Belarus Walks a Tightrope

Belarus Walks a Tightrope

Five years after the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus for violently suppressing political opposition in the 2010 presidential elections, the sanctions have been lifted after relatively peaceful elections in October.

In January 2011, John Kerry, still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, co-authored a blistering op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US and EU to impose sanctions and penalties on Belarus until given “an unambiguous demonstration that the Belorussian government is taking seriously the basic human rights of its citizens.”

After the release of six political prisoners in August, and peaceful elections in October, these sanctions have now largely been lifted. Is this because Belorussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime Condoleezza Rice once called “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has demonstrated the respect for human rights that Kerry called for five years ago?

Unlikely. The released prisoners, mainly opposition candidates from the 2010 Presidential Election, were let out too late to compete against Lukashenko in October. Amnesty International reports that other, less high-profile political prisoners remain jailed, and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the October presidential election had “significant problems,” noting that “Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments.” The best German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could say after the vote, in which Lukashenko took 83.5%, was that “there has not been as much repression around the elections as previously.”

So why the sanctions relief? The obvious reason seems to be that when it comes to Belarus, strategic concerns are now trumping humanitarian ones. Geographically at least, Belarus is at the center of current NATO-Russia tensions. Allied with Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus shares its western border with three NATO allies, its southern border with Ukraine, and its eastern border with Russia.

Most critical, is a 60 mile strip of land just inside Poland past the Belorussian border. This area, known increasingly as the “Suwalki Gap,” is the only thing separating Belarus from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The predicament – as indicated in early December by the US Army’s top commander in Europe – is that if Russia were to invade the Suwalki Gap, creating a land-link between Belarus and Kaliningrad, the Baltic nations would be physically cut off from the rest of NATO and the EU. This is not an entirely hyperbolic fear either, given Russian military exercises in March which simulated an invasion of the Baltics and parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

But the real impetus behind the carrot of relaxed sanctions appears to be a proposed Russian air base in southern Belarus, only a four hour drive from the Lithuanian border. First put forward by Moscow in 2013, the plans for the base seemed to be almost a fait accompli in September when President Putin endorsed it and Prime Minister Medvedev announced that a signed agreement was imminent. Then, the week before the Belorussian presidential elections, Lukashenko declared that he knew nothing about any proposed Russian base despite comments in support of it from the Belorussian Defense Minister over the summer.

A few weeks later on October 27, during an official visit to Moscow, the Belorussian Foreign Minister, Valdimir Makei, publicly stated that Belarus saw no need for a Russian base on its soil. On October 29, the US and the EU announced the suspension of sanctions against Belarus.

This vacillation between the West and Russia has been the hallmark of Belorussian foreign policy over the past decade. Only two weeks after the US and EU sanctions were lifted, the Belorussian Defense Ministry announced a new military doctrine for the country in response to the arms buildup in neighboring NATO states. And despite complaining, Belarus has yet to flat-out reject the proposed Russian air base.

It is also important to note the fine print in the sanctions relief. Neither the US nor the EU has proposed a permanent normalization of relations. Both have merely suspended restrictions (the US for six months, the EU for four months), giving themselves the option to simply let the suspensions expire with sanctions automatically reinstated.

In his post-election victory haze, it seems unlikely that Lukashenko will need to resort to extreme political oppression during this period, particularly at a time when he is seeking a $3bn loan from the IMF. Whether the US and EU will continue to suspend sanctions when they come up for review in 2016 therefore seems to depend upon security strategy rather than any measure of political freedom.

In the meantime, the 170 individuals – including President Lukahsenko – who now have access to their personal foreign bank accounts for the first time in years, are surely finding a reason to celebrate this holiday season.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Edward Wrong

Edward Wrong is Geopolitical Analyst specializing in transatlantic affairs who has held positions at NATO, the OSCE, and the EU Delegation to the United States. He has an MA in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies as well as an MA in Public Policy and Law from Trinity College. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization.