The political crisis in Belarus has led to the transformation of this problematic country, which is still recognized by the international community country as a pariah state. What is happening now, and how does this threaten European security?
Europe, mainly its Central and Eastern parts, was shaken thoroughly by the migrant crisis. What experts and politicians warned about has happened: the Belarusian regime has turned from an internal problem into a source of threats for the whole region. Lukashenko was forced to de-escalate the situation with migrants when he met with a rebuff from the EU, which demonstrated a unified position. But the cause of the threat, the political crisis in Belarus and the Kremlin’s support for the regime have not disappeared.
Lukashenko’s “besieged fortress”
This is not the first time that Lukashenko has tried to resolve issues of recognition and legitimacy through solving problems on the external circuit. Last time, he used the armed conflict in Donbass between Russia and Ukraine to unfreeze contacts with the West, and succeeded. This time the situation is more complicated: the unprecedented scale of repression inside the country and the consolidated position of the EU rule out a détente without significant concessions from the regime. But it is not ready to make such concessions.
Tensions remain high inside the country. Discontent has not faded after rigged elections and violent repression of protests, which is why the repression of those who are disloyal continues. The regime has drawn conclusions and will not liberalize or improve conditions for public life, as it did after the 2010 elections. Moreover, the conditions surrounding social life are tightening.
The authorities have certain hopes for internal legitimization in the constitutional referendum to be held in February. It should solve several problems. First, it would legitimize the result of the 2020 elections; second, it would confirm support of the chosen course by the country’s population; and third, it would create prerequisites for the expected transit of power. This last point is both the most difficult and the most important. It is expected to give constitutional powers to a new body, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly.
In theory, the APA may become a superstructure over the existing branches of power, and a place for Lukashenko’s transition in case of the “Kazakh scenario” of the transit of power, where presidential powers were formally transferred to Kassym‑Jomart Tokayev, but the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, retained control of the state. But the entire ‘vertical’ will remain designed for the rule of one man, and the appearance of another center of power may lead to imbalance across the whole system. Therefore, it is unlikely that the system will be fundamentally modernized as a result of the referendum.
Moreover, the cause of the internal political crisis, repression and violence has not stopped. Arrests, trials and torture of activists continue today. All this is taking place against the background of huge pressure on independent media and NGOs within the country. In fact, the Belarusian free information ecosystem has been destroyed.
Of course, given the development of communication channels, independent internet-media (Zerkalo, Euroradio, Belsat, etc) and bloggers (Nexta, Motolko, etc) continue to exist within the domestic media field, but opportunities to work remotely are severely limited. The internal agenda is filled with regime propaganda and Russian narratives.
The same is true of political and civic activities. All independent public and political life has been forced out of the country. There are no opportunities to act and work legally in these areas inside the country, and officials do not respond to requests or appeals. The only way to participate in public life goes through pro-state organizations, where participation in public life is limited and strictly controlled.
This is accompanied by a degradation of discourse which is evolving into “besieged fortress” mode. All internal problems are officially explained by sanctions, machinations of the opposition and their Western handlers. There is no thaw to speak of in these conditions.
Belarus as an area of hybrid operations
The status of Lukashenko’s regime as a source of threats for Eastern Europe has become clear. What else can he do?
In the current configuration, we should expect new provocations along the EU borders. Already in summer 2021, Lukashenko declared that the flow of drugs and nuclear materials going to Europe was stopped by Belarus. This could have been a clear indication of his intention of not preventing this traffic from reaching Europe.
Another worrying development might be related to the expansion of the Russian military presence on Belarusian territory. Now this is restrained by Lukashenko’s fears for his power, but as the economic situation becomes more difficult, he will be forced to make real concessions. And Belarus could become an area for Russian false flag operations and provocations. The regime’s reputation is already so bad that there is no real possibility to figure out who exactly will be behind the provocation – Lukashenko’s forces or Russia.
The migrant situation is likely to be repeated – a small number of them will definitely stay in Belarus, and could be manipulated in a similar way after the winter.
Another source of threat might be Lukashenko’s recognition of the annexation of Crimea and cooperation with the unrecognized territories (DNR, LNR, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). For every concession Lukashenko bargains with Putin, and now it is only a matter of the offered price. Not a direct threat to the EU countries but leads to increased tension in the region and new threats to Ukraine.
Lastly, the operations against Belarusian activists abroad cannot be left without a note. The example with the Ryanair flight showed that the regime is ready to threaten the safety of European citizens if necessary. Officials make statements to activists abroad that they will find and repatriate them.
What can be done:
The EU can only influence the regime with targeted sanctions because Lukashenko understands only the language of force. But in addition to them, there must be a mechanism to enforce the sanctions regime, and to counteract attempts to circumvent sanctions. Otherwise, the bureaucratic apparatus will simply not be able to keep up with the creation of new intermediary firms and gray schemes.
The EU should prepare common positions and policies with the countries that border with Belarus and suffer damage because of the regime. This applies primarily to Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland. In some situations, support or compensation measures should be implemented for the loss of income.
Russia, too, should be the subject of discussion and influence. For Putin, the price of keeping Lukashenko in power must surely exceed the “bonuses” of having a tame dictator.
European actors should cooperate with Belarusian civil society. Primarily, they should engage with those working inside Belarus and whose activities are aimed at improving the situation through democratization. In addition, it is necessary to help with the formation of stable structures of Belarusians living in exile. On the one hand, they should provide support for those seeking to leave, as the flow of refugees does not stop. On the other hand, it is necessary to keep them involved in the Belarusian activities.
The Lukashenko issue cannot be solved only by the Belarusian society, or only by foreign partners. The key to solving the problem lies in the complex interaction of all actors in this direction.