maneuvers. Ironically, the recently imposed American economic sanctions affect the company, BelNaftakhim, that has been on the frontlines in the fight to prevent Russian from sabotaging its plans to import oil through Latvia.

China and Venezuela are far away, however, and Minsk knows that it can gain most of its balancing strength through Brussels. The Europeans, especially the Poles and Baltic states, are more than happy to help ease Russia’s geopolitical pressure on one of its neighbors. Yet the EU is in an awkward situation. ‘Colored revolutions’ are often seen as an important step in curtailing Russia’s sphere of influence, but that goal loses some of its saliency when the dictator is already willing to make some of the right noises with regards to its relationship with Moscow. Despite democratic setbacks, Europe already has an incentive not to push Belarus back into the arms of Russia. Lukashenka can furthermore ease this process by making meaningless democratic concessions that allow the Europeans to maintain a relationship with Belarus while keeping a straight face.

Even if Belarus was pushed into the arms of Russia, the situation would rapidly change for several reasons. First, Lukashenka would remember how much he dislikes Russian chauvinism. Second, the West would recognize that its policies were likely not leading to any benefits. Third, over time the memory of the most recent crackdown on democratic rights would slowly fade.

These principles can clearly be seen in the most recent episode. After the election, the
Belarussian Foreign Minister quickly made a tour of the European capitals to explain the necessity of the crackdown. A few days before the EU Council of Ministers was scheduled to vote on how to punish Belarus for the arrests, Lukashenka transferred several political prisoners from prison to house arrest. Even here the Belarussian president’s cleverness was on display: the most famous of those released was Uladzimir Nekliaeu, a man who had recently been charged as the candidate supported by Moscow.

Meanwhile, Belarussian diplomats in Berlin explicitly hinted that strong sanctions would push Minsk back into the arms of Russia. Partly to strengthen that sense, and likely also because of a genuine feeling of weakness, Belarus agreed with Moscow in January to an oil and nuclear deal that most experts see as against Minsk’s interests. To spread the blame, both Russia and the West were accused of engineering the street demonstrations against the regime.

Unsurprisingly, the European and American response finally announced on January 31st was tepid. Officials were slapped with travel bans and asset freezes; a few days previously Lukashenka mocked such a step, noting that he had faced a travel ban before and survived. The punishment did not even include the economic punishment suggested in a previous non-binding declaration passed by the European Parliament. Washington only went slightly father than Brussels and revoked licenses needed to do business with two subsidiaries of BelNaftakhim.

Minsk’s relations with the West have certainly been damaged. Russia will likely get some
concessions from Belarus in the short term. Belarus may be more cooperative with regards to the Customs Union, and the most extreme step Lukashenka could take, the recognition of the separatist enclaves in Georgia, would mean a much stronger step into the Russian orbit than usual. Even so, given the ‘reset’ in relations with Russia, this would not cause many alarm bells in western capitals. Lukashenka’s crackdown pushed him in one direction; it will not be long before business as usual again.

by Joseph Torigian, contributing writer

Joseph Torigian is a PhD researcher in the Security Studies Program at MIT

Belarus Digest