In Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Belarus, the EU, and Russian Aggression

Belarus, nicknamed by many as the last European dictatorship, will face growing challenges in maintaining that status as Russian expansion clashes with western calls for democratization—especially in tandem with the economic hardship expected to result from the sharp decline in oil prices. Though Belarus has been able to interact with the West without substantial democratization, an aggressive Russia and unfavorable oil prices may lead to a reliance and alignment with the West out of fear and economic necessity that could precipitate the circumstances for increased western intervention and presence in the country that could revamp protests to the point of popular uprising. However as a small power in between large ones, Belarus has an opportunity to maintain and further consolidate its authoritarian regime through walking the line between the European and Eurasian Unions, taking advantage of growing conflict in order to maintain their economic growth.

As a smaller nation, roughly the size of Kansas with a fifteenth the population of Russia, Belarus under the Lukashenko Regime has been able to play against the major powers to the East and West while maintaining a strong hold on the population for over two decades. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus became a sovereign nation under which Alexander Lukashenko was elected democratically in 1994. Every election since then has resulted in an overwhelming win for Lukashenko in elections deemed by the West as neither free nor fair.

In order to promote democracy in the newly sovereign former soviet nations the US led color-revolutions that utilized non-violent protests to undermine weak authoritarian leaders and their fraudulent elections in order to promote democracy from the bottom up. However as Elena Korosteleva, an expert on Belarusian Politics and a current professor of International Politics at the University of Kent, said in her 2012 article “Questioning Democracy Promotion”, the Lukashenko Regime had “evidently learned…how to defend itself and… developed skills of how to do so legitimately, without resorting to extensive coercion” [Korosteleva, 2012, p. 51]. This stemmed mainly from the domestic population’s alienation from the West and western values in tandem with Lukashenko’s preemptive maneuvers to ensure that his regime would not be overthrown. Examples of these maneuvers include the political disappearances of the early 2000s, and more recently the police brutality and riots that occurred directly after the 2010 elections in which Lukashenko won in yet another landslide victory [Schwirtz, 2010].

While in similar countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan the colour revolutions were at least somewhat successful, authoritarianism in Belarus consolidated under Lukashenko through his ability to pick and choose where to use coercion to maintain power. While Belarus has 15 political parties, during the first few years of his rule Lukashenko “marginalized or eliminated any political alternatives,” demonstrating how little the party system impacts an authoritarian state [Manaev, 2014, p. 209]. In Ukraine the multi party system and more than 100 political parties forces coalitions to form in order to get a candidate elected [Melkozerova, 2015]—while this is hardly a guarantee of a democratic election, the prevalence of political alternatives in Ukraine is certainly more demonstrated than in Belarus and may point to the latter’s greater struggle in becoming a democracy.

In the globalized world culture and values transfer with trade, and with Belarus in between the EU and Russia, some cultures may be more dangerous than others to an authoritarian regime. While a recent survey indicated that 44.1 percent of the population would be open to entering the EU, [2013] no statement by the EU or Lukashenko has pointed to that possibility. On the side of the EU the hesitance most likely stems from the authoritarian nature of Belarus and the human rights abuses that sometimes take place there. From Lukashenko’s perspective, however, further EU relations within the country’s already growing private sector could lead to increased revolutionary sentiments. Though Lukashenko has done well for the past 21 years in maintaining his power without excessive violence, public support is liable to falter and when it does revolution could come rapidly.

However the vast majority of both Belarus’s imports (51%) and exports (44%) are to Russia, its partner on the Eurasian Economic Union project [OEC, 2013]. This means that however much Belarusian citizens may grow to want to go in the same direction as their southern neighbor, Ukraine (towards the EU) Russia stands formidable and dissuasive as an actor to go against even before you factor in that half of Belarus’s economy is so extremely tied to it. This explains why Professor Korostelva argued that Belarus’s relations with “its eastern neighbors have predictably expanded, albeit more often through compulsion, rather than by free will” [Korosteleva, 2015, p. 2].

Russia, thus, presents a double-edged sword to the current Belarusian leader. On one hand Russia is a stable trading partner with a similar culture that does not outright threaten the legitimacy of government as the EU and United States have done (going so far as to impose sanctions until the release of political prisoners occurred). But in recent years the Russian bear has awoken and the sounds of expansion have been heard just south in Crimea. In response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Belarus has supplied Ukraine with fuel and goods that have military purposes. Alexander Fadeev, of the Institute for Studies of CIS Countries, emphasized that Belarus “did (this) not only for economic but also political reasons: in other words, to improve relations with the West.” [Bohdan, 2015]

I would argue that improving relations with the West has too positive of a connotation, leading some to believe that Lukashenko could help in liberalization of the country down the road. However, this could just be business as usual for the authoritarian; recognizing Western inclination to democratize and economically utilize Eastern Europe and benefiting from the lack of sanctions while maintaining an authoritarian regime that suppresses the population.

Compounding these troubles is the recent drop in commodity market prices, namely oil. Oil products, mainly refined oil, make up a third of Belarus’s exports, 33%. [OEC, 2013] Due to the drop in oil prices from Iran’s sanction relief, Saudi Arabia’s undercutting of prices, and technological innovations in the United States, Belarus faces less income—potentially ending a period of relatively constant, though low, growth.

Lukashenko consolidated his power through coercion to an extent, but, as Oleg Manaev said his article “Media in Post-Soviet Belarus: Between Democratization and Reinforcing Authoritarianism,” he also did it by “reducing the unemployment level to below 1 percent and providing moderate, but stable, economic growth.”[Manaev, 2014, p. 209] If, or when, Lukashenko fails to fulfill the economic expectations of the public, he will need to either help in the process to democratize, or drastically increase his use of coercive methods to maintain his rule. If practically any dictatorship ever is a good indication of which way Lukashenko will go, the EU and United States will have ample reason to place sanctions back on the small Eastern European nation.

There are two major defenses that Belarus has against the drop in oil prices: a complex economy and geographic location. Belarus has the 27th most complex economy, [OEC, 2013] and thus is not liable to the same sorts of economic booms and crashes due to one commodity that other nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have to deal with. While Russia and oil dominate what is involved in exports and imports (100% of imported crude oil is from Russia while the oil refined in Belarus is exported primarily to Russia) a very significant portion of the Belarusian economy is in manufacturing and linked globally. [OEC, 2013] This insulates Belarus somewhat from the price of oil drop and may not precipitate an economic collapse large enough to spur revolution. In addition to this Belarus’s location just north of war-wrought Ukraine and just west of Russia allows it to play off of the geopolitical problems in those countries. But with Belarus’s supply of military products to Ukraine, the country is currently playing a dangerous game with Russia.

The fine line that Belarus will have to walk is between maintaining trade with Russia so as not to undermine the economy while also building relations with Ukraine and the European Union in order to avoid an aggressive Russia. While this seems like an impossible task—to avoid relations with their number one trading partner—Belarus’s stature as a small country in the middle of two cultural hegemons may allow it to continue as it has since the collapse of the USSR: an authoritarian state with a ruler whose coerciveness has not pushed the boundary to violent uprising.

Bibliography:

 

Belarusians still prefer joining EU over uniting with Russia. (2013, January 3). Retrieved from http://udf.by/english/soc/72455-belarusians-still-prefer-joining-eu-over-uniting-with-russia.html

 

Bohdan, S. (2015, December 18). How Belarus Disappointed Russia In Ukraine And Syria. Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://belarusdigest.com/story/how-belarus-disappointed-russia-ukraine-and-syria-24066

 

Korosteleva, E. A. (2015). The European Union and Belarus: Democracy promotion by technocratic means? Democratization, 1-21.

 

Korosteleva, E. A. (2012). Questioning democracy promotion: Belarus’ response to the ‘colour revolutions’. Democratization, 19(1), 37-59.

 

Manaev, O. (2014). Media in Post-Soviet Belarus: Between Democratization and Reinforcing Authoritarianism. Demokratizatisiya, 22(2), 207-229.

 

Melkozerova, V. (2015, October 2). Rhinos, dill and hidden threats confuse voters in Kyiv. Retrieved from http://www.kyivpost.com/content/politics/rhinos-dill-and-hidden-threats-confuse-voters-in-kyiv-399188.html

 

Observatory of Economic Complexity: Belarus. (n.d.). Retrieved February 08, 2016, from http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/blr/#Origins

 

Schwirtz, M. (2010, December 19). After Belarus Vote, Riot Police Attack Protesters. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/world/europe/20belarus.html?_r=0

 

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