The expert of the German Marshall Fund spoke about the "moment of weakness" for the Belarusian dictator.
More political scientists and experts have recently paid attention to what is going on in the relations between Moscow and Minsk. They wonder how serious are the rumours leaked to the press about the alleged intention of the parties to undertake radical integration, up to the creation of a certain confederative state of Russia and Belarus.
Political scientist, director of Central and Eastern Europe programs of the German Marshall Fund, Joerg Forbrig, told in an exclusive interview to journalist Valeria Egisman, Voice of America, about developments that can be expected.
- In your opinion, how will the integration process between Belarus and Russia develop concerning the so-called "union state"? Will Moscow's pressure increase?
- When it comes to the "union state," as well as greater integration within the Eurasian Economic Union, it is based on completely different expectations and intentions of the parties. For Moscow, this integration is primarily political; for Minsk, it is economic, either it regards access to the Russian market, energy resources or loans. Russia hints at additional economic benefits to Belarus only in case of further integration. After all, it mainly means the end of Lukashenka's ruling regime.
Things we observe now are the confrontation between these very different incentives to dare to a closer union. I think that both sides are at an impasse. I do not expect an immediate escalation to follow. I assume that both sides will weigh options for a while. The Belarusian side is ready to hold on with less support from Russia for some time and will try to leave aside the issue of political integration at least for a year because this year presidential elections take place. We all understand that these elections cannot be called credible. Nevertheless, based on the past, they are a moment of weakness for Lukashenka. He will have to reckon with Russia's possible interference in the election campaign and consider the level of mobilization of the political opposition in the country. In this situation, Lukashenka does not need an open conflict with Moscow. He has accepted what he has at the moment: an agreement on gas supplies and prices which has been recently reached.
As for the Russian side, I think they have realised that at this stage of integration they will not receive any political concessions from Minsk. Moscow also realizes that if today it escalates the situation and increases pressure, it risks destabilizing Lukashenka's regime. I'm not sure they're ready for that. I don't believe they have any "plan B" on Lukashenka's successor. Most likely, their positions will undertake no changes - without further escalation and pressure to avoid destabilizing Lukashenka's regime before the presidential elections this August.
- What do you expect from the current "turn" of Minsk towards the West? How do you see the development of relations between Belarus and the United States, especially in light of the recent visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Minsk?
- Lukashenka has not made any U-turn towards the West. Yes, diplomatic relations between Belarus and the European Union have normalized, and this process has been ongoing since 2015. This has become a direct response to the events in Ukraine. The EU was ready for rapprochement, knowing that at that stage it was important to somehow support the sovereignty of Belarus and break away from frozen relations. Now, years later, the United States is doing the same. It's questionable whether these relations can continue. For future progress, greater points for cooperation should exist. I would say, the prospects are low here.
After five years of the relation normalization between the EU and Belarus, no cooperation in specific areas has been reached. The relations have remained on the diplomatic and rhetorical levels. I expect that the same will happen in American-Belarusian relations. Yes, years from now we will witness the restoration of diplomatic presence, but I think it will all. First of all, most of the cooperation issues will face political obstacles. The government in Minsk is unwilling to carry out political or economic reforms, especially concerning political liberalization - free elections, expanding space for civil society and independent media. However, this is the main expectation and demand of Western partners.
- Is Lukashenka interested in reducing economic and energy cooperation with Russia?
- Lukashenka is interested to continue receiving some subsidies and benefits that have long subsidized his regime prolonging its existence. For many years, the support of Russia to Belarus has been quite substantial. In particular, it regards cheap energy resources. It made up about $5-7 billion a year. This is a very significant part of Lukashenka's budget. In case of an ideal scenario, he would certainly like to keep some of this support. However, Minsk admits that Moscow is reluctant to provide it. At least for this year, Belarus has prepared to reduced Russian support. In particular, it created more substantial financial reserves. This will enable Minsk to cover about $3.5 billion in debt this year.
But they need to find additional resources, which could effectively compensate for the loss of Russian subsidies. At the end of last year, they managed to get a loan from China, which slightly improves the situation. However, they will have to look for ways to get income and resources from other non-Russian sources, including those in the long term. This is a challenge because if you look at the Belarusian economy, there is potential for growth, for example in the IT sector, but it is quite complex to generate other additional resources from within without economic reforms. In the case of the West - the European Union, the United States or international organizations such as the IMF - we return to the issue of conditions for granting loans, primarily for economic and political reforms. It is very hard for Lukashenka to accept these conditions because he is afraid that even economic reforms will eventually jeopardize his political power. So the potential to get support in the form of loans and investments from western partners is limited.
- What options does Lukashenka have to reduce his energy dependence on Russia?
- There are several possible options. I think that Minsk considers them all. One of them, of course, is an attempt to find alternative energy sources, particularly oil. We saw the oil supplies from Norway, there are negotiations with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. During his recent visit to Minsk, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered help with oil supplies at competitive prices. But all these options have disadvantages. Alternative Russian oil supplies are more expensive, some of them bear a transportation issue, others raise technical problems, such as the type of oil mixture. It may differ greatly from what Russia produces and what can be processed in Belarus. Judging by Minsk's previous attempts to supply oil from other world producers - for example, more than ten years ago they tried to deliver oil from Venezuela for processing in Belarus - none of them proved to be a stable or profitable model. So I doubt that Minsk will be able to replace Russian oil, and this dependence will likely remain in the foreseeable future.
The other option is, of course, to reduce the share of oil and other energy consumption in the Belarusian economy. The IT sector I have already mentioned is a very successful one. If I am not wrong, it ranked first in Belarus' exports last year. Another sector that Minsk can export is agriculture, and tourism can also be developed. However, it will bring results in the long-term perspective and is not a prompt solution to Belarus' economic hardships.
- Lukashenka has a rather bad reputation for human rights. Is there a chance that the situation here can be improved, and can the West do something about it?
- The West has repeatedly tried to push the Belarusian regime to some political liberalization, but we have not seen any small steps up. For example, what regards a moratorium on the death penalty. It has been the major demand of Europeans for many years. A moratorium would send a symbolic signal that the government in Minsk was ready to reform and improve conditions in the country, even if to a certain degree. But we have not seen any progress on this issue, as well as on fundamental democratic rights and freedoms. We observed periods of a slight easing of pressure, followed again by increased repressions. The same applies to elections, which are still being manipulated. Greater transparency and space for political opposition in campaigning and communicating with citizens could have been welcomed here. In my opinion, these are achievable things that do not affect the stability of the political system as a whole. But none of this has been done. I do not think that Lukashenka's regime is ready to reform at least a little.
Unfortunately, the West has to admit it. We have no levers to bring about any positive changes in Belarus. After the Crimea and Donbas, there is a feeling that our policy towards Minsk is less inclined to insist on the respect to fundamental values - democracy, human rights, free elections, freedom of mass media and civil society. We can see Belarus through the prism of geopolitics, security and presence of a highly aggressive Russia. It becomes even more complicated to demand reforms from Lukashenka. In turn, Lukashenka's regime using this very geopolitical argument claims that it ensures stability, its independence. Therefore, it is unwise to put pressure on it to carry out any democratic reforms.