Belarusian President Lukashenko has had a complicated love-hate relationship with the Kremlin. While Belarus has generally aligned its foreign policy outlook with the Russian Federation, at various moments Lukashenko tried to keep his geopolitical options open. In a special report Institute Clingendael identifies six scenarios for the future of Belarus and further elaborates the consequences of four of them.
By Bob Deen, Barbara Roggeveen and Wouter Zweers
The Union State of Russia and Belarus was forged in the 1990s through a series of bilateral treaties but has largely remained a paper tiger – at least until now. For well over two decades Belarusian President Lukashenko has had a complicated love-hate relationship with the Kremlin, milking the Russian Federation for energy subsidies and other economic benefits while simultaneously zealously guarding his country’s sovereignty and shielding its state-owned enterprises from Russian takeovers. Although co-operation in the military domain has advanced considerably, the more far-reaching provisions of the Union State, such as a joint constitution, monetary union and a single energy market, have never materialized.
While Belarus has generally aligned its foreign policy outlook with the Russian Federation and acceded to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, at various moments Lukashenko tried to keep his geopolitical options open as his relations with the Kremlin deteriorated. Among other things, he sought closer relations with the European Union following the 2008 Georgia conflict and the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The EU, in turn, has alternated between defending its democratic values by imposing sanctions on Lukashenko and his regime for human rights abuses, and then lifting those again a few years later, hoping to lure Belarus away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Hopes in vain
These hopes proved to be in vain. The Presidential elections of August 2020 and their repressive aftermath have again led to a turning point in Belarus’ relations with the West and with the Russian Federation. Relying on Russian support to remain in power and facing a series of European sanctions, Lukashenko is now again under pressure by the Kremlin to make far-reaching concessions and to advance the integration of Belarus and Russia within the Union State framework.
As both the stability of the Lukashenko regime and the outcome of the integration process remain uncertain, this report identifies six scenarios for the future of Belarus and further elaborates the consequences of four of them.
In the first scenario, ‘Muddle Through’, Lukashenko remains in power either upfront or behind the scenes and repeats the pattern of the last 25 years, making just enough concessions to preserve Russian support but avoiding to make integration irreversible. In the second scenario, ‘Reluctant Integration’, Lukashenko is forced to make far-reaching concessions for further integration within the Union State, including in the economic and military domains. In the third scenario, ‘Change of Course’, the regime falls and a new moderate government comes to power that aims to restore good relations with both the EU and the Russian Federation and tries to carefully reverse some of the steps taken by Lukashenko, with limited success. In the final scenario, ‘Incorporation’, Lukashenko is replaced by a much more pro-Russian leader who cedes sovereignty to the Russian Federation in all but name and turns Belarus into a de facto satellite state.
Limited means for Europe
Each of these scenarios has far-reaching geopolitical, security and economic consequences that are elaborated upon in the report and its three external contributions. In its recommendations to the EU and NATO it argues that, as the West presently has limited means to influence Belarus’ general course in the near future, it should play the long game and be consistent in promoting its values. Importantly, the West would do well to abandon its geopolitical opportunism of lifting sanctions whenever Lukashenko gets into an argument with Russia and makes token concessions in the field of human rights. Instead, it should offer a long-term alternative perspective to the people of Belarus through direct support to those affected by repression and to the private sector, as well as preparing an economic recovery plan in case the ‘change of course’ scenario materialises. To increase the currently limited effectiveness of sanctions the West should take the reality of the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union into account and ensure more congruence of future sanctions on Russia and Belarus. In the field of security policy NATO should proceed from a do-no-harm principle and be cognizant of the fact that in Russian and Belarusian narratives ‘the West’ and NATO play negative roles vis-à-vis Belarus. Among other things, NATO should call on Russia and Belarus to provide maximum transparency prior to and during the Zapad 2021 military exercises; and it should lead by example by being transparent about its own exercises and military deployments in the region.
About the authors
Bob Deen is coordinator of the Clingendael Russia and Eastern Europe Centre (CREEC) and Senior Research Fellow in the Security Unit of the Clingendael Institute. Deen is responsible for the secretariate of the recently founded Russia-Europe Knowledge Alliance (REKA).
Barbara Roggeveen is a Research Associate at the Clingendael Institute.
Wouter Zweers is a Research Fellow at the EU and Global Affairs unit of the Clingendael Institute. Zweers is manager of the secretariate of the Russia-Europe Knowledge Alliance (REKA).