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Belarus: inches close to rogue state status | RiskMap2022

Europe

Belarus: the Russian “buffer” inches close to rogue state status

Eimear O'CaseyAssociate Director & Botakoz Iliyas | Associate Analyst

Against the odds, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko goes into 2022 in many respects stronger than ever. His declaration of victory in the August 2020 presidential election provoked an unprecedented wave of peaceful protests calling for his resignation. However, Lukashenko by early 2021 had seen these reduced to irregular, small rallies, through the deployment of security force violence, mass arrests, and the imprisonment or self-exile of all opposition organisers.  

EU and US sanctions, including some against Belarus’ prime exports, throughout 2020-21 have not dented the president’s staying power either. Thanks to economic and political support from Russia, Lukashenko can plug any major gaps left from lost EU and US trade and ensure economic solvency. 

 

Lukashenko is increasingly willing to push perceived red lines in projecting power and punishing his Western critics. This will continue to have direct and destabilising implications for countries and operators inside and beyond Belarus’ borders in 2022. EU countries have condemned the Belarusian government for what they say is a policy of recruiting migrants from the Middle East and illegally pushing them across international borders into the EU. This has been enough to prompt EU countries bordering Belarus to declare states of emergency in 2021, generating unpredictable security environments along the EU’s eastern edge. Meanwhile, Lukashenko appears increasingly willing to target western companies - and those working for western companies - in his opposition crackdown and retaliation against western sanctions.  

While Russia maintains financial and political support for Lukashenko, he will persist with such policies in 2022. Where once Russia considered such unpredictability to be a risk, it increasingly sees this rogue behaviour to be to its advantage. Lukashenko through his migrant policy and pursuit of Belarusian opposition activists abroad is disrupting EU security within EU borders. Russia reaps the political benefits of such disruption, without attracting direct sanction from the EU and US for doing so.

Neither Lukashenko nor Russia alone will decide Belarus’ fate. There remains, somewhere, a breaking point where Russian willingness to support such a mercurial leader fails. If and when Russia decides to facilitate a transition to a new president, the millions of Belarusians who now enjoy the distinctive, post-Soviet Belarusian identity that the 2020 protests solidified will be watching closely. That identity remains firmly neither anti-Russian nor anti-Western. But polling shows that people are very wary of attempts by Russia to formally integrate Belarus. If Russia mishandles a transition away from Lukashenko and pushes too hard and too clumsily for integration, protest activity could revive. And the Belarusian buffer could present a fresh set of political and security challenges in the EU-Russia nexus.

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