Belarus Could Become Europe’s Next Nightmare

Andreas Kluth

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here is a scenario the European Union could face just across its eastern perimeter come Sunday, Aug. 9, after the polls close in Belarus’s presidential election.

For the first time in 26 years, according to this turn of events, a Belarusian poll doesn’t unequivocally confirm the iron-fisted rule of autocratic strongman Alexander Lukashenko. As usual, he still claims victory, having once again jailed or exiled his most prominent challengers, rigged the system and counted an official majority of votes for him. But this time, events unfold differently.

Two wives of the disbarred opposition candidates had stepped in for their husbands and formed a compelling alternative for voters. Before the election, tens of thousands of Belarusians had flocked to their rallies, which resembled rock concerts, and expressed their frustration with Lukashenko’s corruption and his coronavirus antics — just drink vodka and drive a tractor and you’ll be fine, he’d suggested.

Now, after the election, these enthusiastic Belarusians take to the streets, defying even the specter of Lukashenko’s thugs, who are out in force as usual. What happens next?

Lukashenko considers his options. He’s tempted to crack down, as is his wont. He knows that this would invite further sanctions from the EU and high-minded lectures from Brussels, Berlin and other Western capitals about human rights and democracy. But Lukashenko has been dealing with those meddlesome western Europeans for years, and has always, quite adroitly, kept them at bay by turning for support to his eastern ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Glancing at Moscow now, however, Lukashenko is worried. Yes, he’s nominally still pro-Russian. In 1999, in a nostalgic nod to the Soviet Union, he even agreed to merge huge Russia and little Belarus into a new “union state.” But that was on the assumption that he, Lukashenko — rather than the weak Russian president at the time, Boris Yeltsin — would become its head of state.

That notion is long gone. These days Putin rules the Kremlin like a modern czar, having just changed Russia’s constitution to make his reign perpetual. In a new union state, Putin would be the alpha male, demoting Lukashenko to the status of a regional governor, or worse. So Lukanshenko is nowadays against his old idea of a confederation.

But that has caused rising tensions with Moscow. To keep Putin at bay, Lukashenko has therefore sought detente with, and support from, the EU, betting that Putin can’t afford yet another confrontation with the West on top of his ongoing provocations in Ukraine. He’d rather not jeopardize this fragile rapprochement with the EU by cracking down too hard on the protesters.

Putin, for his part, looks at Minsk and sees both risks and opportunities. If the Belarusian protests escalate, they could turn into another “color revolution,” leading to yet another post-Soviet satellite state drifting further toward the West and away from the “Russian world” that Putin wants to reassemble.

In this sense, Lukashenko has been starting to remind Putin of Viktor Yanukovych, the feckless and corrupt but nominally pro-Russian former leader of Ukraine who was swept away in his country’s revolution of 2014, thus becoming useless to Moscow. That event prompted Putin to seize Crimea and subvert Ukrainian statehood with an ongoing war in the country’s east.

Putin could give Belarus a similar treatment. Its population is generally pro-Russian and mainly speaks Russian. And yet, there had already been stirrings of a new and separate national identity, with efforts to revive the use of Belarusian and evoke the country’s golden age under Lithuanian rule. Putin may conclude that he should intervene sooner rather than later.

He could also use another dose of the “Crimea effect” at home, where he’s been losing popularity of late and facing protests in the country’s far east. In 2014, Russians rallied around him patriotically after he sent his “little green men” — Russian fighters in unmarked uniforms — into Crimea and stared down the West. To have that option in Belarus, he already appears to have dispatched scores of Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a private militia firm, to cause mischief, some 33 of whom Lukashenko arrested in July.

So the EU’s leaders are potentially facing a familiar dilemma. They know that Lukashenko, unsavory as he may be, is the best guarantor of Belarusian independence from Russia, and thus of Belarus as a buffer zone. For the sake of the EU’s own geopolitical interests, they should support him, at least tacitly.

At the same time, they wouldn’t be able to cynically ignore democratic protests against Lukashenko, for that would mean betraying Europe’s values and losing credibility throughout the region and beyond. So the EU should support the opposition. But if the demonstrations were to become an all-out revolution, that would probably draw in Putin, in yet another round of hybrid warfare and geopolitical escalation that ultimately makes the EU look impotent.

As this plausible scenario right on the EU’s doorstep shows once again, it’s hard to conduct foreign policy with only the soft power of “values,” when “interests” demand instead a realism that’s wholly alien to EU diplomacy. For now, the EU’s leaders can only hope that after Sunday things turn out differently in Belarus.

(This column was updated to correct the number of wives of opposition candidates who stepped in for their husbands, in the third paragraph. )

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

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