Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-ranking US official to visit Belarus since Bill Clinton in 1994. After meetings with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka – who Condoleezza Rice once memorably described as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – Pompeo said he was ‘optimistic about our strengthened relationship’.
The EU and its member states have also changed their tune, at least a little. Previously, prosecutions of democratic activists led to sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. But his less-than-liberal manner of governance did not prevent him from visiting Austria last November or from receiving invitations to Brussels.
Eight years ago, most EU contacts with Belarusian officials were frozen. Now, Western diplomats regularly meet with Belarusian officials again. This year, a US ambassador to Belarus will be appointed after a 12-year break.
The West is also more willing to support Belarus financially. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development invested a record-breaking $433 million in the country in 2019. The European Investment Bank only began working with the country in 2017 but already has a portfolio of $600 million.
Certain policymakers in the EU and US now, at least publicly, appear to regard Lukashenka as one of the sources of regional security and a defender of Belarusian sovereignty against Russia.
There is some truth in this. He has taken a neutral position in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, and he has consistently resisted pressure from the Kremlin to establish a military base in Belarus.
Now, amid Moscow’s demands for deeper integration in exchange for the continuation of Russian energy subsidies, Lukashenka has shown reluctance to sell his autonomy. In a token attempt to portray sovereignty Belarus even started buying oil from Norway, although this makes no economic sense.
But Lukashenka’s long-term record shows he has done little to ensure the country’s sovereignty. Lukashenka has resisted reforms that would have strengthened the economy (because they would have weakened his own position). The political system is also dependent on Russia because Lukashenka has been unwilling to build better relations with the West. Belarusians are still strongly influenced by Russian culture and media because the authorities marginalize their own national identity.
Since the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenka’s primary goal has not been to strengthen the sovereignty of Belarus, but to preserve his absolute control over the country.
For example, when in 2018 Russia started pressing Belarus to deepen its integration in order to retain economic support, Minsk did not reject this approach outright; instead, it discussed no less than 31 ‘road maps’ for deepening integration for more than a year, hoping to receive more benefits. For Lukashenka, greater dependency on Russia is a matter of price and conditions, not principle.
None of this is to say Belarus has illusions about Russia. It is just that Lukashenka does not take long-term steps to protect the country’s sovereignty or to strengthen relations with the West.
Belarus needs to start economic reform with the support of the International Monetary Fund, but this cannot happen without Lukashenka’s genuine commitment to transform the economy. Absence of cross-sectoral reform has led to the deterioration of the education system as well as unprecedented emigration. Few Belarusian experts are optimistic about their country’s future. Lukashenka knows all this, but does not change his system, fearing it would damage the stability of his regime.
The West should therefore adopt a broader policy. Lukashenka is unlikely to still be president in 10–15 years, so policymakers should develop relations with the broader ruling elite, which will remain after he leaves, and try to be present in Belarus as much as possible helping it to improve public governance and develop private businesses.
The West should also support the country’s civil society and independent media, for whom Belarusian independence is a matter of principle rather than something to be bargained away.
Lukashenka may be a strong leader, but the state he has built is weak.
Ryhor Astapenia, Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.