Report: Background Talk on Belarus: Current Trends and Future Scenarios

by Flavio Previtali

On May 7th, 2019 the International Institute for Peace (IIP), in collaboration with Karl-Renner Institut hosted a background talk Belarus: Current Trends and Future Scenarios. The speaker was Artyom Shraibman, a political editor at the independent news portal TUT.BY. The discussion allowed the participants to have an insight into Belarus domestic an foreign policy. The talk revolved around three major issues: the internal situation in Belarus; the country’s relationship with the EU and the West in general; and Belarus-Russia relationship.

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What concerns the internal situation, Belarus can be for sure defined as an authoritarian regime. However, it is arguable whether it can still be called the last dictatorship of Europe, since Russia has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years. There are no fair and free elections in Belarus. Electoral fraud in favor of the incumbent president happens already at the stage of  ballot counting, thus making the process non-competitve. Belarusian opposition is very fragmented and it is not likely that it will unite any time soon. Even though opposition does not have any realistic chance of winning a presidential race, they still participate in elections in order to increase their individual parties’ visibility. From this perspective, having multiple oppositional candidates is more useful rather than to unite and propose just one since more candidates will in total reach out to a broader audience, get more broadcasting time on the state-run TV channels and more coverage in other media. Freedom of the media is another crucial element both related to the electoral process and to the rights of the citizens in general. There are independent media in Belarus that operate primarily online. However, the internet is becoming more and more a target of restrictive measures by the state. 

When it comes to civil society, limitations on the right of assembly are very clear. It is, for example, quite difficult to organize a political rally for an oppositional party in Belarus. Civil society in general is less vibrant in Belarus as compared to the neighboring Ukraine. There are three major factors that undermine its activization. First, the political environment remains hostile. It is difficult to organize activities not directly controlled by the government. Secondly, and connected to the first point, funds for civi activism are scarce. It is difficult for non-governmental organizations to obtain public money. At the same time, funding from foreign donors has been cut dramatically in recent years. This is due to many reasons, both political and more pragmatic, such as chanelling more resources into Ukraine or simply a shift in priorities of foreign donors away from Eastern Europe. Lastly, Belarussian society has proven to be apathetic when it comes to direct political involvement. One of the main reasons for this apathy might be the frustration from long engagement with no results. If civil society activists in Ukraine can hope to see concrete results of their work in a reasonable time, this is not the case for NGOs in Belarus where almost any efforts for improvemen or change yield little fruit. Despite all these limitations, Belarus is rather an authoritarian regime than a fully-fledged dictatorship. The state does not aim to exert total control over the society. It maintains the minimal level of repression necessary to sustain its grip on power. One can freely travel outside the country or be a member of an oppositional party. Also, according to human rights defenders, today there is only one political prisoner in Belarus. 

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In terms of relations with the West, and the EU in particular, Belarus’ policy tends to reflect the relationship with Russia. Traditionally, Belarus has been more ready and open to dialogue with the EU when Russia demonstrated more aggressive attitude towards its neighbors, such as in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine. After the conflict erupted in Ukraine, something has changed in the attitude of Western leadership towards the region, as it started viewing political stability in Eastern Europe as equally important to market economy, human rights and democracy. Belarus has presented itself as stability provider for the region, thereby opening the space for dialogue and normalization of the relationship with the EU. Nevertheless, the rapprochement is moving slowly and the talks on visa liberalization for Belarusian citizens or the partnership and cooperation agreement have been inconclusive. There is a lack of clarity both on the EU’s and Belarus’ sides about the goal of their relationship. Minsk does not strive for EU membership, while Brussels does not make it clear what its offer to Belarus is. For example, Belarus does not abolish death penalty not because, as it is officially argued by the authorities, the public is in favor of keeping it. It is rather lack of clarity about what it would get in return from the West, were it to abolish it. To summarize, the relationship between Belarus and the EU has improved in recent years but lack of clarity and political will both in Brussels and Minsk has so far slowed down the process of rapprochement. The EU, after the conflict in Ukraine, seems to be more cautious regarding its actions in the region to avoid aggressive reactions from Russia.

Relations of Minsk with Moscow is the most important aspect of Belarus’ foreign policy. Belarus is for sure the most pro-Russian country in Europe but nevertheless it should not be regarded as a satellite of Moscow. Belarus has declared itself neutral in the conflict with Ukraine and showed a certain degree of openness towards the West, thereby moving in the opposite direction from Russia. At this stage, the relationship between two countries is strained. Russia has recently introduced a tax reform in the oil sector in order to support its domestic oil producers. The reform has had consequences for Belarus who will no longer be able to make revenue from the tariffs it charged for Russian oil processing and exporting it later to the EU. The economic loss for Belarus will amount to USD 10 billion in the next five years, a significant number for a country with an annual GDP of around USD 54 billion. Belarus was given an ultimatum: the privileged economic relationship, especially linked to cheap oil prices, can be retained if Belarus agreed to a deeper integration with Russia within the framework of the Union State. 

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Deeper integration in this context would mean creation a single currency, single taxation system, common budget and unified customs. Belarus is not ready to give up a part of its sovereignty because there is nothing that Russia can offer to President Lukashenka that would improve his current position. Belarus would agree to deeper integration under the condition of parity in all issues – a no go option for Russia. Moscow would never allow Minsk to have a fifty percent say on domestic issues of Russia, due to overwhelming differences between the two countries in terms of territory, population and economy. Thus, Belarus-Russia relations appear to be in a deadlock now. A working group to discuss possibilities of integration has been created, but it is unlikely to yield any concrete results. To break out the impasse without giving up on its sovereignty or oil prices below market level, Belarus will try to sell its participation in the dialogue on integration as a concession to Russia.  This will be quite a challenging task. Russia appears to be in a win-win situation right now. It will either achieve more integration with Belarus or it will stop subsidizing a foreign economy, saving more for domestic issues instead. As recent public polls by independent Russian polling centers demonstrate, Russian citizens seem, in fact, to be less and less supportive of the Kremlin’s adventures abroad. They require instead more attention to domestic affairs. For this reason, any potential annexation or military invasion of Belarus by Russia is unlikely. While Belaus will remain closely connected to Russia in political terms, Minsk and Moscow will become more distant. We are currently witnessing redefinition of the model of relations between the two where Russia is not willing to subsidize the economically unsustainable Belarusian regime. How a redefined Belarusian foreign policy will look like remains to be seen. The idea of neutrality is one of the possibilities that seems to be favored both by the Belarusian leadership and the society. It has also been indirectly articulated by the government in its recent Concept of Information Secuirty.