The perspective of Russia, China and the EU on political crisis in Belarus — between intervention, support and influence
“Given that the political crisis is already geopolitical, the Belarusian opposition must capitalize on geopolitical factors in its favor, just as Lukashenko does…”
The regularity of the peaceful protests engages the Belarusian population in a synergy of democratizing the “social contract” with the state. The aggressive pressures continuously applied by the authorities — sequestrations, arrests, criminal investigations, political cases — produce the opposite effect of intimidating and stopping the democratic revolution, respectively (IPN, August 28, 2020). In addition to the perpetuation of the protests, they spread across new age categories, due to the involvement of youth and overall younger social strata — students and pupils. Attempts by the protest movement, led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who embodies the essence of the newly emerging citizenry attitude among the protesters — to negotiate with the authorities continue to fail. Using the prohibitive legislation in force, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime criminalized the work of the Coordinating Council. The latter is accused of mulling a coup, though the Council has given itself no other mission than to establish a political dialogue with the government. The aggressiveness and total lack of compassion of the Belarusian authorities deepen dissident thinking within Belarusian society. The critique of the authorities’ brutality crossed the walls of universities and the church. Earlier, the anti-government criticism has mobilized the strikes of public sector workers.
The manifestations of the democratic revolution in Belarus show no severe signs of fatigue, entering the second month of protests. Thus, the deepening of the political crisis seems imminent and lasting. Broad political legitimacy at home is impossible because of the falsified presidential elections, which have also blocked Western external recognition. Alexander Lukashenko is still able to govern state institutions and even the public sector, but not the outraged population. De facto, the pyramid of authoritarian government, at the top of which Lukashenko stands, co-exists in a confrontational relationship with the civic sector, which through protests challenges the regime’s authority.
While the regime exploits external relations to improve its positions, the protest movement is undetermined about the permissiveness of the involvement of external actors. Opposition leaders accept external involvement, but strictly for “showing solidarity” with the Belarusian population. Even after a month of protests (August 10 — September 7, 2020), Belarusian opposition leaders reject the idea of individual sanctions and even more so economic ones. Regardless of the permission of Belarusian political actors, the geopolitical powers have tailored, depending on their interests, their involvement in resolving the political crisis in Belarus. As a result of the integrationist framework of the Russian-Belarusian relationship and Lukashenko’s isolation internally and externally, Moscow was allowed to intervene on Belarusian soil, if the need arises. A more silent diplomatic support comes from China, which regularly shows solidarity with other authoritarian regimes. Lukashenko’s resistance to Western pressure also corresponds to China’s ongoing effort to stifle EU-US criticism of interference in domestic affairs over Hong Kong’s anti-democratic crackdowns. In the case of the EU, there is no other manner left than trying to influence the behavior of the authorities and the protest movement in Belarus. On the one hand, the Europeans warn of the developing system of sanctions and, on the other hand, they provide financial assistance to the independent media and civil society, which are anti-governmental players. In any case, the lack of zeal is primarily conditioned by the refusal of the Belarusian opposition to actively support any sanctions policy.
Russia, China and the EU’s position on the events in Belarus
Tools of invovelment:
- Field intervention
- Supplementing the informational capacities
- Financial facilities
- Hybrid assistance
- Deepening economic cooperation
- Diplomatic solidarity
- Developing a sanctions regime
- Providing financial assistance to non-governmental media and civil society
Intention behind the positioning towards Belarus:
- Intact geopolitical status quo and revised medium and long term political status quo
- Maintaining the (geo) political status quo
- Urgent revision of the political status quo by repeating the presidential election
Source: Author’s finding
The deterioration of relations with his own voters, outraged by election fraud, forced Aleksandr Lukashenko to authorize Russia’s intervention in Belarus. This is the first case in the Eastern Partnership region when national authorities are willing to use Russian assistance voluntarily to stabilize the political situation. Lukashenko’s request to Russia is based on security reasoning, reflected in the Russia-Belarus State Union Agreement (2000) and the Collective Security Organization Treaty (2002). In reality, no provision of these treaties allows for intervention in the event of political protests, but only in specific circumstances to defend against external threats. The Belarusian population, displeased by Lukashenko’s government, is not an exogenous enemy. Therefore, both Lukashenko’s approach and Vladimir Putin’s acceptance to intervene blatantly violate the sovereignty and independence of the Belarusian state.
The Belarusian political crisis was discussed at a meeting of the Russian National Security Council (August 21, 2020), at which Putin insisted on resolving the problem inside Belarus and on the undesirability of foreign interventions. The question of the alleged Western intervention boils down to two significant issues. First, the European states and the EU invalidated the elections in a third state, which Russia sees as an indivisible part of its geopolitical garden. And, secondly, Westerners support pro-democracy protesters, who want a repeat of the election according to international standards. Both the protest movement and the genuine democratic polls make up the upper levels of Putin’s regime’s phobia. That is why, despite previous animosities between Lukashenko and the Kremlin, the latter is helping to maintain an authoritarian regime in Belarus.
In order not to get out of control and not to repeat the failure in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin approved several sets of informational, economic, security and political-diplomatic, and hybrid types of assistance. On the informational one, several dozen Russian journalists from “Russia Today” (RT) propaganda machine were brought to Belarus to take care of the Belarusian news space (NewYorkTimes, September 2, 2020). As a result, Belarusian public sources of information began to abound with disinformation against the opposition, the West (Lithuania, Poland, NATO) and even Ukraine. In the economic field, Russia has agreed to refinance the Belarusian debt with an amount of $ 1 billion, with which the Belarusian authorities most likely intend to cover some losses caused by the current political crisis (over $ 500 million) and the pandemic. In terms of security, Putin has promised that a unit made up of “law enforcement agents” is ready to be deployed at any time if the protests get out of hand (Telegraph, August 27, 2020). And, from a politico-diplomatic point of view, Moscow has become the protector of Lukashenko’s regime and the primary opponent of the Western initiative to facilitate the national dialogue in Belarus, on the OSCE platform and with the contribution of European actors. Hybrid assistance lies in the deployment of violent groups (“thugs”, “titushki”) in Belarus. This leads to both to terrorize protesters and to radicalize peaceful protests worsening the political crisis up to the point that dislocation of Russian paramilitaries may become eventually possible.
China’s low visibility in the Belarusian case may have several explanations, but in no way does it mean indifference. On one hand, there is a persistent sensitivity to the principle of non-involvement of foreign actors in Chinese domestic affairs. This refers to the drastic decline of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the pretext of increasing China’s national security. Consequently, protests against central authorities can be considered subversion, dialogue with foreign forces — conspiracy, and protesters risk harsh punishments, decided and applied outside Hong Kong on the mainland (BBC, 30 June 2020). Thus, by not getting involved in the situation in Belarus, China reiterates the inadmissibility of the Western diplomatic discourse in favor of the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong. And, on the other hand, Belarus is under the geopolitical protectorate of Moscow, due to the multiple levers of asymmetric influence — the state union, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty. Strategically, contrary to Russia’s view, China wants autocratic Belarus to be autonomous and multi-vector. But the urgent priority is to save the authoritarian regime from falling, and Russian intervention allows China to achieve this goal without any effort or costs.
China’s position on Belarus, immediately after the presidential election, was highlighted by the first external recognition of Lukashenko’s victory, to which Chinese leader Xi Jinping links the “iron brotherhood” that exists between the two countries. The messages articulated by Chinese diplomacy since the beginning of the Belarusian protests show a semi-tacit solidarity with Lukashenko. Although the Chinese side wants to avoid engaging in geopolitical disputes over Belarus, it has repeatedly called for a “rapid stabilization” of the situation (August 11, 2020). This goal betrays China’s preference for restoring “political stability and social tranquility” (August 26, 2020), under Lukashenko’s leadership. As in the case of Hong Kong, the Chinese side is disturbed by the “interference of external forces”. Typically, such intolerance refers to the actions taken by the West, not to the Russian interventions, already in the process of execution. In support of the Lukashenko regime, the Chinese authorities have promised to “deepen the partnership of strategic cooperation” in areas that benefit both sides.
The European Union
European limitations on Belarus are due to the lack of any instrument of conditionality, which exists towards Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine. Belarus is also autonomous from the EU compared to Armenia, which can rely on European financial assistance if it implements various democratic or sectoral reforms. For these reasons, the only available instrument remaining in the EU’s arsenal are sanctions, already used in 2004 (individual sanctions) and 2011 (arms embargo). Economic sanctions targeting Belarusian companies have never been adopted. Such sanctions, though, have been introduced against Russia. The initial reason was the downing of the civilian plane MH17 over Ukrainian territory in 2014 and concerning Crimea, which de jure belongs to Ukraine. Subsequently, economic sanctions were also connected to the settlement of the conflict in Donbas.
The EU’s consistency in not recognizing the results of Belarus’ August 9th presidential election contrasts with the slow negotiation of individual sanctions. The need to introduce them was agreed on 14 August, but a final decision delays due to a lack of consensus. Consequently, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia decided to adopt individual sanctions against the Lukashenko’s regime (30 exponents), on their own. Economic sanctions are unlikely at the moment, both because the Belarusian opposition rejects them and because it is believed that they will hit the population more than the regime. Obviously, the possible disconnection of Belarusian industry from Western markets can make it easier prey for Russian and Chinese investors. But measures other than economic ones to influence Lukashenko’s behavior do not exist, while individual sanctions have previously been ineffective.
The flagrant violation of human rights, mass torture, sequestrations and other atrocities committed against the civilian population can be classified as crimes against humanity. The evidence of that is mounting. Such an approach may justify the introduction of a mixed set of sanctions, including those of an economic nature. Also, the discussion on new sanctions against Russia should not be ruled out, given the Russian hybrid activities on Belarusian territory. There was the Ukrainian precedent when Russian officials and companies have been sanctioned for militarizing separatism in the Donbas.
In lieu of conclusion…
The inertia towards the usefulness of external factors observed in the Belarusian opposition stems most from the reluctance to geopolitize the democratic revolution, to prevent the Ukrainian “Euromaidan”. But while peaceful protests are a surefire measure to discredit the authoritarian government, the regime is gradually adapting to their presence.
The indecision of the Belarusian opposition to resort to Western external factors in order to exert pressure did not prevent the Lukashenko regime from geopolitizing the political crisis in Belarus himself. He gave Russia permission to intervene and welcomed China’s unconditional political support. At the same time, the Belarusian regime is demonizing neighboring EU states for trying to positively influence the democratic situation in Belarus. As the political crisis is already geopolitical, the Belarusian opposition must capitalize on geopolitical factors in its favor, as Lukashenko does.
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.