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The West Says It Won't Recognize Lukashenka As The President Of Belarus. Now What?

Alyaksandr Lukashenka signs a document after taking the oath of office during a hastily called "inauguration" in Minsk on September 23.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka signs a document after taking the oath of office during a hastily called "inauguration" in Minsk on September 23.

Statements by the United States and European Union crossed a Rubicon of sorts on September 23 by explicitly rejecting Alyaksandr Lukashenka's makeshift "inauguration" for a new term as the president of Belarus.

"The United States cannot consider Alyaksandr Lukashenka the legitimately elected leader of Belarus," a State Department spokesperson said.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the August 9 election and "the new mandate claimed by [Lukashenka] lack any democratic legitimacy."

Both called for new, "free and fair" Belarusian elections -- in the U.S. case following a "national dialogue" and the EU under the "supervision" of a European rights- and democracy-promotion body.

They appeared to lend support to the warning weeks earlier from exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

She had told representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that "countries and parties that make deals with Mr. Lukashenka do so at their own risk." Such outsiders, Tsikhanouskaya warned, should not expect a subsequent, democratically elected government to uphold agreements "made against [Belarusians'] will by an illegitimate regime."

But what practical effect are those U.S. and EU declarations likely to have on mutual relations?

Changing Trajectory?

The dialogue between Washington and Minsk before last month's disputed election was arguably more robust than it had been in decades.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Belarus in early February was the most senior U.S. visit in two decades and came with relations fraying between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Much of the public focus was on Belarusian "sovereignty," energy supplies, and the stated U.S. desire to "normalize" ties without alienating Moscow.

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But a Trump administration official noted it was "an era of great power competition and an opportunity to compete for influence."

"We want to be here," Pompeo said in Minsk.

Then, amid the crackdown that followed the August 9 election, U.S. officials urged Lukashenka to end the violence and seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Weeks later came the U.S. State Department's nonrecognition of Lukashenka's claim to the presidency.

A U.S. Case History

President Woodrow Wilson famously backed away from a previous U.S. administration's recognition of Mexican President Victoriano Huerta early in the last century, which was resolved when Huerta fled his homeland for Spain.

In more recent history, the United States has frequently avoided taking the lead on questions of recognizing competing claims to government.

Experts cite the example of Honduras in 2008, when Washington waited for an Organization of American States assessment before agreeing that President Manuel Zelaya was the victim of an illegitimate military coup.

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Two years later, in Central Asia, Washington stayed on the fence until Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev fled into exile, stopping briefly in Russia before settling in Belarus.

But a very recent example -- Washington's relationship toward Venezuela and de facto President Nicolas Maduro -- might be more instructive.

The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful president since early 2019. That's when Guaido, as president of the country's democratically elected National Assembly, tried to form a transition government to serve until internationally observed elections could be held to replace Maduro's dubious reelection victory a half-year earlier. Washington shut its embassy in Caracas at the same time.

U.S. officials have since ratcheted up sanctions and visa restrictions that have contributed to economic chaos in Venezuela.

But the U.S. side has kept hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of humanitarian and development assistance, including for some of the millions of Venezuelans who fled to nearby countries and for Venezuelans still in the country.

It continues to insist on the need for free and fair Venezuelan elections.

The EU And Its 'Eastern Partner'

The EU's Borrell said in announcing the nonrecognition of Lukashenka's claim to reelection that Brussels was "using all the tools that we have at our disposal" to change official behavior in Minsk.

Foremost among those tools is the decade-old Eastern Partnership, a joint initiative begun in 2009 to promote diplomatic and economic cooperation which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

But that forum is already widely criticized for its perceived failure to define key aspects like "security" and shared "values" -- such as democracy or human rights -- and for a top-down approach that risks excluding elements outside of formal power structures.

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The EU statement did not lay out specific measures stemming from its nonrecognition.

Instead, it said only that "in light of the current situation, the EU is reviewing its relations with Belarus."

"When the EU says it wants to review its cooperation, it means they are looking where to cut some support programs or initiatives that they had before in agreement with the government," Giuseppe Fama, the International Crisis Group's head of EU affairs, told RFE/RL.

But EU spending on programs and initiatives in Belarus was already paltry, even in comparison to that in other countries in the so-called "Eastern Neighborhood."

"Beyond the formality of recognition of the government, the reality of the [EU's] relations with the state of Belarus will not be enormously impacted because they were already quite low, to be frank," Fama said.

He also noted that the EU delegation in Minsk has not been recalled.

But the approach could pave the way to achieving progress on the ultimate goal of a more democratic vote, Fama suggested.

"So they've stopped saying, 'These elections are not good,'" Fama said. "And now it's important they start over from rebuilding an environment that can be conducive to free, fair, participative, democratic, and legitimate elections in Belarus."

Sidestepping Cyprus

Any EU path for Belarus must presumably pass through a summit of EU leaders that is supposed to take place in Brussels on October 1-2.

Much of the discussion until this week had been over whether EU officials could agree on a list of Belarusian individuals to sanction over the current crackdown.

That debate was reportedly hung up on Cypriot pressure to link the Belarusian question to getting firmer EU support in Nicosia's dispute over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

"While all this may seem on the surface to be an important statement of policy by the EU and the United States, it in fact also shows a rather more interesting direction in the practice of international politics," says James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He suggested it might be a way for the EU "to advance an ethical foreign policy," for instance.

"This is a very good way to show disapproval of an administration," Ker-Lindsay said. "But there may also be a practical explanation. It may also have to do with the decision of Cyprus to block sanctions against Lukashenka and others. This then becomes a way for the EU to express its disapproval when more punitive measures are off the table."

Into The Arms Of Russia?

The Belarusian standoff has so far been what Fama described as a fairly "localized crisis."

But there are clearly concerns that more decisive actions by the West could drive Lukashenka into the arms of neighboring Russia.

"Until this crisis, Lukashenka was timidly reaching out to European countries, not so much to the European Union but to European states, to try also to balance the presence of Russia and the relevance of its relations with Russia to make himself a little bit less dependent on Moscow," Fama said. "However, with this crisis, the situation has had an acceleration in the other direction."

But he said the EU announcement explicitly left room for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to play a crucial role.

And Russia, which initially remained wary of greater entanglement with Lukashenka but has since offered a massive loan package to support him, is a member of the OSCE.

"There is a need also to return to a form of dialogue that can allow things to be put in place into a progressive path that can lead to elections, hopefully monitored by the OSCE and its Office for [Democratic Institutions and] Human Rights, with also a cooperative, consensual presence of Russia, rather than a standoff where Russia would be the last man standing."

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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