Europe must not abandon the new Belarus to Putin
UkraineAlert by Oleksiy Goncharenko. August 13.
After years in the post-Soviet shadows, Belarus is suddenly the world’s top geopolitical story. Since August 9, dramatic scenes of regime brutality and public defiance have gripped global audiences as Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka struggles to crush an unprecedented wave of nationwide protests over his attempts to claim victory in a deeply flawed presidential election. Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, but there is now a real sense of history in the making as the country finds its democratic voice.
This newfound international interest in Belarus has served to expose the lack of constructive foreign policy engagement with what is a strategically important but often overlooked country. Belarus sits on one of Europe’s great fault lines, but since the mid-1990s, its status as a stagnant neo-Soviet dictatorship has served to keep meaningful interaction to a minimum. This needs to change. Policymakers in Europe and the US must rapidly recognize the implications of the historic transformations currently taking place in Belarusian society and adapt their thinking towards the country accordingly.
Continuing the old arm’s length approach is no longer an option. Since the 1990s, Western governments have generally kept their distance from Belarus, with engagement limited to formal diplomatic dialogue and modest economic cooperation along with occasional censures and periodic sanctions. Amid outrage at the heavy-handedness of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, the initial talk this week has been of the need for tough new sanctions. However, this alone would only serve to leave an isolated Lukashenka with no option but to surrender Belarusian sovereignty to the Kremlin.
Instead, the international community needs to prioritize support for the remarkable civic movement that has emerged across Belarus over the past few months. This approach can uphold Europe’s democratic principles while defending the continent’s geopolitical interests and preventing Vladimir Putin from exploiting Lukashenka’s weakness in order to advance his own revisionist foreign policy.