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Belarus, the Odd Neighbor
March 29, 2012   
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How should Europe deal with a country that is European geographically but in terms of mind set seems to belong to a different world and a different era—and which keeps drifting further away from democratic standards? Politicians from Paris to Brussels to Warsaw are asking themselves this question.

The Republic of Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of Alexander Lukashenko has eluded any normal classification for 17 years. On the one hand, the country is not plagued by wars, famine, economic depression, ethnic or territorial conflicts, but on the other, the European-style concept of democracy appears to be nonexistent in Belarus. EU politicians have all kinds of ways to express their concern over Lukashenko’s rule, but apparently, there is not much else they can do. Any attempts at bringing Belarus closer to Europe, such as the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program, have failed miserably after being ignored by Minsk. Sanctions of any kind do not seem to have any effect either.

Lukashenko is acting as if he does not need Europe at all. He says his country has many friends and that ties with powerhouses such as China, India, Central Asia and above all Russia are more than enough for Belarus. Sanctions such as banning entry to the EU for a Belarusian minister, judge or police colonel will not really make any difference. The same is true of freezing Belarusian assets, because they can always be transferred to a more Lukashenko-friendly country. Probably the only effect of the recent EU ban on sales of anti-riot equipment to Belarus is that Chinese producers of such equipment could not be happier. It does not really matter to Belarusian opposition activists whether they are beaten with a truncheon made in the EU or somewhere else.

An additional, or perhaps fundamental, problem is that the vast majority of European politicians don’t understand what makes Belarus tick. They have demonstrated that on many occasions. In fact, this lack of understanding applies to all post-Soviet republics, including Russia. The only exception are the three Baltic states, which are now EU members. A European who for several generations has lived a safe and prosperous life finds it hard to understand why Belarusians would opt for a dictator instead of freedom. But this dictator ensures that paychecks and pensions are paid out regularly, while for many former Soviet citizens, the somewhat vague idea of freedom calls to mind Russia’s turbulent years under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. A vision of a disintegrating government administration, raging crime and uncertainty about your job and your family’s future appeals to no one except those who can afford to leave the country—but most of these have already done so.

Even though the latest crisis in the EU’s relations with Minsk is the most serious ever, it is unlikely to prompt Lukashenko to loosen his iron grip. On the contrary, it may strengthen his position if he presents himself as a leader defending his country against the diktat of Brussels. The Belarusian opposition is weak, fragmented and conflicted. Political scientists in the West admit that even if Belarus held a completely fair election, Lukashenko and his people would still win hands down. That is coupled with the fact that Lukashenko’s political and economic (oil, natural gas) sponsors in Moscow are keen to make sure that no attractive, pro-Western alternative finds its way to Minsk and the Belarusian people. Consequently, Brussels will probably have to resign itself to accepting this odd, anachronistic and resolutely Soviet-style neighbor to the east.
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