It took dramatic events for Belarus, one of the least-known among European countries, to draw international attention. For some three weeks now, the country has seen a standoff between the dictatorial regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Belarusian society, determined to finally end his 26-year old reign. For many in Europe and beyond, the images of peaceful and cheerful mass protests have been as riveting as those of sheer boundless police brutality have been shocking. Among foreign observers, no less than amidst numerous courageous Belarusians, hopes for the best mix with fears for the worst. And while the further course and outcome of the Belarus drama remain wide open, its repercussions will be felt across Europe and the transatlantic space. Why?
Belarus demonstrates once again the continued power and attraction of citizenship. Belarusians rebel against a government that has, for many years, lied to them, manipulated their will, impoverished them, and abandoned them, not least in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their demand is, simply put, respect and the right to determine their future. This nothing less than the emancipation of society from a paternalistic state. This becoming of a citizenry can be slowed by police batons but it cannot be reversed.
Closely related, Belarus provides for yet another example for how brittle dictatorship is as a form of government. Lukashenka’s regime, despite a very solid socio-economic basis inherited from the Soviet Union, has been forever unable to modernize from within. It has, for decades, effectively been held together by financial and political support from Russia. And it has, more recently, also been propped up by both the European Union and the United States, who placed the alleged stability provided for by Lukashenka above the will of the Belarusian people. This status quo, as durable and convenient as it may have been, is fast unravelling now.
As Belarusians assert their right to self-determination, fair elections, lawfulness, and a life in dignity, they need all the attention, solidarity and support that Europe, and the West broadly, can muster. After all, the citizens of Belarus demand nothing less than those values and norms that are considered fundamental to the West of their borders. Yet with the commendable exception of Lithuania, Poland and a few others in Central Europe, Western responses have been timid. Beyond rhetoric, neither the EU nor the U.S. have rolled out substantial and much-needed support for the Belarusian people. This is a poor show of commitment to the West’s very own value base.
No less importantly, Belarus provides for the latest test of whether or not Russia can still be a constructive force in international affairs. The closest partner of Belarus by far, Russia disposes of all the means to force the Lukashenka regime into a conciliatory approach towards its own people. It could help a peaceful transition of power in Minsk without any risks to ties with Moscow. After all, none of the protesters demand a loosening of cooperation between Belarus and Russia, and a turn to the EU or even NATO instead. Yet increasingly, indications are that the Kremlin will support the political status quo in Belarus by all means – politically, financially, and even militarily – defying both the country’s majority of citizens and Western appeals.
With this, the question becomes ever more urgent if another hotspot just beyond EU and NATO borders can still be avoided. With ever more obvious Russian, the Lukashenka regime feels emboldened – and expects repressive capacity from the Kremlin – to violently suppress the civic rebellion. For many Belarusians, this will mean to leave their home country. For those remaining, this will mean to live in an effective annex to Russia. For Belarus’ neighbors, the EU and NATO overall, and for Ukraine no less, this will mean added insecurity and exposure to Russian aggression. With its indecisiveness to date, inability to seriously sanction Lukashenka and his henchmen (and women), and unwillingness to hold Putin accountable for his ever more obvious interference, Europe and the United States effectively facilitate yet another portion of instability and conflict in the region.