The End for Europe’s last dictator

Hopefully, peace will prevail. The Belarusian presidential campaign seemed to have potential for positive changes. I did not get too excited and expect the dictator to let his contender score a win. Had he allowed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya get a better result, a brand-new socio-political movement might have been born. Her views were far from radical. It seemed like she would have made an acceptable pick for Lukashenko’s licensed opposition leader. In return, the dictator would be able to negotiate measured changes of a regime that is facing more and more rejection.

Such examples of political transformation can be found in political-science textbooks and they provide solutions for a peaceful and steady regime change. Unfortunately, this dictator decided not to follow the textbook script. He is feeling confident enough to apply the Chinese Tiananmen Square scenario and to crackdown on opposition.

The easiest thing to do would be to shrug it off and wait for biology to take its course, and solve the problem. Belarus is a relatively small economy and Europe can live without it. Minsk’s political system is neither an attractive source of inspiration, nor of competition for Europe. Such an attitude may be understandable coming from a distant European state but Poland cannot afford it. The existence of a sovereign Belarus, willing to work with Europe is in our vital interest. We cannot afford to do nothing about Lukashenko’s ruthless treatment of Belarusian society. It would bring about another wave of refugees and emigrants. Therefore, we cannot simply ignore the situation, as it would leave Minsk at the mercy of Moscow. Poland’s border with Russia would then get significantly longer in next to no time.

Brutal crackdown on the protesters makes it tempting to react accordingly, to condemn the regime and to double down on sanctions. Some even suggest that Europe needs to identify and freeze the assets of Lukashenko and his cronies. Others are calling for the closure of European borders to the representatives of the regime. Such actions have been taken in the past and they did not do much. This does not mean that culprits of ruthless repressions should remain unpunished. Hopefully, Europe will deal with them one day.

Most textbooks suggest that sanctions should be complemented by support of democratization, aid for civil society and pro-democratic activism. As it turns out, in Belarus, the aforementioned initiatives and institutions are drastically underdeveloped. Ruling since 1994, the Lukashenko regime has managed to successfully prevent any pro-democratic initiatives from taking root. It also seems that the opposition has been plagued with division and animosity that have prevented a unified, anti-regime front. Consequently, the West has no partners it could support, and Belarusian society has no leaders to look up to.

Stimulus for change may – therefore – come from the outside. It may originate in Moscow. Lukashenko’s political patron may conclude it is time for a reshuffle. The old-fashioned and cheesy Lukashenko could be replaced with a younger, more efficient technocrat, who would subsequently freshen up the political atmosphere and allow minor concessions. The likelihood of this scenario will grow as the regime erodes.

Inspiration for change may also come from Brussels. Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission has declared geopolitical ambitions. It wishes to deal with problems as distant as Venezuela, Bolivia and Mali. The Franco-German tandem has been dreaming of strategic autonomy for years. In order to get involved, Europe would have to stand up to Russia. Unfortunately, European capitals demonstrated a complete lack of assertiveness towards Moscow in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

In the meantime, as the Belarusian drama was unfolding, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas paid a visit to Moscow to openly defend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. It just so happens, that Germany is currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union. In order to confront Moscow, the EU would have to coordinate with the US. Unfortunately, Donald Trump is still President and too many European leaders consider him an ideological opponent, worse than Putin himself. Europe is still stalling and has now decided to wait until September to finally answer Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s calls for an extraordinary EU summit.

Expecting the UN or the OSCE to step up is unrealistic. Russia will block any such attempts within either of the two institutions.

As stated above, Poland cannot afford inaction. Mediation attempts by Poland’s and Lithuania’s presidents are logical. Other Baltic leaders have already voiced their support. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that Washington will have to re-evaluate its commitment to supply oil to Minsk. Will the United States be willing to work with our local initiative, even as the rest of Europe are mere spectators?

President Lukashenko is still hoping to secure his grip on power for the years to come, like certain post-Soviet leaders did in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Our part of Europe should remind him how Ceausescu ended up. I hope our regional mediating efforts also present the alternative, reminding Lukashenko of General Jaruzelski’s  peaceful resignation. I hope the Belarusian President decides to follow Jaruzelski’s example.

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