The devil you know
WESTERN strategy for toppling the authoritarian and murderous regime in Belarus is roughly this: “Have meetings, give the opposition money, have more meetings, give more money”.
You have to be pretty optimistic to think it is working. For two of the best-known opposition leaders, Alyaksandr Milinkevic and Michail Marynich, a photo-opportunity with President George Bush on the fringes of the NATO summit this month may have been a morale booster. Protests in support of another main opposition figure, Alyaksandr Kazulin, who has just finished a hunger strike, were inspiring. But they did not rock the regime. The big question is how best to exploit the widening split between the Belarusian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his Kremlin counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
One paradoxical result of Mr Lukashenka’s eccentric and paranoid rule over the past 12 years has been to entrench a Belarusian national identity. It may be a perverse and retrograde one, it may have a strong Soviet whiff about it in places. But it is there, and support in Belarus for a planned merger with Russia has collapsed. That creates the potential for a real two-way row.
A trade war is under way already. Russia is telling Belarus to hand over half the national gas infrastructure to Kremlin-crony Russian companies, or else Russia will double the price that it charges Belarus for gas. Next year, presumably, Russia will bargain for the rest of the Belarusian system. Recently Russia started blocking imports of Belarusian sugar. The always flimsy tent of the Russian-Belarusian Union, which was supposed to accommodate the two countries in a marriage of equals, is so tattered as to seem beyond repair.
The current nonsensical arrangement whereby Russia and Belarus share a free trade zone without free trade, under a supranational authority with no authority, can’t last. Russia no longer wants to subsidise its backward neighbour. But nor does it want, at least right now, the trouble and expense of toppling the regime and swallowing Belarus whole.
The two countries share a free trade zone without free trade, and a supranational authority with no authority
As ties with Russia turn from cool to icy, the Lukashenka regime is desperate to find new friends: Iran, Azerbaijan, China—anyone who can help temper the cold wind from the Kremlin. Belarus is even putting out feelers westwards, albeit rather clumsy ones.
So far, these have been firmly rebuffed. The West doesn’t think about Belarus very often. When it does, it wants to isolate the regime, not befriend it.
But unofficially, people are talking about a new approach, variously described as “more astute” and “more realistic”: that the West should stop trying to isolate Mr Lukashenka, and instead offer him a deal.
Let's see who's more cynical now
At its most cynical, this would mean leaving the old brute in power, but as a Western ally rather than a Kremlin one, creating a kind of Azerbaijan on Europe’s eastern fringe. A slightly cleaner variant would be for the West to buy Mr Lukashenka out, offering immunity and a dignified retirement in exchange for a peaceful transfer of power and eventual democracy. A third option would be to keep political ties frozen, at least for now, but to try to boost trade, investment and cultural links.
For the West to deal with Mr Lukashenka at all would be seen as betrayal by the Belarusian opposition, whose moral case is overwhelming. These are good people who have been beaten, and jailed, and seen their loved ones murdered. The West would be saying to them, in effect: “Sorry old chap. Given the geopolitics, it’s too good a chance to miss.”
There’s another problem too. Capricious, paranoid and devious, Mr Lukashenka is not a reliable dealmaker.
At this moment, shunning Mr Lukashenka’s approaches feels virtuous, and could well be right. But events in Belarus are unfolding remarkably quickly. There may soon come a time when thinking wishfully on the sidelines will look the worst option, not the best.