Timo Hellenberg, CEO at Hellenberg International
Exactly 400 years ago the Polish-Swedish War of 1621 began as a long-running series of conflicts between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Swedish-Finnish Empire. It began with a Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian fiefdom of Livonia and continued towards the south. The area of current Belarus played the role of the devastating battlefield. Since then, Belarusians have aspirated their nationality and statehood identity and it is being steadily enhanced since the Russian revolution and World War I.
It has been a long walk along rocky pathways and the staraya babushka is now getting tired. Since the Maidan crisis in Ukraine, Belarus’s relations with Russia have become steadily more strained. Belarus has not accepted Russia’s policy of shock and war in its neighborhood. Minsk became a brisk forum of peace brokerage for the crisis in Ukraine. This neutrality trend has not been able to inspire Russia which considers Belarus as its own “frontstage” of the Slavic brotherhood, even more than Ukraine. After four months of violent clashes in Minsk, one could ask whether or not Belarus is on the pathway towards the same kind of tragic events as the freedom fighters behind the Ukraine hotel on February 23, 2014 in Kyiv. At least the move of the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to Vilnius does not suggest this although the overthrown Russian and Western-minded candidates have finally found a common ground by supporting her.
As in Maidan in its early phases, the Belarusian protesters have systematically refrained from violence against the regime – more like an uprising of dignity and national identity formation which is enhancing weekly although winter is here and the crowds in the streets are getting smaller. The vertical power methods practiced by the elite are similar to the news images of the Ukrainian Maidan. How things look is important and not what you want to achieve. It is almost like Pushkin’s tragic visions were reflected in the set-up of the presidential election in Belarus where the president warns Moscow that any tensions in Minsk could spread across the border and also engulf also Russia. “It explodes so that it is reflected even in Vladivostok,” in Russia, in the Far East, a port city that has hosted small but long lasting demonstrations. Opposition candidates “disappeared” time and time again for various reasons in the election process and on July 29, the Belarusian KGB and OMON special police forces arrested war-hardened Wagner Group operatives in Minsk.
When President Alexander Lukashenko visited Sochi on 14 September as a guest of the Russian President Putin, Minsk started to be “couched” by the Kremlin and the subject became an object. As a result of Sochi, Lukashenko received a pledge of EUR 1.5 billion in quick loans to help Minsk re-finance its current debt as well as a promise from Moscow to support the armed forces should the situation get worse. On the same day, a military exercise was launched with Russian special forces which have since been quietly driven down after the situation remained unchanged. Neighboring countries such as Lithuania have increased their preparedness to possible disturbances. Recently, a NATO air defense exercise was held with troops from nine countries in addition to those from Lithuania and the United States. President Putin also announced monthly follow-up exercises, reinforcing the impression that everything would no longer depend on the sustainability of Minsk’s power but on the Kremlin’s willingness to act. Lukashenko, for his part, has not committed himself to anything concrete with Putin. Somehow, the situation is reminiscent of the talks in Sochi in February 2014 when the then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, set out to seek similar anti-Western guarantees with equally obscure counter-concessions.
Since August, the situation in Belarus has appeared as an uncertain reality TV show where Western leaders have been forced to play the role of the audience watching the brutal beatings of protesters by the Special Forces AMAP (Belarusian: Атрад міліцыі асобага прызначэння) under the Ministry of the Interior of Belarus (MUS). The use of these tools is decided by political leadership and the imprint has at times resulted in coordinated squabbling and reflexive top-down operational chaos.
Coincidentally, Minsk has recently seen former members of the Berkut forces familiar from Ukraine who had to leave their well-compensated positions and flee the country at the end of the Kyiv clashes in February 2014. The Berkut (Бе́ркут, “golden eagle”) was the Ukrainian system of special police (riot police) of the Ukrainian Militsiya within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The agency was formed in 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the successor to the Ukrainian SSR’s OMON. There were major challenges in motivating the berkuts of the Kyiv region to take part in Maidan clashes leading to importing them to Kyiv from eastern and southern Ukraine.
In Brussels, Tsikhanouskaya among other democratic leaders received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on December 15. At the ceremony, she spoke of political prisoners and victims of repression and called on the world to support Belarus. She also forwarded a letter to Věra Jourová, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Values and Transparency, proposing that the GUBOPIK (the Belarusian Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) and OMON be recognized as terrorist organizations. The document was signed by 50,000 Belarusians. Brussels has been active in rhetorically condemning the violence, criminal charges and the torture of protesters but there have been no major steps in terms of sanctions.
The first packages of sanctions blacklisted President Lukashenko and dozens of officials, and Tsikhanouskaya’s actions greatly influenced the adoption of the third package of sanctions against Belarusian units. This time, the list included 29 individuals and seven companies involved in repressions against Belarusians. The two main European banks, the EBRD and the EIB, have suspended all operations in the country with the exception of ongoing projects. The EU has now otherwise channeled funds previously directed to Minsk to support civil society. The Baltic countries and Poland have liberalized visa processing for the country’s opposition leaders who have not yet been imprisoned in their home country and receive virtually all opposition leaders who want to flee their country. Germany, which until now has been silent, is embarking on large-scale civic-level interaction projects.
Published data on the draft state budget for 2021 revealed that Belarus is aiming at increasing defense and law enforcement spending by about 12 percent as compared to 2020. Meanwhile, inflation in 2020 is likely to exceed 7% and the Belarusian ruble has devalued by 16%. So in reality, national defense spending has declined significantly this year. The Department of Defense’s plans to purchase four additional Su-30SM fighters have been halted. At the same time, the authorities are not optimistic that they can improve the economic situation in the coming year. Disputes over the price of energy sold to Belarus have also intensified.
While there is little in the European Union’s toolbox to influence Minsk, one can ask if there is also something we could learn from the EU’s porcelain polished promises given to Maidan at the Munich Security Forum in January 2014 of a “fast track” to EU prosperity.
The sectoral sanctions are not yet in the EU’s range of options as they are feared to make Belarus increasingly dependent on Russian energy supplies. In this chess game, Russia takes the winnings from the West in all volumes of foreign trade, in the amount of foreign investment, in security and military cooperation and in cultural and information visibility. The West can mainly provide humanitarian support to the opposition, continue to cooperate with civil society in ongoing projects and develop more cooperation in the scientific and cultural sectors. The World Bank is showing direction here, opening up new project applications for the development of the education sector.
In the early part of President Biden’s administration, the east-west political zero-sum game for Belarus is likely to intensify. New game rules will be tested and old coalition structures will come under pressure. The crisis of Belarus and its opposition´s neutrality aspirations will bring up pent-up political passions. At the same time, it threatens to take Ukraine, unnoticed, backwards from its path of peaceful development. From big power capitals these issues are and will be set up together, not apart from each other.
With the possible deepening and widening of the crisis in Belarus, the EU should also prepare for a gloomy scenario. Belarus is now a creeping crisis and it is no longer just a conflict. In the worst case, it could continue to mutate into a great power conflict radiating the stability of the axis of the Baltic-Black Seas if its importance is downplayed in the West and reciprocally perceived in Moscow as a question of prestige.