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Would Belarusians Elect a Western-oriented Leader? Interview with Yaraslau Kryvoi

Is there a mood for a change in Belarus? In an interview given to Krzysztof Nieczypor (Eastbook.eu), Yaraslau Kryvoi, director of Ostrogorski Centre and editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest, gives the context for analysing the key figure in October presidential elections.

This Monday Yaraslau Kryvoi will also attend the ECFR’s event about Belarus at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw. 

SAVE THE DATE!
EU Policy Towards Belarus: Time For Another Reset?
Debate, 7 September 2015, Warsaw, Poland

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For a year the capital of Belarus has hosted parties negotiating a peaceful solution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. As a result, president Alexander Lukashenko may present himself as a internationally mediator and conciliator with support of the West and Russia. How did he earn such an honour?

Russia does not have many allies, particularly in the West. Even neutral Switzerland introduced sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine crisis so Moscow did not have a much better choice. For other parties in the Ukraine talks it did not matter much where negotiations would take place, as long as was not Russia itself. Lukashenko managed to present himself as an important figure in the peace process although in reality Belarus did not more than offered rooms for negotiators in Minsk.

Lukashenko came to power building on Belarusian citizens’ sentiment for the Soviet era. Yet recently, we can observe a more pro-Belarusian mood among authorities in Minsk. For example the president called for increasing the number of Belarusian language courses in schools, and last years he delivered a speech on the occasion of Independence Day of Belarus in Belarusian. Could this “Belarusianisation” of authorities be considered  a more lasting trend and does it have a chance against the Russian propaganda machine of “ruskiy mir” in Belarus?

First, it is important not be disillusioned by the “Belarusianisation” policy. The number of schools with Belarusian language of instruction has declined dramatically since 1990s, Belarusian language is de-facto absent in official proceedings and you will hear it only on isolated islands – spoken among artists, writers, youth groups, some politicians and in Catholic churches. All channels of Belarusian television are almost entirely in Russian. After the Ukraine crisis, the authorities started taking some modest steps to promote Belarusian language and identity, but they have been fighting against it for too long to reach any meaningful results. They are also afraid to antagonise Russia.

This “Belarusianisation” policy should be supported but at this point it has no chance to stand against the Russia’s information dominance in Belarus.

Many people, especially in Poland, constantly proclaim the imminent collapse of Lukashenko regime – be it an economic or moods among citizens. It turns out, however, that despite those predictions he has kept power over  the country for 20 years without any interruptions and with citizens’ support. Moreover, facing the threat of Russian imperialism Lukashenko became a guarantor of stability and durability of the Belarusian state. As an expert, how would you describe the role of Lukashenko in the Belarusian establishing-state process?

We must understand that Lukashenko is not an isolated phenomenon; he has been a reflection of a large segment of the Belarusian society. The imminent collapse of the regime is a topic, which many Western and Belarusian media have been entertaining since late 1990s, creating unrealistic expectations, which led to bitter disappointments.

In reality for the majority of Belarusians it may seem that Lukashenko’s rule was the best in Belarusian history so far. Belarus has independence albeit rather limited, the prosperity of Belarusians is certainly higher than in most other former parts of the Soviet Union and – depending on the oil prices – even higher than in some parts of the European Union. Yes, this prosperity is based on Russian subsidies and will remain unsustainable in the long run but most of people do not care about it.

More importantly, in the context of the crisis in Ukraine, Belarus has no wars on its territory. Now all other EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood countries have frozen or active territorial disputes. This is the positive side of the first decades of Belarusian independence.

On the negative side, Belarus lost many opportunities to turn into a modern democratic state, has become very dependent upon Russia and extremely vulnerable to its possible intervention. It is the fault of the authorities who failed to conduct a more balanced policy and make the country genuinely independent. And of course, Belarus has serious problems with democracy, the rule of law and human rights, which also undermine its independence.

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Read also
Yaraslau Kryvoi, Andrew Wilson:
“From sanctions to summits: Belarus after the Ukraine crisis

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At first glance, Lukashenko seems to be a much more efficient and talented politician than his former Ukrainian counterpart – Viktor Yanukovych. Both tried to pursue a policy of balancing between the East and the West, but Yanukovych was stripped of his position and had to flee to Russia, while  Lukashenko is preparing for re-election for the post of the head of state. Is there a less known reason for the ongoing political successes of Alexander Grigoryevich?

The weak national and civic identity of Belarusians – compared to Ukrainians – has been both a curse and a blessing of Belarus. The country does not have genuinely functioning institutions such as a parliament, courts or elections. They are all under strict centralised control. However, this allowed Belarus to avoid revolutions and provoking Russia, yet a super-centralised state not based on representative democracy is very vulnerable and may quickly collapse as we saw in many cases, most recently in Iraq and Libya.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has functioning institutions. Yes, they have serious problems with corruption and are far from perfect, but they do not depend just on personalities of Yanukovych, Poroshenko or any other single politician. From this point of view Ukrainian statehood and independence is more sustainable and the Belarusian authorities failed.

In other words, Lukashenko has made himself indispensible to the political system of Belarus, which explains his popularity. The price is a very vulnerable Belarusian statehood.

The European Union has already used all diplomatic instruments against Lukashenko during his over 20-year rule. From “the carrot policy” – as in the case of the mission led by foreign ministers Radosław Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle in 2010, followed by the policy of stick in the form of economic sanctions. How would you rate the effectiveness of EU policy towards the Lukashenko regime?

The Europan Union has been largely consistent in taking a principled position on human rights and elections in Belarus. However, the EU failed to become a visible actor inside the country, its presence and appeal to Belarusians remains limited.

Belarus looks like a paradox to EU foreign policy makers. On the one hand, Belarus seems to be a stable European country, on the other – it is not seeking to join the European Union and wants to stay in the Russian orbit, undermining its own independence.

Many decision-makers in the EU think that the main problem of Belarus is Lukashenko, but I am not sure that Belarusians would elect a pro-democracy Western-oriented leader rather than a populist in free and fair elections.

The majority have watched the Russian television for far too long – they even support annexation of Crimea. This is why the EU should think how to influence Belarusian society at large – through education, technical cooperation, exchanges, etc. – rather than just hope that Lukashenko will behave according to EU expectations. Belarus is not North Korea – all major donors such as USAID, Sida, EuopeAid run projects in the country despite a rather restrictive environment. Much more can still be done even in the present circumstances.

Right now the best approach for the EU would be to patiently increase its leverage and credibility inside Belarus. For the public at large it is important to offset the anti-Western and anti-democratic rhetoric of the Russian state media, and support development of civic identity of Belarusians. Other measures could include issuing Belarusians free multi-year Schengen visas, engage students and academics in exchange programmes, cooperate with Belarusian civil society and state institutions not directly involved in human rights violations. It is also important not to scare away Belarusian bureaucracy: they want to avoid revolutions but want to live in an independent and civilised country.

A clear differentiation between Lukashenko and Putin policy towards Ukraine is seen as a  chance of attracting Belarus into the orbit of the European Union. At the same time Lukashenko seems to send positive signals to Brussels – the case of recent release of political prisoners including Mikola Statkevich. Being realistic: what are the chances of bringing Belarus closer to the EU?

Belarus may become closer to the EU but it will not leave the Russian orbit any time soon. According to some estimates, Russian subsidies constitute around 15% of Belarusian GDP annually and Belarusians’ main source of news and entertainment is Russian television. The Belarusian authorities have no illusions that they are too dependent upon Russia.ecfr logo

“They understand it is too late to become pro-European”.

Moreover, many among them think that fundamental democratic changes or geopolitical reorientation would trigger a Russian intervention in one form or another. This is why they do not want to rock the boat. I hope they understand this vulnerability and will manage to reduce it without antagonising Russia.

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Dr Yaraslau Kryvoi is a Belarus-born and London-based expert on international law and policy with a special focus on Belarus and the former Soviet Union. He is also an Associate Professor at the University of West London.  You can find him on Twitter: @kryvoi

Meet him on 7 September in Warsaw at the ECFR’s debate
“EU Policy Towards Belarus: Time For Another Reset?”

Panelists:
Anna Maria Dyner (Analyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs)
Jörg Forbrig (Transatlantic Fellow, Director, Fund for Belarus Democracy, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Berlin Office)
Yaraslau Kryvoi (Director, Ostrogorski Centre; Editor-in-Chief, “Belarus Digest”)

Chair: Piotr Buras (Head of ECFR Warsaw Office)

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