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Belarus and the EU’s “Soft Conditionality”

Matthew Rojansky and James Collins of Carnegie describe some of the likely scenarios indicating where Alexander Lukashenko will steer the country next, but really the situation is likely to come down to balance of payments, privatization of assets, and the patience of the Chinese.

The Kremlin has expressed repeated annoyance with Lukashenka for obstructing its agenda in the post-Soviet space: refusing to recognize the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, providing safe haven to ousted Kyrgyz strongman Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and conspiring to reverse the flow of Ukraine’s Odessa-Brody pipeline. When the Russian subsidies disappear, Minsk will be forced either to cut social benefits–risking domestic backlash–or sell off state enterprises, an opportunity that Kremlin-backed Russian oligarchs will be well positioned to exploit.

There is, of course, another path for Belarus. At least until the elections, relations with Europe had been on the mend, thanks largely to the recognition by Brussels that it needs real partnership with the EU’s “eastern neighborhood,” and that past coercive diplomacy toward Minsk was not delivering results. The opaque process and post-election violence may have blunted Europe’s highest hopes, but the election is unlikely to change Brussels’ preference for “soft conditionality” and engagement over a renewed bout of sanctions. Despite their strong statements of condemnation after the rigged vote and violence in Minsk, European leaders know that isolation and pressure will not yield reforms, and is instead very likely to hurt average Belarusians and push Lukashenka closer to the Kremlin.