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An emergency summit meeting of the European Union’s (EU) heads of state and government on the violent crackdown on anti-government protests in Belarus will take place today. Coming only days after EU foreign ministers discussed the issue, the summit indicates how seriously the internal crisis in Belarus could impact European security. The EU leaders should balance sanctions targeted on leading figures in the Belarus regime with constructive options that would provide tangible benefits to the people of Belarus and reduce the risks to security in Northern Europe.
The protests were sparked by the presidential election in Belarus, which took place on 9 August. The result as officially announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission on 14 August allocated President Alexander Lukashenko 80 per cent of the votes, while his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was said to have received 10 per cent. The turnout at the election was said to be 84 per cent of eligible voters.
Belarus delayed its invitation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the election until it was too late to arrange a mission—presumably with the hope that, in this way, it would avoid criticism for blocking impartial international observers. The election process was overseen by an observation mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States but very few states and international organizations agree with its assertion that the election was representative. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the Nordic and Baltic states said that the election ‘did not comply with the international commitments of Belarus and globally recognized standards of democracy and rule of law, and was not free and fair’.
An optimistic prognosis was that the Belarusian authorities would allocate enough votes to the opposition to pave the way for a gradual transition to a more representative government. However, a pessimistic prognosis—that the incumbent would use a mixture of propaganda and intimidation to maintain exclusive control over governance—may prove more accurate, although events are unpredictable. Public demonstrations against the outcome of the election continue in Belarus and may gather momentum. While the security forces still follow orders, the authorities appear to have understood that escalating violence is counterproductive.
President Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate President Lukashenko after the election, and the Russian response to the evolving post-election developments will be keenly observed. Despite the recent escalation in protests, it seems that President Lukashenko would invite a Russian intervention—which would confirm his loss of control inside the country—only if it were the sole route to retaining office.
Relations between Belarus and Russia appeared to be under strain immediately before the election, with President Lukashenko describing his political opponents as agents of Russia in one strand of rhetoric. Belarus also arrested 33 Russian citizens at the end of July who it claimed were Russian mercenaries sent to destabilize the election process. The description of their activities suggested that the Russians were part of a reconnaissance exercise to prepare some form of intervention should Russia consider it necessary.
Although nearly all the 33 Russians were released in the days after the election, the case makes clear that an uninvited intervention by Russia into Belarus would create a complicated situation that would be difficult to control. An intervention solely to prop up President Lukashenko would alienate protesters who are focused on domestic change and support a constructive relationship with Russia.
Western countries rejected the election outcome and criticized the government crackdown on protesters. At a specially convened meeting on 14 August EU foreign ministers endorsed the call by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland for a national reconciliation roundtable, comprised of representatives of the government and civil society in Belarus. The EU and some member states have initiated various ‘quiet’ diplomacy initiatives with regard to Belarus in recent years. While it is likely that at least some of these initiatives will be suspended in response to the crisis, they demonstrate that EU member states have been willing to play a constructive role on request.
The meeting on 14 August also confirmed that the EU—which has progressively lifted most of its sanctions against Belarus over the past few years—has begun preparations for a new package of targeted sanctions. During his scheduled visit to Central Europe, the Secretary of State for the United States, Mike Pompeo, appeared to support the EU line on sanctions.
Today’s meeting will be an opportunity for EU leaders to discuss possible options that could widen dialogue on improving regional security and cooperation to the benefit of the Belarusian people and European security more broadly. Although currently President Lukashenko does not seem open to a managed transition, the EU should prepare for this eventuality.
A restart to dialogue on regional security
President Lukashenko has neutralized political opposition over time. There is no organized government in waiting and potential rivals were detained or left the country before the election. It appears that Tikhanovskaya was allowed to stand because she was not seen as a threat. Two opposition candidates endorsed Tikhanovskaya when they were disqualified from standing, but they are from the worlds of finance and diplomacy and not professional politicians. A hasty transition could open the door to state capture, with the attendant risks of corruption and mismanagement.
President Lukashenko has tried to justify the need for heightened security by pointing to external military threats. This can be dismissed as a false narrative, but military projects that countries around Belarus see as prudent investments in their national defence do increase military risks.
The maintenance of good relations with Russia and Ukraine and the avoidance of the spillover effects of deteriorating relations between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are important objectives for Belarus. A political framework that would allow it to avoid binary choices between parties with irreconcilable security differences would therefore probably be attractive to Belarus. A discussion of Belarus’s place in regional security arrangements should resume at the earliest opportunity.
Belarus has hosted regional reconciliation and mediation efforts in the past, including efforts to find peaceful solutions to the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and in Ukraine. The development of Minsk as a city that can complement intergovernmental discussions in Geneva and Vienna by promoting subregional dialogues would promote international engagement. Current defence plans will increase the number of Russian and NATO forces around the borders of Belarus and a dialogue could enhance understanding of military exercise patterns.
Promotion of cooperation in civilian projects
The income gap between Belarus and its Western neighbours is growing, and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has worsened Belarus’s economic situation. The movement of human capital from Belarus to Poland and the Baltic states is expected if nothing changes. In the light of these challenges and the accompanying risks to stability, several EU policy files should be re-examined. For example, the EU could place a focus on projects that enhance labour mobility and develop regional digital, energy and transport networks that could be of benefit to Belarusian companies. Investment in the production of key items closer to European markets would also be consistent with the EU’s aim of shortening global supply chains.
The EU Eastern Partnership includes issue-based platforms where economic development, energy, institutional development and labour mobility are discussed. A security platform focused on non-military challenges could add value to this partnership. In addition, the selective inclusion of small- and medium-sized Belarusian companies into the industrial alliances being proposed by the European Commission as part of a new EU industrial strategy would extend practical assistance to the people of Belarus (and other partners). The incorporation of Belarusian partners into EU programmes for a Green Deal and Digital Europe would also promote engagement.
Time for a new approach?
Prior to the recent election, the military response to deteriorating relations between Russia and many countries in Western Europe had already raised the security risks in and around Belarus to an unacceptable level. The internal governance crisis now unfolding adds a new layer of instability to the region. However, statements that express outrage and emphasize universal values have limited impact unless connected to measures that offer the people of Belarus tangible benefits and a stable European perspective. At the summit meeting today the EU has an opportunity to display the necessary imagination and leadership.
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