Ukraine’s Turmoil Is a Gift for the Last Dictator of Europe

Foreign Policy, 16.10.2015
Amy MacKinnon, periodista independiente escocesa
The wily president of Belarus is secure at home and newly prominent abroad. Here's how he exploited Ukraine's revolution.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures next to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (R) as they meet in the Minsk on Aug. 26, 2014. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures next to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (R) as they meet in the Minsk on Aug. 26, 2014.

Even before polling had opened in last Sunday’s presidential elections in Belarus, there was little doubt about who would win. Incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko was duly reelected to his fifth term with over 83 percent of the vote in a country often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

There was a new element in play this year as the crisis in neighboring Ukraine cast its long shadow over Belarusian politics. But in the end, the chaos next door has served only to solidify Lukashenko’s rule. Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, the subsequent political turmoil, and the resulting conflict with Russia has enabled him to justify his authoritarian grip on Belarus as a means of maintaining stability. He has also taken advantage of the conflict’s geopolitical implications to position himself in the international arena as a neutral interlocutor, breaking his regime’s isolation from Europe. Outside the presidential office, too, a rare consensus appears to be forming among the opposition and the population that what Belarus needs most is neutrality and stability. While post-revolutionary Ukraine has had a tumultuous year, Belarusian politics looks set to hold its course.

A former pig farm manager, Lukashenko has preserved Belarus as a living museum to Soviet practices, where collective farms, state dominance of the economy, and pro-regime propaganda persist. Even the security services still operate under their infamous Soviet name, the KGB. But the country’s mustachioed strongman is no dusty Soviet relic. He has proved himself to be a shrewd political operator, toeing a careful line between Russia and the West and frequently playing them off against each other to his own advantage.

The deterioration in Russia-EU relations over Ukraine has once again enabled Lukashenko to demonstrate his cunning. In fact, he may be the only political leader whose international image has benefited from his response to the Ukrainian conflict. In the unlikely role of peacemaker, he has managed to achieve and to maintain a rapprochement in relations with the European Union without turning his back on the Kremlin.

Having methodically repressed dissent in his own country for many years, Lukashenko naturally did not welcome the Maidan protests in Kiev which overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. In February of that year, he stated unequivocally: “In Belarus, there will be no Maidan.”

But the Maidan was a gift to Lukashenko. By tying Ukraine’s pro-EU protests to Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the country’s east, Lukashenko has been able to justify his repression of dissent in Belarus as a means of maintaining stability.

But the longtime president’s aversion to Ukrainian protests did not mean he welcomed Russia’s opportunistic aggression. Early in 2014, Lukashenko said that Ukraine must be a “united, whole state” and emphasized that he would brook no such interference at home: “No matter who comes to Belarusian land, I will fight,” he said. “Even if it is Putin.”

Beyond such sound bites, Lukashenko has maintained a shrewd neutrality on the Ukraine conflict, even hosting high-level peace talks in Minsk. His willingness to play a constructive role began a thaw in relations between Belarus and the EU earlier this year. Since 2004, Europe has imposed sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against 200 Belarusian officials believed to have been involved in electoral fraud and human rights abuses. But after Lukashenko released the country’s six remaining political prisoners last month, including former presidential candidate Mikhail Statkevich, the EU announced last Friday that it would lift most of its sanctions on Belarus, provided elections took place peacefully.

The timing of this cautious rapprochement with the European Union is no accident. It comes as Russia — Belarus’s largest trade partner — slides into recession. Cheap energy and Russian subsidies have long buoyed the Belarusian economy, contributing to the consistent economic growth which has been a cornerstone of Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet social contract. But with the Russian economy contracting, Lukashenko looks once again to be recalibrating his relationships with his Western neighbors. As a bloc, the European Union is the country’s second-largest trade partner after Russia, and improved relations could potentially serve to shield Belarus from Russian recession.

Lukashenko has managed to use the Ukraine conflict to thread the needle between Russia and the West. It’s telling that Lukashenko’s first electoral promise was for a “free and independent Belarus” — that is, not entirely in the pocket of Moscow — while his second was for “peace and order” — in other words, not so independent as to prompt a Ukrainian scenario.

Lukashenko’s promise of stability appears to have resonated among the population. The spiral of chaos unleashed by the Ukraine’s Maidan protests have left many in Belarus wary about the consequences of radical change. Research published in September by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies found that, at 47 percent, peace and stability was the top priority for the Belarusian electorate. This comes well ahead of more typical electoral concerns such as quality of life and rising prices. The institute notes that until the conflict broke out in Ukraine, matters of peace and stability were largely irrelevant to Belarusian voters.

The fallout of the Ukraine crisis has also affected the opposition, who cautiously echoed Lukashenko’s calls for neutrality and stability in their campaigns. Presidential candidate Tatiyana Karatkevitch — considered to be the only genuine opposition choice for president — spoke carefully during her campaign about working with both the EU and Russia. The first woman to run for the post of president, she distinguished herself from previous opposition candidates in not calling for mass demonstrations the night after the vote. Pro-government presidential candidate Sergei Gaidukevich also stated that he felt it “vitally necessary to keep parity between the West and the East, to be a kind of East Slavic Switzerland.”

Large-scale demonstrations are a rarity in Minsk, but earlier this month an estimated 1,000 people took to the streets to protest Russian proposals to build an air base in the country. Opposition leader Alexei Yanukevich stated that he feared a Russian base would harm Belarus’s neutrality. In a rare moment of harmony, there seems to be a degree of consensus between the President, the opposition and the population, that neutrality is the best way to retain cordial relations on all fronts and avoid prompting a Ukrainian scenario.

Belarus is not a country that often makes headlines. But this past weekend, the country of 9.6 million was thrust into the international limelight — not due to Lukashenko’s predictable reelection, but because Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature.

The laureate was blunt about her country’s elections. Speaking at a press conference in Berlin, she said, “As Stalin once said, it’s unimportant who votes or for whom, what matters is who counts the vote.” Lukashenko’s resounding reelection seems to confirm her suspicions. But between a resurgent Russia and a disinterested Europe, an authoritarian leader and a neutered opposition, the choices on offer to the people of Belarus are all far from appealing.

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