How Europe, Russia, and the Eastern Partnership countries react to news from Belarus: torture, rape, and murder of peaceful demonstrators.
The Elections that Burst
On August 9, the presidential elections were to take place in Belarus. According to the official results, Alexander Lukashenko won with 80.1% of votes, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gained 10.1%, and the rest of the participants won even less. However, these results did not convince the Belarusian society, which believes in Tikhanovskaya’s victory in the first round. Numerous violations at polling stations and mathematical distortions in the voting results were recorded. Since August 9, street protests in Belarus have not subsided, taking various forms: processions, rallies, concerts, chains of solidarity on the sidewalks, strikes at enterprises, picketing of the state institutions, festivities in the courtyards, and much more. The authorities responded to the protests with unprecedented brutality.
European Union: Sanctions and Playing Chinese Whispers
The European Union’s response is as unprecedented as events in Belarus. For the first time, it is not about recognizing the elections as undemocratic and unjust but about not recognizing the elections themselves. Lithuania has already introduced some sanctions, agreed with the Baltic states, against 30 individuals whom it claims to be responsible for the electoral fraud, and plans to expand this list. There will be other sanctions, all of them are primarily of symbolic significance, they block the Western vector of the foreign policy of Belarus but do not push for a real change of the regime.
Lukashenko has no contacts with the European leaders, did not answer the call from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Chancellor, just as the French President Emmanuel Macron later, discussed the events in Belarus with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the one hand, such developments indicate the loss of great deal of Belarus’s foreign policy subjectivity. On the other hand, it is a coordinated position of the West and Russia that can be most effective to make the Belarusian authorities enter the dialogue with the protesters and proceed with subsequent political transformations.
So far, the EU allocated €53 million to support Belarus, and 50 of them a long time ago were allocated for COVID-19 response (now the European diplomats are to find how to use these funds without directly transferring them to the Belarusian authorities). However, MEPs have much more ambitious ideas: for example, a carrot in the form of the “The Marshall Plan for Democratic Belarus”, €3.5-4 billion for future reforms.
“The EU sanctions are primarily of symbolic significance, they block the Western vector of the foreign policy of Belarus but do not push for a real change of the regime”
Russia: Uniformed Services Are a Poor Substitute for Money
Although Vladimir Putin was one of the first to congratulate Lukashenko, Russia’s position on what is happening in Belarus remains ambiguous, which is a rather serious change. Until now, Moscow could be in better or worse relations with Lukashenko, supporting marginal pro-Russian activists in Belarus but it did not call for a dialogue with an unhappy society. And now the Kremlin sends contradictory statements.
For example, the press secretary of Vladimir Putin Dmitriy Peskov confirmed dialogue between Russia and the EU on Belarus, but at the same time he denies any “external interference”. Putin himself seems to have promised to help Lukashenko, form a Russian security officials reserve within the CSTO (although its charter mentions only external threats, not internal ones). But at the same time, he limited the possible assistance with the vague conditions, “until the extremist elements… cross certain boundaries.” A few days later, Peskov said: “At present, there is no reason to use this reserve… We see that the state of affairs is under control, so now there is no talk about it.”
Actually, Lukashenko needs neither security officials, nor military support even more so, but money. Currency rates are getting stronger, gold and foreign exchange reserves seem to be falling, and refinancing loans with a reasonable interest rate are not on the agenda. Even before the elections, Belarusian Eurobonds were trading at about 6% per annum (though the country is only considering getting out of the recession), and this was still viewed as a low rate. Without emergency injections, the crisis in the Belarusian economy will deepen even more, fueling protests and exacerbating Lukashenko’s already weak position.
“Lukashenko needs neither security officials, nor military support even more so, but money”
Eastern Partnership: No Unity
Among the Eastern Partnership countries, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova recognized the official election results and sent congratulations to Lukashenko. Congratulations from the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev were expected, he is an old autocrat just like Lukashenko, acting as an “authoritarian internationale“. To recall, in 2016 he awarded Lukashenko with the order named after his father, the highest award of Azerbaijan, with the words: “In his life, Heydar Aliyev always respected men of worth, who behave like men, keep their word, and whom you can rely upon.”
The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan’s motives for congratulations look different.
He is a young democratic leader, not an old autocrat, and came to power two years ago as a result of the street protests. Thus, he has no visible reasons to sympathize with Lukashenko.
The Armenian NGOs express their support for the Belarusian protests, note their similarity with the Armenian ones two years ago, and put Pashinyan under criticism for his congratulations and their form. But there are two important political factors, both associated with Russia. First, Armenia is interested in keeping Lukashenko as an ally within the EAEU. Back in the spring, Pashinyan and Lukashenko stood in solidarity on the energy trade issue as they both consider Russian prices too high. Secondly, congratulations from Yerevan came after congratulations from Moscow. Given the Armenian economy’s dependence on Russia, Pashinyan is not interested in a confrontation with Moscow once he can avoid it.
After his congratulations to Lukashenko, the President of Moldova Igor Dodon was criticised within the country and was forced to justify his behaviour by the “protocol rules” and economic interests (“we have a lot of joint ventures”). At the same time, he condemned the clashes and confined himself to a vague generality by saying “it’s their internal affair to deal with what is happening in their country” instead of providing support to Lukashenko.
Georgia follows a wait-and-see approach: it did not send congratulations to Lukashenko, but it didn’t criticize his decisions either.
On August 17, after some internal political tension and accusations of secret support for Lukashenko, by the Putin’s order, Tbilisi was nevertheless forced to make a statement, however, consisting of streamlined wording and not supporting either side.
Official Kyiv also tried to keep a balance, although the relations with Minsk are gradually deteriorating. The reasons are on the surface: on the one hand, the importance of economic cooperation with Belarus and preserving the border security, on the other hand, constant anti-Ukrainian rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities, Lukashenko’s rapprochement with Russia and the Ukrainian public opinion itself which recognizes its recent history in the Belarusian protests. After Zelensky ironically stated that if he were Lukashenko, he would honestly hold new elections in the country, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a tough rebuff: we don’t need your advice, you’d better take care of your own problems. They went to the point of recalling the Ukrainian ambassador for consultations in Kyiv, freezing any official contacts with Belarus, and now the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is threatening with even tougher measures. This case demonstrates not only the well-known differences within the Eastern Partnership framework in the positions of Ukraine/Georgia and Belarus/Azerbaijan.
It is worth noting that even the most pro-European countries with successful revolutions in their experience demonstrate no active stand on democratic procedures’ and human rights’ violations. As for the current developments’ influence on the future relations of Belarus with other Eastern Partnership countries, it will directly depend on how soon and what kind of political changes will take place in Belarus.
“Even the most pro-European countries with successful revolutions in their experience demonstrate no active stand on democratic procedures’ and human rights’ violations”
What Assistance Can Partners Provide to Belarus?
Hennadi Maksak, Head of the Monitoring Mission of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in elections in Belarus (Ukraine)
– It is not enough to recognize the elections as undemocratic, it must be said that the elections in the form which they were held in do not allow to conclude who the winner is. This is why the elections must be repeated. This position should be leading, and for the EU position as well. All the elections administration stages, starting from the election commissions formation up to voting and counting of votes, had serious violations.
Andrei Yahorau, Transfer of Power in Belarus Coordination Council:
– We’d most like if the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries would partner against Russian intervene. This intervention is aimed at an attempt to support this regime and surrenders Belarusian sovereignty in favour of Russia. I don’t see any harsh diplomatic reaction. The EU now has a lot of tools for humanitarian support for Belarusians and spontaneous initiatives within the Belarusian society.
Vadim Mozhejko, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS):
– As for some more global future transformations, there is a need for something that we call the “Marshal’s Plan for Belarus” – a promise of a clear and predetermined package of support for democratic reforms in Belarus, which will become available after free and democratic elections. No doubt, such support is necessary for the change. If it is agreed and presented in advance, it will be more effective than inventing it “on the knee”.
Natalia Stercul, Foreign Policy Association of the Republic of Moldova (Moldova):
– The European Union will defend humanitarian aims, everything related to human rights’ and democratic values’ protection. But of course, I would not expect any real help, I do not think that it will go beyond certain statements. We cannot count on a more acute reaction, as both Ukraine and Moldova have already shown.
Mikayel Hovhannisyan, Eurasia Partnership Foundation (Armenia)
– It is very important to keep the internal political agenda in Belarus in focus and emphasize that this affair is purely internal, a matter of endless Lukashenko’s regime fatigue, protest against violence and injustice. This will increase the chances for more positive developments. Any attempts to introduce a geopolitical factor in the process will lead to the explicit third actors’ intervention.