Quick notes on an event on Belarus at Carnegie today (March 17), moderated by Matthew Rojansky. Apologies in advance for any mistakes, as I don’t know anything about the country from which two of my grandparents emigrated to the U.S.
Alexei Pikulik of the Belrusian Institute for Strategic Studies thinks the regime has been stable for 16 years mainly because of its success in creating and harvesting rents from transit of oil (bought cheaply from the Russians, refined, and sold at world prices) as well as artificially pumped up demand for Belarusian products in Russia and smuggling. The opposition has been largely accountable to Western donors and lacks roots in Belarusian society. Unity is less important than developing serious political support.
The 2010 elections precipitated a crackdown on election day, December 19, because Lukashenko felt betrayed by the West (he believed some European countries were supporting Neklyaev’s Say the Truth campaign), and he feared the Russians too might undermine him, exploiting some in his own entourage. This has left Belarus more isolated, some moderates radicalized, some in the elite thinking about abandoning Lukashenko and the economy in crisis. The targeted sanctions, Alexei thinks, increase elite cohesion. More pressure does not undermine Lukashenko.
What the West (US and Europeans) should do now depends on what we want to achieve. If we want Lukashenko to release political prisoners (who are likely to get stiff sentences before he pardons them), we should be talking with him and offering carrots. If we want to replace him, we need to support the opposition, promote divisions within the regime, emarginate the radicals within the opposition and support a constitutional referendum in favor of a parliamentary system. If we want regime change, we should help civil society, ally with the middle class and open up the serious prospect of a European future for Belarus.
Rodger Potocki of National Endowment for Democracy believes the opposition is more substantial than the number of votes it gets. It should not be blamed for the crackdown, and it demonstrated strong potential for solidarity in its assistance to those who were harmed. Washington is coordinating well with the EU to support independent media, human rights and other advocacy groups. Change will come from inside Belarus, not from outside.
Lawrence Silverman of the State Department said improvements in Minsk’s behavior will bring a proportionate U.S. response. We’ve been consistent and well-coordinated with the EU, even if our policies differ in some details. As we’ve made clear in a joint statement with Brussels, we want a modern, European Belarus. It is up to the Belarusans to act in ways that will make that possible.
I asked afterwards about attacking the economic rents that Alexei had said were the main pillar of the regime, a notion that Potocki confirmed. No one offered a way to approach that issue directly, but there is some room to do it in the context of Russian WTO negotiations. I hope someone is making a serious effort.
In response to other questions, Silverman said he hoped the agreement on transfer of Highly Enriched Uranium would be implemented and the U.S. has no objection in principle to a Russian nuclear power plant for Belarus, provided it is covered by strict IAEA safeguards (what are the odds of that getting built after the meltdowns in Japan?). The U.S. is prepared to restore its embassy in Minsk to full strength, but that depends on the Belarusans giving permission. Social media did not play a major role in either the election campaign or subsequent events.