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What The West Gets Wrong About Belarus


Alyaksandr Lukashenka is sworn in as Belarusian president at a special session of the parliament in Minsk on July 20, 1994.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka is sworn in as Belarusian president at a special session of the parliament in Minsk on July 20, 1994.

Pigeonholes are handy ways of making sense of the world. But what if the pigeons won’t roost in them?

For the past 20 years, outside opinion, when it has tried to engage with Belarus at all, has tried to cram this country of 10 million people into one convenient category after another.

First, in the era of George H.W. Bush, it was part of the “Slavic core” of the Soviet Union. Countries such as the Baltic states might want to split from Moscow, but loyal, Russified Ukraine and Belarus would stay with the Kremlin. That was wrong.

Then came the assumption that Minsk would progress like other “ex-Soviet republics,” undergoing economic recovery, privatization, and the establishment of a political system based on the rule of law and political freedom. Russia, in those happy days, was seen as an ally in that cause. This hope reached its heyday in the era of Stanislau Shushkevich, leader of the country until 1994. Belarus shed its nuclear weapons, enjoyed a free press, a pluralist political system, and a cautiously pro-Western foreign policy. It was not unimaginable that it might one day join the European Union (EU). It certainly seemed a better prospect than the relatively backward countries of Romania and Bulgaria. But that was wrong, too.

Having initially welcomed the election of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 as a decisive political figure with a strong focus on combating corruption, the West looked on with increasing horror as Lukashenka turned the country eastward, signing deal after deal with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. The idea that Belarusian statehood might be a temporary phenomenon gained ground. The new Russian-Belarusian Union was first and foremost a boondoggle for corrupt officials. (It had a nice budget, no accountability, and the right to grant useful tariff and customs exemptions.)

But it seemed inevitable to many that Lukashenka's strongly pro-Russian, pan-Slavic approach would end with the country becoming part of a new Kremlin-led confederation that in the future might include other pro-Russian anomalies, such as Transdniester -- a breakaway bit of Moldova -- or the two separatist, Russian-backed enclaves in Georgia.

That was wrong, too. Lukashenka liked the idea of being on a bigger stage. He also liked the idea that he might himself become a big fish in a big pond, rather than just the boss of a small one. He started a series of public meetings and speeches in the Russian provinces, which looked remarkably like an election campaign. Perhaps he would become the new leader of Russia and Belarus, replacing the ailing Boris Yeltsin? That idea seems eccentric now. But it was under serious consideration in the twilight of the Yeltsin era.

Toppling Lukashenka

The pigeonhole labeled “loyal Kremlin satrap” proved wrong, too. Lukashenka did not get on well with Vladimir Putin, who showed no desire to spend time or money on improving ties with the earthy, crude, volatile, and bombastic Belarusian leader. Far from creating a superstate, the Russian-Belarusian Union failed on almost every practical count. It did not create a single market in goods, services, capital, or people. The attempt to set up a common currency suffered numerous embarrassing postponements. It became increasingly clear that the economic stability so much prized by Belarusians was essentially based on cheap Russian gas, supplied in return for pipeline privileges and geopolitical support.

As the repressive climate in Belarus became harsher, the West started thinking hard about how to topple Lukashenka. More mistaken labeling was the result. The focus of Western support was the Belarusian opposition -- a ragtag mix of idealists, has-beens, never-weres, turncoats, nationalist extremists, and eccentrics, who were to their delight, but to little effect, showered with money, training, and supportive propaganda.

Throwing money at the problem was meant to replicate the experience in Central Europe in the 1980s. Money helped Solidarity topple communism in Poland. Radio broadcasts had been hugely effective in bringing the message of freedom to the captive nations. Surely, the same combination would work in Belarus?

After 15 years, the results are embarrassingly scanty.

None of the opposition leaders has emerged as a charismatic, credible leader similar to Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. It is true that they faced a difficult fight against a nasty regime. But the dissidents of the communist era still managed hugely impressive feats of organization and mobilization. Nothing of the kind has happened in Belarus.

A particularly wrong pigeonhole was to conflate hostility to the autocracy and thuggishness of the regime with the related but different question of Belarusian national identity. It is true that Lukashenka has treated the nominal national language with a mixture of neglect and contempt. It is also true that this has to some extent stimulated interest.

And ethnic and national consciousness was, indeed, the driving force for many of the freedom fighters in the Baltic states: Their countries were occupied by the Soviet Union; they wanted them back. That was a simple and passionate creed which sat easily, for the most part, with the wider message of democracy and a return to Europe.

But that thinking does not transplant simply to Belarus, where the national language was more a divisive than a unifying force. Mainly spoken in the countryside, varying from place to place and heavily burdened with the legacy of Russification, the Belarusian language was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the opposition to gain momentum: It was at best irrelevant and at worst harmful.

National Liberation Struggle

Unfortunately, many of the outsiders trying to help the Belarusian cause came from a political tradition in which language, historical, and ethnic issues were central. They saw the toppling of the Lukashenka regime as part of a national liberation struggle, in which Belarus would return to its deep historic roots in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with a strong linguistic and cultural identity.

That is an attractive idea. But for most ordinary Belarusians it is a distant one, at best mildly appealing, at worst outright repellent. An analogy might be trying to bring political change to Louisiana by focusing chiefly on the restoration of Cajun language and traditions.

So another pigeonhole proved wrong. Belarus was not a dictatorship ripe for toppling at the hands of a patriotic pro-Western opposition in a “color revolution” along the lines of those that seemed to work so well in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, and Ukraine. (In retrospect, all those gains look a bit less simple and wonderful than they seemed at the time.)

Lukashenka speaks to lawmakers during his annual state-of-the-nation address in Minsk on April 21.


Along came another pigeonhole, in which Belarus was a victim of Kremlin machinations. The idea was to focus on geopolitics first and democracy second. The Belarusian nomenklatura was clearly fed up with Russia’s heavy-handed approach and could see the failures of Putinism.

With the right amount of wooing, they would, therefore, recognize that their economic interests were with the West. If they, and Lukashenka, could be offered the right deal, then they would certainly accept. This pigeonhole was built on the basis of the “Eastern Partnership” -- the idea that the European Union should provide a special series of programs (on trade, visas, modernization, and political ties) with the six countries to the west and south of Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

That was wrong, too. The Eastern Partnership countries are hugely different in their needs, aims, and outlook. Ukraine found it insulting to be lumped along with small countries. Georgia, ardently pro-Western, disliked being included with five countries that were hesitant about or even hostile to the values of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.

Mysterious Subway Bombing

Though Belarus sniffed at the concessions and made some cosmetic ones in return -- chiefly, allowing the election campaign last December to proceed with a modicum of fairness -- the regime was unable or unwilling to follow through. The postelection period has brought an unprecedented crackdown (with dozens of political prisoners behind bars), an economic crisis (including a plunging currency), and now a murderous and mysterious terrorist attack on the Minsk subway (in which 14 were killed and dozens maimed).

It is a measure of the failure of Western analysis and involvement in Belarus that we have no idea who was behind the bombing or what it means. Was this a genuine terrorist outrage, as the Belarusian authorities claim? If so, we know almost nothing about the supposed extremist group that is apparently willing to attack randomly and lethally. Was it the result of a split in the regime, with a putative “hard-line” group trying to spook a supposedly more reformist camp by demonstrating a capacity to wreak mayhem? Perhaps.

But we know so little about the internal politics of the regime’s inner circles that such speculation is sterile. Was it a message from Russia? If so, what was it conveying? We know embarrassingly little about the real content of Russian-Belarusian relations. It would be facile to conclude this dismal catalogue, in which the pages are stained with Western ignorance, gullibility, wishful thinking, cynicism, and self-interest, by offering a simple manifesto for success. We have tried almost everything, sometimes several times. Nothing has worked.

The first part of any solution is a dose of humility on the Western side. The second is a clear-eyed look at Belarus as the country that it is, not the one we would like it to be. This is not a country in which quick fixes are likely to work. The combination of a weak national identity (independent Belarus lasted a few months in 1918), of wartime suffering (worse than any other country in what Yale professor Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands”), and of intense Sovietization has left a specific cultural and mental legacy. One of its big features is risk aversion. Another is a distrust of institutions. A third is a dislike of outside meddling. Lukashenka’s approach of fatherly bossiness, superficial stability, and paranoia fits that neatly.

Our best chance of success is a long-term effort to change the reality of life in Belarus through economic and human engagement, coupled with tightly focused penalties on people at the top of the regime responsible for the beatings, imprisonment, and disappearances. The greatest success in the past decade has been one in which Western policymakers have played no role: the reorientation of Belarusian foreign trade from East to West. The EU, not Russia, is now the biggest export market for Belarus.

Entrenching The Regime

The long-term effects of that are profound. It means that Belarusian managers have to learn European languages, travel to Europe, and build business contacts with their counterparts there. It exposes them to the law-based system of Western capitalism, in sharp contrast to the clientelism, corruption, and arbitrariness of doing business in Russia. Imposing wide and deep economic sanctions, although a gratifying gesture for us, would do little to promote the release of political prisoners.

And it is highly unlikely that the EU would follow America’s lead in this respect. Sanctions do sometimes work. But in the case of Belarus, the result would likely be Zimbabwefication: entrenching the regime, stoking paranoia and isolation, and giving Russia powerful tools to promote its own interests.

Instead, we should promote trade and other forms of economic engagement. One radical move would be to translate the EU rulebook into Russian. We should also make it as cheap and easy as possible for Belarusians to study in the West through the implementation of a scholarship program. Corruption in higher education is a serious problem in Belarus: Many students would be receptive to better options. A central condition of such a program would be that applicants, Fulbright-style, would have to return to Belarus for a number of years after completing their studies.

The result of such active engagement would be to steadily Europeanize Belarus, counteracting the malignant influence of the regime and changing the mental and moral climate to the point that the rule of law and political freedom seem natural, rather than strange foreign concepts.

The other part of this strategy would be to hit the regime with travel and financial sanctions. Visa bans on those directly responsible for political repression will stop them and their family members from shopping, studying, and vacationing in the West. That will hurt. So will a squeeze on their wallets. It is well-known in the Western intelligence community that some of the senior people in the regime have large investments in the West, notably in Austria.

These assets are the result of systematic theft from the Belarusian people and should be subject to money-laundering investigations. The banks that have handled these transactions have been profiting from illegal business. If they continue doing so, they must accept that they will lose their banking licenses in America. Faced with that choice, they will likely drop their Belarusian customers faster than you can say Wiener schnitzel.

The aim of this policy should be highly specific: the release of all political prisoners. Once that is achieved, sanctions of all kinds should cease, in order to allow for the biggest possible impact of economic engagement. Certainly this involves the politicalization of what are meant to be neutral decisions by the criminal justice and financial supervision authorities. But it might get Andrey Sannikau and his counterparts out of jail. If so, it’s worth it.

The long-term benefits from economic engagement with Belarus are not certain. It could entrench the regime and make it richer and more stable. But against a background of 20 years of failed policy in other respects, it does build on the one success story: the reorientation of trade. I believe it is worth trying.

Edward Lucas is the international section editor of "The Economist." This commentary originally appeared on the website of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and is reproduced with their permission

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