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Belarus’s integration headache and massive violations of human rights

 

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

 

Since the start of the crisis, Russia has implicitly criticised the EU response, denouncing what its foreign ministry spokeswoman called clear attempts at outside interference-aimed at causing a split in society and destabilising the situation.The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader. Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed, EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted, saying the meeting would begin at noon. According to an EU source, the situation is evolving rapidly and would justify an extraordinary meeting “to send an important message of solidarity to the people of Belarus”.EU leaders will hold an emergency video summit on Wednesday (19 August) to discuss the crisis in Belarus, where protests are swelling against the disputed re-election of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko. Initial ideas include starting a fund for victims of repression there, funding projects to support media pluralism, advising on police reform, enhancing student exchanges with the EU as well as granting easier access to the bloc’s labour market for Belarusian workers. Germany said it was prepared to back an expansion of EU sanctions against leading figures in Belarus over its bloody crackdown on demonstrators.

Ahead of the meeting, there had been calls for action from several EU members, especially Belarus’ neighbours Poland and Lithuania.

Which is now hosting exiled opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania say they are ready to act as mediators to try to resolve the post-election crisis, after a poll that Brussels has already said was “neither free nor fair”.Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a call on Friday with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis that Minsk is ready “for a constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners”.

Lukashenko’s traditional approach was to secure his position by guaranteeing Belarusian neutrality and a degree of engagement with Europe, while demanding subsidies from Russia that would enable him to buy the allegiance of the population. However, that bargain frayed in the years after the Ukraine crisis of 2014,  when Lukashenko’s room for geopolitical maneuver between Russia and the West contracted. Moreover, Lukashenko, despite his willingness to work with the Kremlin, has always wanted to be president of an independent Belarusian state, not a governor of a province in greater Russia. He was reportedly unnerved by proposals that began to be floated as to how Russian president Vladimir Putin might circumvent the then-ban on standing again for the presidency in 2024-which envisioned Putin taking the helm of the currently moribund Russia-Belarus Union State and turning that position into a new and more powerful chief executive role that would effectively demote Lukashenko.

At the same time, given the economic contraction in Russia, and Russia’s ongoing geo-economic projects designed to reduce its need for Ukraine as a transit state (which also has the same result of reducing the importance of Belarus), Moscow began to question the whether it was getting value for the rubles it was expending subsidizing Lukashenko. Earlier this year, two crises erupted in Belarus-Russia relations.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the country in February 2020 and declared that the United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country. Steps were taken to ease Western restrictions on the country and the United States was in the process of restoring diplomatic ties to the ambassadorial level.The second was Lukashenko’s efforts, prior to the August ballot, to accuse Moscow of seeking to interfere in the country’s elections and destabilize the country as a pretext for installing more pliant leaders. This culminated in a bizarre incident when mercenaries associated with the Wagner Group, en route to assignments in Africa, were detained in Belarus on the grounds that they were going to foment an insurrection. Lukashenko seemed to be hoping that Western governments would reflexively back him as a bulwark to Putin’s expansionism. Those efforts have failed. Western sanctions are certainly going to be imposed against Lukashenko. Going further, some European states, notably Lithuania, no longer recognize Lukashenko as president and support instead the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate winner of the elections.

But Moscow is in no hurry to shore up Lukashenko as he faces domestic protests and Western pressure. Putin offered relatively anodyne congratulations to Lukashenko for his victory, but over the last several months, the attitude in the Russian press towards Lukashenko had taken a harsher tone-an out of touch ruler who was willing to betray his Russian allies.In some ways, I see Lukashenko in 2020 as similar to the position Libyan leader Muammar al-Gadhafi was in in 2011-another leader who sought to downgrade his ties with the Kremlin to seek Western support. When Gadhafi fell afoul of the Western powers, Moscow did nothing to save him. Similarly, Lukashenko cannot be reassured by the political fate of former Armenian leader Serzh Sargsyan, who also assumed that Moscow found him indispensable in managing Armenia but who was dispensed with in favor of Nicol Pashinyan in the 2018 revolution. It does seem that the Kremlin’s preferred outcome is a Lukashenko who can hold on to power but would be seriously weakened and absolutely dependent on Moscow for his political survival, but, as Andrey Kortunov notes: As the Armenian case shows, geopolitics limits a country’s potential allies, even with dramatically new leadership. Belarus might have more options geographically than Armenia, but the prospects of serious integration with the West are slim.” Fyodor Lukyanov thus argues, So the Kremlin just needs to wait out the results and take it from there.

This limits the options available to the West to shape the situation while Moscow has both the home field advantage and also sees Belarus’s future as an existential issue for which it is willing to risk a great deal.While it has been overshadowed by subsequent events, it bears remembering that the U.S. and Russia found common cause in ensuring a “soft landing” following the Georgian Rose Revolution in 2003. We also have the example of the initial deal worked out by the EU-3 in Ukraine-before it was overtaken by events on the Maidan. If an opportunity emerges to facilitate Lukashenko’s departure under terms that Moscow can accept, that is an option that we-and our European partners-should embrace. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and holder of the Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in economic geography and national security. He holds non-residential fellowships with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is a member of the Loisach Group, a collaboration between the Munich Security Conference and the Marshall Center that works to enhance U.S. and Germany’s security partnership. Over the weekend Russia’s RIA news agency reported that the Belarusian army plans to hold drills over 17-20 August near the country’s nuclear plant and in the Grodno region, while Lukashenko said that an air assault brigade would move to Belarus’ Western border. Poland said it is monitoring the situation on its border with Belarus.

Lukashenko said earlier that he was concerned with the NATO military exercises being conducted in Poland and Lithuania, which he sees as an arms build-up. NATO dismissed the allegations by Lukashenko but said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are members of NATO, and the alliance sent four battlegroups to these countries and Estonia to deter potential Russian incursions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Neither Poland nor other Western European countries will get caught up in the intrigue Lukashenko is trying to plot. We are looking at what is happening in Belarus, just like all NATO countries, and we will also look at what happens at our borders. We will not be passive in this observation,” Skurkiewicz also said Polish officials have been discussing the situation in Belarus with the EU and the United States.

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