On eve of election, Belarus is caught between Russia and the West

On Oct. 11, the people of Belarus will participate in a mass civic ritual: a presidential election. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been an island of stability in an otherwise chaotic post-Soviet bloc. Lenin statues stand throughout the country, the secret police still calls itself the KGB, the economy is run by the state and the state is run by President Aliaksandr Lukashanka. The weak state of Belarusian civil society and the complete political dominance of the Lukashenka regime, in power since 1994, effectively guarantee the president's reelection. However, as he begins his fifth term, his country's position between Russia and the West is more precarious than it has ever been.

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Russia provides a massive subsidy to Belarus in the form of a reduced duty on crude oil exports. Belarus, which inherited two large refineries from the Soviet era, refines this oil and exports it. The Russian subsidy amounts to over $10 billion annually, or 15 percent of Belarus's gross domestic product (GDP), while refined petroleum constitutes a third of Belarus's exports. While Lukashenka claims credit for an inflated standard of living and thus avoids economic discontent and political instability, his hold on power would become uncertain if the Russian-Belarusian relationship collapsed. This arrangement gives Russia a tremendous amount of leverage over the Belarusian government.

Lukashanka cannot ignore the speed with which the relationship between Russia and Ukraine diametrically changed, since he relies on Russian support more than any Ukrainian president ever has. In a matter of months, Ukraine went from being Russia's quasi-protectorate to its military adversary. Furthermore, Russia's justification for invading Ukraine — protecting the Russian-speaking population — opens the door to an invasion of Belarus, whose population is 70 percent Russophone. While the West has lined up behind Ukraine, diplomatically isolated Belarus would likely face Russian economic or military aggression alone. Even if their relationship does not become adversarial, a combination of Western sanctions, the falling price of crude oil and expensive military adventures in Ukraine and Syria have strained Russia's budget, calling into question its ability to support Belarus in the long run.

Lukashenka has been taking steps to assert Belarusian independence from Moscow since the Ukraine crisis highlighted the danger of complete reliance on Russia. He projected a neutral image by hosting the Minsk conferences between Russia and Ukraine, but has also been supplying Ukraine with military equipment. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders boycotted the Moscow commemoration of the end of World War II; surprisingly, Lukashenka did not attend, either, although he insisted that his absence had no political significance. He marked Belarusian Independence Day with a speech in Belarusian, generally used in the public sphere by the nationalist and liberal opposition. Lukashenka, who usually speaks Russian, had given only one other speech in Belarusian — in 1994. In August, Lukashenka freed six opposition figures who had been imprisoned since 2010. The European Union may reward this move by lifting some sanctions, potentially allowing Western investment and access to European capital markets, lessening Belarus's dependence on Russian subsidies. The week before the presidential elections, Lukashenka rebuffed Moscow's plan to set up an air base for the Russian military in Belarus, hinting that the base would be a tool for Russia to pressure Belarus.

Lukashenka has a pattern of leaning toward the West when his relationship with Russia becomes strained, so the likelihood of a full rapprochement with the West should not be overstated. For example, after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Belarus also made overtures to the EU and minor political concession to the opposition, only to abruptly reverse course and earn a round of EU sanctions after crushing demonstrations against Lukashenka's highly flawed reelection in 2010. However, the invasion of Ukraine seems to have changed the Belarusian government's calculations. Its current assertion of independence is unprecedented, allowing the EU a unique opportunity for engagement with Belarus. However, Russia can still use its economic muscle or military force to bring Belarus back into the fold if it strays too far.

Russia's zero-sum view of geopolitics will likely lead it to pressure Belarus to surrender more of its sovereignty, while the subsidies that keep Belarus in Russia's orbit are increasingly insecure. On the other hand, deepening ties with the European Union in a meaningful way may require more liberalization than Lukashenko is willing to allow. It remains to be seen whether the desire for new allies is enough to pressure Lukashenka to ease his authoritarianism. Trapped between two unappealing options, the way forward for Belarus is far from clear.

Fedynsky was a Fulbright student in Kyiv, Ukraine from 2012 to 2013. He currently works in consulting in Washington. 

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