Lukashenko’s win means no change for Belarus

It comes as no surprise that President Alexander Lukashenko, or the “last dictator in Europe” as he is popularly known, has won the Belarusian reelections with a reported 83 percent of the vote on Sunday. Ruling the country since 1994, Lukashenko has spent the last two decades squashing his opposition, such as arresting political dissidents and jailing other presidential candidates in the 2010 election. Lukashenko’s next five-year term is likely to bring more of the same the same for the country: closer economic and political integration with Russia and more flirtation with the European Union.

{mosads}The only surprising factor about Lukashenko’s win is that the election garnered less criticism from European countries and, despite some objections, was deemed an improvement over previous years. Opposition candidates were allowed to campaign and some political prisoners were released. As a result, the EU has temporarily suspended sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, giving Minsk a little bit more room for maneuver in its relationship with Russia and possibly more room for deepening its relationship with Europe.

However, it is still uncertain if these elections will pave the way for a thaw in Belarus- EU relations. Lukashenko will certainly try to use these elections as a sign of Belarus’s democratization to score points with the EU and will continue to try to play the EU and Russia against each other in order to gain favors from both. Ultimately, Lukashenko’s regime is dependent on cheap energy resources from Russia and, although Belarus may benefit from closer economic ties to the EU, Minsk will continue to favor its relationship with Moscow. Absent any unexpected turn of events that would challenge Lukashenko’s leadership or the country’s territorial integrity, the Minsk-Moscow alliance seems solid.

Overall, it is unlikely that we will see a renewed Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenko. The country has been stuck in a status quo since the 1990s in terms of domestic and foreign policy. The country’s strategic importance makes it unlikely that it will easily escape Russia’s sphere of interest. Belarus’s geopolitical position is similar to that of Ukraine — buffering Russia against Western Europe and at the same time serving as a corridor to Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Over the years, Moscow has hardly treated Belarus as a separate entity. Moscow’s confidence in Minsk’s loyalty may largely explain why Belarus has not suffered a threat to its territorial integrity, unlike Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The next five years are likely to bring more cooperation and economic — and possibly even political — integration between Russia and Belarus. Seeking to bypass gas transit through Ukraine, Russia has offered Minsk increased gas throughput to Europe via the existing Yamal-Europe I pipeline plus development of a new Yamal-Europe II. The offer coincides with Russian energy company Gazprom’s construction of a new $250 million Belarusian headquarters and plans to construct a Russian-funded nuclear power plant, with both projects scheduled for completion in 2018. Already much of the Belarusian gas infrastructure is Gazprom-owned, including the Yamal pipeline system, the national natural gas operator and the underground gas storage systems. Most significantly, there are discussions to build a new Russian air base within Belarus.

The most dramatic possible development would be a possible merger between Russia and Belarus. Lukashenko himself proposed the creation of the “Union State” in the late 1990s with the main goal of becoming president or vice president of the confederation after former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s term ended. When Vladimir Putin was slated for the Russian presidency, Lukashenko tried to backpedal; however, it is possible that the idea of a union may be resurrected.

There is also much speculation about the future of Belarusian leadership. The Belarusian president is 61 years old and has been leading Belarus for more than 20 years. (However, in the context of post-Soviet states, his age and tenure are much lower than some of the Central Asian presidents). Lukashenko has three sons and Belarusian media speculates that the youngest is being groomed for succession, suggesting the potential for a dynasty. However, Lukashenko has no plans to retire anytime soon. It is questionable whether a dynasty would succeed in Minsk, as it has in North Korea, because Belarus is more open to the outside world than the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea. Moreover, because Russian gas exports flow to Europe via Belarus, outside interests in the country’s future could upset a dynasty arrangement.

Another presidential election and another win for Lukashenko has further entrenched the status quo in Belarus. The EU’s suspension of sanctions comes not after the transformation of the Belarusian political system, but rather after a game well played by Lukashenko, as he flirts with Europe while maintaining his commitments to Russia.

Grigas, Ph.D., is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and is the author of Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire (forthcoming from Yale University Press in February 2016).

Tags 2016 Belarusian election Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Boris Yeltsin EU European Union Gazprom Russia Union State Vladimir Putin
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