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Lukashenka remarked that if Crimea was an historically Russian territory, then virtually all of Russia itself should be given back to Mongolia and Kazakhstan because it had once been ruled by the Golden Horde

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My latest article, co-authored with Belarus specialist Paul Hansbury for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, takes a look at how Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka (in the article, his name is written using the latin-Russian transliteration, Alexander Lukashenko) has tried to cope with the regional economic fallout of the Ukraine crisis. The article can be found here.

Paul and I describe Lukashenka’s dilemma: heavily dependent on Russia for its security and for much of its prosperity, Belarus cannot stray too far from Russian orbit, and yet its economy is being dragged down by a Russian economy suffering grievous harm from a combination of low oil prices and Western sanctions imposed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

But there is a strong political dimension to this issue too. Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine, and its use of the language of having the right to ‘defend’ not only ‘ethnic Russians’ but ‘Russian speakers’ has spooked the leaders of many post-Soviet countries, especially those of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

(For a masterful analysis of the potential legal and political implications of Russian rhetoric during the Ukraine crisis, see Russian ‘deniable intervention’ in Ukraine: how and why Russia broke the rules, a paper for International Affairs by Professor Roy Allison of St Antony’s College, Oxford.)

For both economic and political reasons, therefore, Minsk appears to be reaching out to Western political and financial institutions, whilst considering and in some cases implementing economic reforms that it has never contemplated before. And although the Ukraine crisis may have been the principal cause of Belarus’s present predicament, it has also helped to make the European Union, Minsk’s principal political partner in the West, more open to a new kind of relationship.

Having re-evaluated its Eastern Neighbourhood strategy in November, the European Union is placing greater emphasis on stability, which in the case of Belarus has meant a shift in emphasis from promoting Belarusian democracy, to that of protecting Belarusian statehood.

Grateful for Minsk’s role as a neutral party and host of peace talks in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and for the Belarusian presidential election in October having passed with less overt repression than in 2010, the EU has dropped economic sanctions on Lukashenka and other senior officials.  Belarus has also been able to take advantage of European sanctions on Russia, illustrated by the allegedly ‘Belarusian’ oysters and pineapples appearing on the Russian market.

But things aren’t quite so straightforward when you’re sitting in Minsk. Although Belarus’s economic system, starved of the fruits of Russian growth, is patently not fit for purpose, a twin-track response of internal economic reform coupled with greater diplomatic engagement with the country’s western neighbours also raises twin risks: an unravelling of the economic base of Lukashenka’s rule, combined with an irritable or even angry response from the Kremlin for Minsk’s temerity to improve relations with Western capitals in Moscow’s hour of need (there is, as ever, a competing theory, that Moscow is actually very happy for Belarus to play the role of economic and diplomatic guinea pig).

As we observe in the article, ‘with the status quo of the past two decades looking increasingly unsustainable, some regard his predicament as unenviably similar to that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s — he is aware that reform is unavoidable, but fearful of its potential consequences.’ It is because of this Gorbachev comparison that Belarusian economist Jaroslav Romanchuk told us that Belarus was facing “Soviet Collapse 2.0”.

Of course, if Russia is any guide to go by – and by no means should people assume that it is – Lukashenka could respond with a variation of Russian analyst Kirill Rogov’s parable of the horse-drawn cart:

Imagine owning a horse-drawn cart: Someone brings you plans to convert it into a car and you promise to “take it into consideration.” At some point, you attach side mirrors, replace the two rear wheels with alloy rims, apply metallic paint to the sideboards and install an air conditioner for the driver. The result is that you have ostensibly achieved 35 percent fulfillment of the plan. The Russian government takes a similar approach.

@crsdavies

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