Belarus: a Worsening European Dictatorship?

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY GEORGE MILES (2nd year - PAIS - Nottinghamshire, UK)

Situated in Eastern Europe and with a population of just under ten million, Belarus would not typically be one of the major talking points within Western foreign policy. However, because of the actions of President Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the country for over 25 years, the former Soviet state has caused international outrage following the 2020 Presidential Election.


The elections were described as fraudulent by many in the West, yet it was the actions of the regime in response to subsequent protests that forced the international community to act. Stories include journalists being jailed for filming protests, protesters being attacked with stun grenades, and leading opposition activists being kidnapped. International condemnation increased further after the Belarusian state diverted a Ryanair flight to detain an opposition journalist. New measures were consequently imposed on Belarus, which included limiting revenue and loans to the regime, and sanctions on individuals and organisations accused of money laundering and sanction evasion. Regrettably, the impact of these sanctions has been minimal, and this is likely to continue.


Belarus explained that the commercial aircraft carrying an opposition journalist had to be diverted because of a bomb scare, a claim the Russian Foreign Minister later described as “reasonable.” This example demonstrates that whatever attempts the EU, Britain, or the US make to weaken Lukashenko are unlikely to succeed, as Lukashenko is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a continued nemesis of the West.


Putin is opposed to Eastern European revolutions, and following the 2020 elections promised to ensure security in Belarus. Therefore, the aim of the sanctions, which is to put further pressure on Lukashenko to step down, are likely to have little impact. The President has the support of a nation that may not be the superpower that it once was, but can nonetheless still propel its influence outside its own borders. In addition to providing security to Belarus in the wake of mass protests, Russia and Putin can repair any damage caused by Western sanctions. The promise to maintain ‘security’ also came with a $1.5 billion loan, limiting any consequences of efforts by the West to stop loans to the regime. Any efforts by the West with regards to trade are also ineffective, as Belarus’ trade with Russia is double that of the nation’s trade with the EU. Therefore, the sanctions imposed on Belarus by the West are little more than a token gesture, considering these efforts can be diluted through Belarus’ relationship with Russia.


Whilst the world has developed since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the legacies of a multipolar system remain. There are some areas which the West simply cannot have major influence over because of those states' ties with Russia. Questions such as the impact of the current sanctions or whether tougher measures are needed neglect the fact that any effort that the West makes to try and bring democracy to the Belarusian people will be met with a similar effort by the Russians to halt Western advances.


If the West is to remain the dominant actor within international politics, it must continue to try and promote its values. However, the West must also recognise that there will always be significant opposition from powerful forces. Subsequently, the questions that need to be asked are not what can the West do to support the people of Belarus in their fight for democracy, but instead does the West want to confront Russia? Belarus is of far more importance to Russia than it is to the West, so it is likely that if Putin feels that the West is making progress in transforming Belarus, he will respond with significant force.


Belarus is a worsening dictatorship with increasing contempt of any form of dissent. In response, the West has rightly tried to support those protesting against authoritarianism and has attacked Lukashenko for his violent crackdowns against protesters. However, any attempt to bring democracy and the rule of law to Belarus must always consider the fact that Russia effectively controls Belarus. Any confrontation with Belarus is a confrontation with Russia. And this confrontation poses far more risks than a conflict solely with Lukashenko.


The argument here is not suggesting that the West should ignore any problems that may impact Russia. The West is right to challenge Russia and its increasingly disturbing antics, such as election interference, and must not appease Putin. However, the West must also accept that to free Belarus and other eastern European nations they must tackle the problem of a nation with declining levels of influence determined to retain some form of regional power, meaning a head-to-head with Russia directly.


IMAGE: Flickr / Zachary Harden