Updated at 13:19,16-08-2022

Transition to democracy cannot be subject of negotiations with Lukashenka

By Alyaksandr Klaskowski, BelaPAN

On August 8, 2008, a five-day war began between Georgia and Russia, which prompted Alyaksandr Lukashenka to seek closer ties with the West. Five years later, the European Union (EU) no longer has big hopes for democratizing Belarus under Lukashenka despite its tentative efforts to begin a dialogue with Minsk.

A thaw in the relationship between Minsk and the West ended with a major crackdown on an opposition protest in Minsk in the wake of a presidential election in December 2010.

Minsk’s tensions with Kremlin

Since 2006, the Kremlin began to raise energy prices for Belarus following Lukashenka’s refusal to endorse a Union State constitution, introduce the Russian ruble and sell the Beltranshaz gas pipeline system. Minsk started frantically looking for other sources of financial and economic support.

It was not surprising that Minsk was not particularly supportive of Russian tanks’ invasion in Georgia and refused to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Not a single method works

Shocked by Moscow’s attack on Georgia, the West attempted to buy Belarus’ favor. The country was admitted to the Eastern Partnership and obtained a loan of $3.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) without launching a structural reform.

Some Western politicians had an illusion that it was possible to Europeanize and democratize the Lukashenka regime, says Valery Karbalevich, of the Stratehiya think tank. But the 2010 crackdown proved them wrong.

It is hard to say what tactic is more effective with regard to Belarus, a dialogue or pressure, says Karbalevich. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, he adds.

The dialogue’s benefits included the release of all political prisoners, the return of two independent newspapers back into official circulation, a decrease in the level of opposition intimidation and fewer restrictions on electioneering during the presidential election.

The limited liberalization, however, frightened officials, causing physical discomfort. Lukashenka later acknowledged that he was sick of democracy.

Surely, one way or another he would find a way to stop the democratization process after his re-election, but the mass demonstration on December 19 and an attack by protesters on government offices in downtown Minsk made him mad. Observers note that he suffered a psychological trauma from loosening screws and may never recover from it.

EU has failed so far to find effective tools. Its instruments range between sticks and carrots. But the EU has neither a big stick, nor it has a carrot bigger than Russia’s.

Meanwhile, Minsk would mind at all having better ties with the EU. It desperately needs loans, while Moscow strictly rations oil deliveries and seeks to take control of Belaruskali, Belarus’ potash giant.

But Lukashenka refuses to release imprisoned opponents to make a new thaw possible. His intuition tells him that Moscow will eventually reward him for his involvement in the Eurasian Union project and for his consent to launching a Russian Air Force base in Lida. Russia is short of friends internationally. Ukraine is determined to part ways with Moscow, so Lukashenka’s friendship rises in price.

The EU’s carrots no longer attract Minsk. Its position can be described as "do not teach us to live, better give us financial assistance."

"Less oppressive dictatorship"

"A realistic objective in Belarus can be a little less oppressive dictatorship," says Yury Drakakhrust, of the RFE/RL Belarus Service.

How much less should be a subject of negotiations between the EU and the Belarusian authorities. "Belarus’ transition to democracy cannot be a subject of negotiations with Lukashenka in principle," Drakakhrust contends.

The EU and the West need to take a realistic approach to Belarus. Politics is the art of the possible, therefore it would be unwise to ignore chances offered in the political game if Minsk meets basic conditions.

Hopes for reeducating the regime are unfounded, but pro-democracy forces can count on its erosion.