Foreign Policy Research Institute

+38 (044) 287 52 58

Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

Long live Belarus! How the political crisis in Belarus will affect bilateral relations with Ukraine?

Oleksandr Lukashenko is called "Europe's last dictator." On August 9, Belarus held its sixth presidential election since independence. So far, Oleksandr Lukashenko has managed to hold the presidency for 26 years. Today, the country is in a political crisis: on the one hand, Belarusians do not want to see Lukashenko as their leader, on the other hand, there is no strong opposition core and a strong alternative to the current president. Svitlana Tikhanovska, who declared herself the winner of the election, has neither political experience nor a strong team. At the same time, Lukashenko's legitimacy is being undermined. The European Union has declared non-recognition of the official election results. A package of sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in fraud and violence is currently being prepared for adoption in Brussels.

Under these conditions, the Ukrainian party faced with the circumstances of the uncertainty.  At the beginning official, Kyiv refrained from the political assessment of the situation in Belarus. It was caused by the fact of the negotiations about the extradition of the Wagner mercenaries who fought in eastern Ukraine. However, on August 14, Minsk handed over 32 of 33 Russian Wagner mercenaries to Russia. Moreover, Lukashenko claimed that foreign aggression has begun again Belarus: ‘Today we come in large numbers here from Poland, Holland, Ukraine and from this "open Russia" Navalny and so on and so forth’[1]. On August 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine issued a statement on the presidential election in Belarus, but the official position of the state turned out to be relatively soft. In particular, the statement did not mention election fraud. Instead, Kyiv limited itself to a mild wording: "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine states that the officially announced results of the presidential election in the Republic of Belarus do not inspire confidence in Belarusian society"[2]. Thus, the Ukrainian side has taken a wait-and-see attitude, as the situation in Belarus now remains fragile.

Key European partners of Ukraine are acting more decisively. Poland and Lithuania act as drivers of pressure on the Belarusian authorities. In particular, it was at Warsaw's request to convene the extraordinary European Council summit. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevi?ius called Oleksandr Lukashenko a "former president." At the same time, it should be noted that on August 10, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine jointly issued a statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to refrain from using force and to release the detainees. In fact, Ukraine has the potential to take a more active position and join the initiatives of Warsaw and Vilnius on Belarus. On the other hand, the diplomatic restraint of official Kyiv may be due to several reasons.

Firstly, the isolation of Belarus is not beneficial not only for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole. This will inevitably lead to the rapprochement of Minsk with Moscow and Beijing. Until now, Alexander Lukashenko has tried to balance between the West and Russia. He is well aware of the threats that may pose to the Russian Federation both for the state as a whole and for him personally. However, if the Belarusian president is barred from entering and internationally isolated, he will have no choice but to work closely with the Kremlin again. Given the economic downturn, Belarus is in dire need of external financing. Russia can become such a donor, but only if its sovereignty is weakened and integration with Russia within the Union State is strengthened. This is well understood in the United States, so the position of the State Department is still quite soft. Unlike the EU, Washington is not yet preparing sanctions against Minsk. Although it is possible that in case of aggravation of the situation, the United States will be forced to put restrictions on Belarusian officials.

Secondly, unlike the events of the Revolution of Dignity, there is no question of geopolitical choice in Belarus. First of all, the Belarusian people want a change of government, not the foreign policy of the state. There were no pro-Western candidates in the presidential election. Svitlana Tikhanovska, who coincidentally became Lukashenko's main political opponent, raises many questions. In particular, she did not give a clear answer to the question "Whose is Crimea?": "Legally, Crimea is Ukrainian, in fact - Russian. And don't torture me anymore. " Thus, the Belarusian opposition is trying to unite both the pro-Russian and pro-Western electorate. After all, Belarus is not Ukraine, and many Belarusians still prefer close ties with Russia. So, whoever replaces Lukashenko, there is no guarantee that Minsk will not be in the so-called "fraternal" embrace with Moscow.

Thirdly, the Lukashenko regime continues to hold on. The Belarusian president is determined and will fight to the end. He has already gone through EU sanctions in 1998 and 2011 and history shows that it does not affect his intentions and position. Instead, Lukashenko continues to use violence against demonstrators as the only tool to stay in power. The European Union is also well aware that the Belarusian president will hold on to the end and may unleash the force scenario. Therefore, Brussels' steps are also quite cautious. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, that the European Union did not want a repeat of the Euromaidan events in Belarus: "Europe has no intention of making Belarus a second Ukraine." The diplomat justifies this by saying that the question of the people of Belarus is not "the choice between Russia and Europe", but to achieve freedom. In this context, the European Union is also involving Moscow in the dialogue. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have stated their readiness to mediate in resolving the political crisis in Belarus with the participation of Russia. Thus, Moscow is winning. On the one hand, he has intensive contacts with Alexander Lukashenko, on the other hand, EU leaders are calling him to resolve the situation in Belarus.

Fourthly, the probably restrained position of the Ukrainian party on the assessment of the situation in Belarus is explained by the fact that Minsk remains a platform for negotiations within the Trilateral Contact Group. By the way, it was thanks to Ukraine that Lukashenko managed to break out of isolation by the West in 2016 when the EU lifted almost all sanctions on Belarus. Currently, the Ukrainian authorities are not looking for alternative sites within the TCG. In particular, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky stated that he saw no reason to change the venue of the TCG meeting: “We are grateful to each country that offers us a platform for these important talks, but now all Minsk talks take place in a video format because of the COVID-19. Therefore, I believe that it does not depend at all on the site now, or on the city or place. "

Thus, both Kyiv and Minsk are interested in maintaining the status quo in bilateral relations. And although Lukashenko during his speeches accuses Ukraine and other countries of interfering in the situation in Belarus, it is nothing more than a game for the public. In addition, both sides are interested in maintaining trade ties, which have shown positive dynamics over the past three years. Of course, sooner or later the Belarusian people must go through their stage of evolution from an authoritarian regime to democracy. However, regardless of the president's name, it is important for Ukraine to maintain friendly relations with Minsk so as not to find itself in a completely hostile environment in the east and north of the country.