During the last three months, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, brazenly reached out to European leaders in a purported attempt to settle long drawn-out differences. Cooperation between the European Union (EU) and Minsk, which gained momentum after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, was put on ice after the rigged Presidential elections of 2010 and the subsequent crackdown on opposition protests. Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius revealed his discontent with the status quo when asked about Europe’s quarrel with Belarus. Linkevičius claimed that a renewed dialogue between the two parties would bolster the EU’s influence over Minsk and increase its foothold within Belarusian society. While couched in notions of democracy, the Lithuanian position seems to be primarily driven by geopolitical concerns, and a deeper motive. Many countries within the Union’s eastern confines remain deeply suspicious of Russia’s strategic ambitions.
Commentators are left to assume that through utilizing the current effort to engage the EU, Belarus could act as a bulwark against Russian political interventionism. However, given the previous ill-fated attempts at reconciliation, this argument does not have much credibility. The chief aim of Lukashenko revolves around regime survival; democratic reforms would critically undermine his position of power, making it equivalent to political suicide. Lukashenko only serves his own interests and can therefore never be expected to boldly stand up against Russia, his biggest sponsor; his opportunism does not allow him to consistently choose one side. Although some European leaders may think otherwise, the EU should give up on the idea of reforming the Belarusian leadership.
During his 18-year tenure, Lukashenko demonstrated his cunning ability to pragmatically exploit the geopolitical rivalry between the EU and Russia, and reap lucrative economic benefits from the outside. Through exchanging political loyalty by placing a price on foreign policy, the political elite in Minsk succeeded in preserving economic stability and legitimizing its raison d’être. Another engagement between the EU and Belarus would merely permit Lukashenka to repeat this political sleight of hand.
Policymakers like Linkevičius are seemingly placing their bets on cultivating reform-minded Belarusian officials to encourage modernization of public administration. However, the president and his bureaucracy do not act as separate entities, making cooperation with regime officials a delicate venture. Such a policy could counterproductively buttress Lukashenko’s stronghold in Minsk through boosting his government’s capacity and allow his geopolitical entrepreneurship to continue. Alexander Lukashenko’s recent attempt to thaw relations shows itself through Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei initiating numerous consultations with European counterparts during the last three months. This turn of events demonstrates his wariness to solely rely on Russia; Minsk realizes that it will be devoured if left one-on-one with Moscow.
Regardless, it would be in the best interest of the EU to ignore such calculated moves. Brussels should drop the geopolitics and instead decide on how it could support democratic movements from within the country instead of through its leadership. There is no point in negotiating with the Belarusian regime as it stands - Europe cannot coax Lukashenko into dumping his old-time Russian ally or give up a longtime political strategy for more democratic means of governing. It would be better to wait for Lukashenko’s government to age 20 years than to try to work with the ruling establishment in Minsk.
Even though Brussels still maintains its sanctions package against Minsk, if Europe is genuine about its desire to see democracy prevail within its direct neighborhood, it should reject such internal proposals for mending of fences for the time being. Another engagement would merely enhance Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on power and dampen the prospects for a democratic transition.