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Arkady Moshes: Western Powers Pivot Away From Misguided Approach To Lukashenka

Arkady Moshes: Western Powers Pivot Away From Misguided Approach To Lukashenka

Dialogue with the regime became impossible.

Director of the research program on Russia, the EU's Eastern Neighborhood and Eurasia at the Finnish Institute of International Relations, Arkady Moshes, in an interview with Charter97.org, expressed the opinion that the West has long pursued an extremely erroneous policy towards the Lukashenka regime. The situation began to change in November 2020. Today, although it is not declared, the policy towards the dictator has become an ultimatum.

— Lukashenka’s regime recalled the ambassador from Sweden, the Belarusian ruler himself says that “the West will try to test Belarus’ strength” in the future “elections,” but at the same time Lukashenka talks about peace. What does he really want today: escalation or reconciliation?

“I believe that he does not want escalation, but rather de-escalation.” But not reconciliation, because Lukashenka probably understands that this is impossible as long as there are so many political prisoners in Belarus.

Lukashenka obviously wants the tension to gradually decrease to the extent that it is acceptable to him. He should strive for this, if only because the year 2023 showed that Belarusian foreign policy is greatly sagging. It looks absolutely ineffective, and this leads to Belarus losing the remnants of its status as an actor in serious world politics.

Last year it became clear that it was impossible to blackmail the West with either nuclear weapons or the Wagnerites. But at the same time, public expressions of readiness to begin establishing a dialogue with the West do not work. Belarus' positions are weakening even in the post-Soviet space. Exchanges of statements take place, first of all, with Yerevan, since the Prime Minister of Armenia is not going to Minsk for the CSTO summit, but also with the President of Kazakhstan. Lukashenka paints one picture of the world (we need to prepare for war), but Kazakhstan makes it clear that, guys, if there is war, then this is your war, not ours.

If we talk about the “global South,” namely BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Belarus has never become a full member of any of these organizations. Russia and China continue to keep Belarus at a medium distance on this issue and are clearly not eager to rush to accept it.

There is no progress on any of these issues. Why? Apparently, because Minsk has ceased to be perceived as a subject of international politics, primarily in the West, but not only in the West. Belarus is perceived as a geopolitical continuation of Russia with a certain autonomy in domestic politics.

Obviously, realizing this, Lukashenka is trying to demonstrate that he is striving to de-escalate relations with the West. Only this would allow Minsk to at least somehow expand its space for maneuver.

— Let's take the example of Poland. The country's government has changed, and in Belarus the leader of the Polish diaspora, Andrzej Poczobut, is in prison. If Lukashenka strives for de-escalation, why can’t he make such a simple gesture — release Poczobut?

— You need to ask him why he doesn’t do this. Perhaps because Lukashenka is a politician from the same cohort as Putin, he does not really understand the benefit of unilateral gestures. He is used to thinking in terms of exchange. It must be discussed somewhere that if Lukashenka releases someone, then the situation immediately changes. And this is almost impossible. No one in the West, including Warsaw, will take any formal obligations of this kind.

I would also like to note that the situation in bilateral relations with Poland cannot be corrected by releasing one person. How, for example, will this affect the situation on the Belarusian-Polish border, where there is still a rather painful problem with migrants, which Lukashenka himself created in 2021?

If Lukashenka had other foreign policy advisers, they could have advised him to start with a gesture of goodwill and see what happens. But it seems to me that since Lukashenka is his own chief foreign policy adviser, he is waiting for proposals on trade from the Polish side. But any Polish government would look extremely ugly if, having achieved the release of one of the thousands of Belarusian political prisoners, it decided to change its policy towards Belarus.

Therefore, I would not count on the fact that the change of the Polish government will change anything in terms of the Belarusian policy of Warsaw. In this government, the Prime Minister (Donald Tusk — edit.) thinks in pan-European categories. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Radosław Sikorski — edit.), obviously, has no great desire to make peace with Lukashenka.

— You said that “Lukashenka is his own foreign policy adviser.” If he wanted a real reset in relations with the West, would the Kremlin allow him? How free is Lukashenka in his actions today?

— Of course, he is not completely free in his actions; Lukashenka’s room for maneuver is extremely narrow. But on the issue of political prisoners, it seems to me that Lukashenka is free to behave more freely than in geopolitical or military issues. He could try to do something.

However, the current position of the West, although it is not directly stated, is an ultimatum. The West will not negotiate on the issue of political prisoners; their complete release is a precondition for dialogue, and not a subject of bargaining. If all one and a half thousand political prisoners were released tomorrow, then, I think, the West would try to take some kind of step forward, and Moscow simply would not have the time and opportunity to react somehow harshly. In general, Lukashenka is still subjective on the issue of political prisoners.

— In many ways, the history of Lukashenka’s rule was cyclical: elections, repressions, Western sanctions, trade in political prisoners, dialogue — and so on in a circle. Is this scheme completely destroyed?

— I think yes. It began to collapse back in 2020, and not in August, but several months later. Let's remember that until November Lukashenka was not personally under Western sanctions. The West, and especially the EU, did not dare to say goodbye to its extremely erroneous policy of interaction with the Lukashenka regime, which in the previous few years (at least since 2014, the beginning of this reset) was based on the illusions and formal bureaucratic approaches of the West itself. The West did not understand what kind of regime it was dealing with and pursued such a policy of “solar warmth” towards Minsk.

Until November, for some reason, the West expected from Lukashenka that some kind of process of internal reconciliation, internal dialogue would begin. Then there was Ryanair, then there was the migrant crisis. I would say that in November 2020 the previous policy began to show cracks, and by the late autumn of 2021 it finally ended, because it became clear that Lukashenka is not an adequate negotiator, even potentially.

The moment of Makei's death symbolized the end of the previous policy. The West, even if it wanted to negotiate with someone, no longer had anyone on the Belarusian side who could be trusted at least to some extent. This is an instrumental aspect (with whom and what to talk about), and the main strategic point — which we just touched upon — is that Lukashenka as a whole has become so dependent on Russia that he has no room for exchange.

For a long time, in Western political discussions there were references, based on which one could find an argument in favor of maintaining smooth, relatively non-conflict relations with the Belarusian regime. For example, non-recognition of the entry of the Crimea into the Russian Federation, non-recognition of the independence of Abkhazia or Ossetia, non-recognition of the “independence” of the LPR and DPR. But at the moment, none of this exists anymore, lawyers can only argue whether Lukashenka’s meetings with local leaders are already a full recognition, or still incomplete. This is fundamentally different from what it was before 2020.

It will not be possible to restart some relatively mild cyclical policy towards Lukashenka without the release of political prisoners. Separately, it should be noted that even if this happened, lifting the sanctions would not be easy. It would be necessary to put forward some arguments why, in fact, a person who is so dependent on Russia needs to be somehow encouraged, stimulated, to believe that he is able to leave Russia if he has not done this in all these years. Therefore, now conversations about restarting such a policy are just dreams, even for those people who would be inclined to conduct these conversations in some other circumstances.

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