Belarus has earned a reputation for being “the last dictatorship in Europe.” The country is an authoritarian regime in which there is little political or other freedom. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka, now in his 17th year as leader of his country exercises tight control of the Belarus’ media, civic and political life, thus precluding any significant challenges to his leadership.
During the Bush administration, it was all but official U.S. policy to seek to end Lukashenka’s tenure in office and bring more freedom to Belarus. This aspect of Bush’s democracy assistance agenda dovetailed cleanly with the broader foreign policy aim of limiting Russian influence in Europe. For much of the previous decade Russia and Belarus have had very close relations. The two countries formed a Union State in 2000. Although many of the aspects of this Union State, such as a common currency, never reached fruition, this structure provided some tangible goods such as mutual citizenship, so that Belarusians and Russians can travel and work freely in both countries.
During the last decade there was even occasional talk about the two countries formally becoming one country. As early as 2002, some in Europe viewed Belarus as “a Russian military outpost.” Thus, in addition to being a blight on human rights and freedom in Europe, Belarus was closely tied to the resurgent Russia of the last decade. This made the case for working for change in Belarus reasonably unambiguous to many Western governments.
During the last few years, however, the relationship between Russia and Belarus has begun to change. This has become evident in several ways including the decision by Lukashenka earlier this year to offer asylum to ousted Kyrgyz kleptocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Lukashenka is also likely to refuse to extradite Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan. Russia, of course, was pleased by, and some say helped, Bakiyev’s ouster and would benefit from greatly from seeing the erstwhile American client tried in Bishkek.
Belarus has also thus far refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. This is a significant issue for the region where Lukashenka has positioned himself with the U.S., which strongly opposes statehood for these two places, and against Russia, which has sought to pressure its allies to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian statehood. Rumors that Belarus may recognize these two territories are floated from time to time, and the possibility remains alive, but until now, Belarus has found a way to avoid doing this.
The cooling of relations between Belarus and Russia is good news for the west, but it has not changed the nature of the authoritarian regime in Belarus. This raises something of a dilemma for the US and Europe who are now caught between wanting to continue to encourage the nascent rift between Belarus and Russia while also encouraging political liberalization in the former country. Of course, pushing too hard for this liberalization, which the Lukashenka regime has consistently resisted, will very possibly also push Belarus back to Russia, while backing away from supporting and calling for freedom in Belarus will encourage the dictators in Minsk to simply continue their domestic policies.
The choice the U.S. faces is additionally complex because the Belarusian opposition is generally pro-west so abandoning support for them simply because Lukashenka has sided with the U.S. on several issues of regional import would not send the right message either. However, Lukashenka has demonstrated that he is reasonably well entrenched so that a rapid unforeseen transition like that which occurred in Kyrgyzstan in April is unlikely in Belarus.
There are many ways the U.S. can craft a policy towards Belarus that encourages this rift with Russia while not facilitating the continuation of the Lukashenka dictatorship. However, that would require a degree of nuance that has been scarce in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. Balancing support for democracy with the short term political benefit of warmer relations with authoritarian regimes is a challenge that has bearing far beyond Belarus, so the extent to which the Obama administration can do this in Belarus will be an important measure of their political skill.