What will happen in Belarus, and when? Any attempt at addressing this question would need to invoke such variables as the level of unity of Belarusian society, actions of the political regime, the health of the Belarusian economy, the role of Moscow, and the relative commitment of the West. Perhaps it is symptomatic that an extensive January 8 interview with Belarusian analyst Artyom Shraibman touched upon all those variables except the last one (Meduza, January 8, 2021).
Indeed, the West’s policy toward Belarus is an awkward issue to discuss, especially for a Western-friendly analyst. In 2011, following the crackdown on the post-election protest rally in Minsk (December 19, 2010), the European Union imposed sanctions on 243 regime associates and 29 firms. But despite the much larger scale of the authorities’ repressions against protesters today compared to 10 years ago, only 84 persons and 7 firms are presently subjected to EU sanctions (SNPlus, December 22, 2020). This, however, is not to criticize the weakness of the current measures. After all, the 2011 sanctions were not spectacularly effective either. Rather, a lack of strategic thinking comes into view.
For example, the Wheel Tractor plant, which produces vehicles that transport Russia’s mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), has limited, if any, contacts with Western suppliers. Yet it was placed under EU sanctions. Russia has long been willing to appropriate this plant. And given Belarus’s sanctions-induced inability to borrow from Western banks, Moscow may now finally be able to break Minsk’s lasting resistance and purchase the plant outright. On the contrary, production units that do have commercial ties with the West have not been sanctioned, apparently because that would have an adverse effect on Western firms (Facebook.com/melyantsou, December 17, 2020).
Or take the case of the sanatorium (a Soviet-style medical-recreational facility) “Belarus,” located in Druskinikai, Lithuania. It is a Belarusian property. As such, it was included in the so-called third package of sanctions, approved by the EU on December 16; so Swedbank immediately froze the sanatorium’s account. Consequently, 356 Lithuanian and 37 Belarusian citizens with permanent residency permits lost their jobs on the eve of Christmas, and local Lithuanian authorities sounded the alarm. Minsk made much hay out of this mishap. “This is not only an example of flawed decisions made by the EU […] but also of the highest level of hypocrisy,” declared Anatoly Glaz, the spokesperson for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In pursuit of political dividends,” he added, “our ‘well-wishers’ continue to deliberately inflict […] harm on ordinary Belarusians, for whose well-being they allegedly care. ‘Belarus’ serves as a rehabilitation center for more than 13,000 Belarusian children who are treated there annually” (Office Media, December 29, 2020).
Recently, Pavel Latushko, the exiled former minister of culture, threatened to pass on to the EU the full list of the delegates to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (an extra-constitutional body to be convened again by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 11–12) so that Brussels could extend sanctions to all of those individuals (Naviny, January 6, 2021). But against the backdrop discussed above, Latushko’s warning elicits mixed reactions at best. Still, even if sanctions are not a valid predictor of what is yet to come in Belarus, other variables of the aforementioned equation—in particular Belarusian society and the economy—are more valuable inputs to consider.
When it comes to Belarusian society, Shraibman estimated the size of the pro-Russian and pro-Lukashenka segments—which, in his opinion, overlap today more than ever before—at 20 to 30 percent of Belarusians. His qualifying remark was that “pro-Russian” is an exclusively geopolitical, not cultural marker, as Belarus is an “entirely [sic] Russian-speaking country and part of the Russia-centered information space.” Shraibman acknowledged an internal consolidation and, at the same time, numerical shrinkage of Lukashenka’s loyalists (Meduza, January 8, 2021). But regarding the social base and attitudes of the protest movement, judgments vary. On December 16, during the Sakharov Prize award ceremony, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the former presidential hopeful exiled to Lithuania, declared, as quoted by Beloruskie Novosti, that “we stood for our freedom, dignity and national identity, but we are faced with the brutal nature of the regime” (Naviny, December 16, 2020). “Honestly, I have never heard from those of my acquaintances who joined the protests that they went out to fight for ‘national identity,’ ” observed the popular blogger Kirill Ozimko. “Even those with white-red-white flags use them simply as a symbol of protest and not out of national revival motives. People are primarily concerned with issues of a political, legal and socio-economic nature. That ‘Belarusians rebelled for the sake of national identity,’ definitely distorts reality… In fact, the leaders of the protest movement are guided by their own interests and live in their own reality. Whereas ordinary protesters who sincerely want changes in the country […] live in their own” (Facebook.com, January 3, 2021).
As for the Belarusian economy, oil and natural gas contracts for 2021 are now secure (see EDM, January 7, 2021). And even more important, in the eyes of ordinary Belarusians, are new pieces of social infrastructure that serve their immediate needs. For example, in the southernmost part of Minsk, construction was launched on a new multi-story sports complex that includes several swimming pools and communal baths (Minsk News, December 23, 2020). Alexander Shpakovsky, a government-friendly commentator, remarks that in other countries, such large-scale entities become the foci of political campaigns in which local members of parliament and others instrumental in such objects’ materialization gain visibility. In Belarus, however, those projects are considered routine and totally unremarked upon (Facebook.com, December 24, 2020). Moreover, two new hypermarkets opened up in Minsk during 2020 (Tut.by, December 28, 2020). And those were in addition to a new subway line and the exhibition complex reported earlier. Russian Sberbank predicts anemic 1 percent growth of the Belarusian economy in 2021—but still growth (Tut.by, December 26, 2020).
Coupled with the predicted (Facebook.com/yury.shevtsov, December 11, 2020) diminishment of weekly street rallies—which some keen observers attribute to the depressive mood of the protesters (Facebook.com/vbobrovich, January 10, 2021)—it is little wonder that Lukashenka appears in no hurry to leave. The Belarusian president just announced that the project of the new constitution will be ready by the end of 2021. Then, the referendum on it will follow, and the rewritten constitution will be enacted by 2025. The authorities have made no announcement about early elections (Svaboda.org, January 10, 2021).
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