The West’s Belarus Policy:
Does it Make Sense?
July 28, 2023
  • Grigory Ioffe
    Analyst, Jamestown Foundation
Grigory Ioffe questions the rationale of Western policy toward Belarus, which is undermining its economic foundations and putting into question its survival as an independent state, thereby leading to total dependence on Russia.
NATO’s take on Belarus

The NATO summit in Vilnius took place just 30 km from the Belarusian border. In the final document from the summit, Belarus was mentioned seven times, but only once as an entity able to act on its own: “We call on Belarus to stop its malign activities against its neighbors, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law,” the document proclaims.

The remaining six references invoke Belarus only in conjunction with Russia, which is using Belarusian territory and infrastructure for aggression against Ukraine; is integrating with Belarus militarily; is deploying its nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory; and is sending its own private military company across the common border.
In other words, Belarus is considered not as a master of its domain but as an extension of Russia.
Belarus' opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Washington, D.C., March , 2023. Western leaders’ support of Tikhahnovskaya does not help weaken Lukashenko’s grip on power. Source: Wiki Commons
To be sure, such a take on Belarus is not new. Dozens, if not hundreds of publications in the Belarusian opposition media and of the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty share this perspective.

And yet when Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda referred to Belarus as “no longer independent” but rather a “province of Russia,” the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has enjoyed Lithuanian hospitality since August 11, 2020, took issue with Nauseda’s remark. “Such an interpretation creates a wrong perception of Belarus in the world and contributes to even greater isolation of our country and our people. Belarus is not a province of Russia, and the Belarusian people will not allow it to become one.” This was the statement that Tikhanovskaya’s “cabinet” issued. To be sure, important is not only what is said but who said it, or as Alexander Pushkin famously stated, “of course, I despise my fatherland from head to toe – but I am annoyed if a foreigner shares this feeling with me.”

The problem, however, transcends national pride. Who bears responsibility for the surge in Belarus’s dependency on Russia since 2020? The usual answer is Alexander Lukashenko. He cracked down on mass protests over rigged elections in August 2020; in 2021, he organized a migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border; in May 2021, Ryanair Flight 4978 (Athens-Vilnius), a Boeing 737-800 carrying six crew and 126 passengers, was diverted to Minsk Airport so that Roman Protasevich and his then girlfriend Sofia Sapega could be seized; the Lukashenko regime continues to keep behind bars some 1,500 people that human rights groups qualify as political prisoners. Furthermore, Minsk allowed Russia to use Belarusian territory to stage attacks on Ukraine. The collective West, including the EU, could not help but react and imposed six packages of sanctions on Minsk. Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet not only approved of that but constantly demanded more and tougher sanctions.

The geopolitical equivalent of ‘cancel culture’

What was achieved as a result? Did Minsk relent on political prisoners? On the contrary, the situation has gotten worse. Did Minsk cut back on military cooperation with Russia? No, it has only strengthened. Still, something critical was, in fact, achieved: what Siarhei Bohdan, a Belarusian historian working for the Free University of Berlin, called a semi-blockade. Bohdan subjected this phenomenon and its implications to an in-depth analysis. In view of its importance, here is a synopsis:

  • Minsk has been trying its best to diversify its transportation routes since obtaining independence, particularly in the 2010s, putting emphasis on connections via such ports as Ventspils, Latvia; Klaipeda, Lithuania; Gdansk, Poland; and Odesa, Ukraine.
  • Minsk was not in a hurry to obey when Moscow demanded (for the first time in 2016) that refined oil products produced from Russian crude oil be rerouted to Russian seaports.
  • Up until the 2020 presidential election, Minsk tried to reinforce transit diversification. Thus, as of January 2020, Lukashenko held a vision whereby only 30-40% of oil is purchased from Russia, whereas 30% is purchased elsewhere and entering via Klaipeda and the remaining 30% comes via Odesa.
  • In 2019, rail passengers between Belarus and Lithuania amounted to 380,000, and 225,000 with Poland. Train traffic was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic but not resumed thereafter.
  • Following imposition of punitive Western sanctions, Minsk eventually (in February 2021) signed an agreement with Russia about rerouting its refined oil exports to Russian ports.
  • Lithuania began to limit semi-trailer cross-border transit from March 2021.
  • Following the diversion of the Ryanair flight in May 2021, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine closed their airspace to Belavia, Belarus’s major carrier. On June 4, 2021, the EU closed its airspace to all Belarusian planes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) criticized the move, noting that “the ban on European aircraft using Belarusian airspace is a politicization of aviation safety issues.” IATA emphasized that it condemns the actions of the Belarusian side, though one illegal action cannot justify another. The double standard was obvious, too. Even after the incident with the Ryanair flight, similar cases did not trigger such a harsh reaction. A case in point was the forced landing of a Khartoum-Istanbul flight on January 15, 2022, at Egypt’s Luxor Airport with the subsequent arrest of Egyptian opposition activist Hossam Menoufy Mahmoud Sallam, a citizen of Egypt and the UK.
  • In response to the air blockade and the EU’s decision to halt cooperation with Belarus, Minsk refused to do border protection “spadework” – it stopped keeping potential illegal migrants from approaching EU borders. A migrant crisis ensued.
  • By early 2022, Belarus found itself in a semi-blockade maintained by all of its neighbors except Russia. Vilnius decided to stop transporting Belarusian potash through its territory altogether from February 1, 2022. The Lithuanian government acted on its own, as the US and EU sanctions did not require Vilnius to take such measures at the time.
  • The semi-blockade and Minsk’s resulting reliance on Russia compelled the Belarusian government to make unprecedented concessions to Moscow. Consequently, when the war in Ukraine broke out, the Russian units in Belarus were involved.
  • Belarus attempted to prevent borders in the region from closing. After several years of experimenting with visa-free entry at Minsk Airport for foreigners, in 2022, a visa-free regime was introduced for citizens of neighboring countries arriving in Belarus over land. This practice was further expanded, and Belarus offered Polish citizens a visa-free regime at all checkpoints for the period from March 2023 until the end of the year. In October 2022, Minsk unilaterally allowed EU trucking companies to enter Belarus.
  • Nevertheless, after February 2022, the blockade tightened. In addition to the severing of economic ties between Belarus and Ukraine after the outbreak of the war, the EU imposed new sanctions on Belarus, including transit restrictions. This was part of the economic war waged against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, but not a realistic plan to persuade Minsk to change its course.
  • In January 2023, Lithuania denounced an agreement on principles of transborder cooperation. Note that the border between Belarus and Lithuania cuts across the formerly holistic and integrated Wilno/Vilnius region.
  • In February 2023, Poland closed all border crossings except one for cars and one for semi-trailers.
Bohdan’s conclusions are as follows.
The semi-blockade of Belarus subjects its citizens to collective punishment by artificially undermining the economic basis of their well-being.
Restrictions related, for example, to denying Belarusians the right to cross borders or use the financial infrastructure of Western countries, were not even applied to Iraq, Libya or Iran, i.e. countries that were subjected to the most severe sanctions pressure. The blockade of Belarus, believes Bohdan, calls into question its survival as an independent state. Specific decisions of EU members in the areas of transport and transit from the spring of 2022 onward imply a refusal to recognize any difference whatsoever between Belarus and Russia. They lead not only to the delegitimization of the existing Belarusian state but also to the absolute dependence of Belarus on Russia in all areas, including relations with third countries.
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus’ dependence on Russia is growing ever stronger, not least as a result of the blockade of Belarus by its Western neighbors. Source: VK
Belarus policy as Cheshire Cat?

Given Bohdan’s analysis, the answer to the question of who is to blame for Belarus becoming an extension of Russia no longer seems obvious. After all, in a conceivable equation describing Belarus’s ties with its neighbors, there seem to be two constants or givens and only one variable.

One constant is Lukashenko himself. A bad guy once and for all, in the eyes of the West, he has been at the helm for 29 years straight. The second constant is Belarus’s never-subsiding desire to diversify its ties, an existential requirement for a midsize landlocked country like Belarus, squeezed between two centers of power. 

In contrast, the only true variable in the equation is the West’s Belarus policy. While there is believable information about some Western European politicians taking Minsk more seriously than their counterparts from Poland and the Baltics, it is the Eastern and Central Europeans that are the actual gatekeepers on the issue.

But irrespective of gatekeepers,
“A legitimate question suggests itself. Is the policy just a binary choice between evil and good, the former being Lukashenko’s rule and the latter Europe’s idealistic vision for Belarus?
Or perhaps a policy is more of a visionary and nuanced course of action mediated by policymakers’ homework on the country in question (its history, internal divisions and polling) and their arrival at a certain compromise between values and interests? It does not seem that this second option is even considered. Consequently, Western politicians appear to be chasing their own tails. Everything possible is being done to convert Belarus into an extension of Russia only to express an outrage over this specific outcome.

A similar situation exists in multi-track diplomacy between the West and Belarus. On the one hand, despite vastly diminished and leaderless embassy staffs, Belarus still maintains diplomatic relations with all Western countries. Only in the US case, the relationship is asymmetric, exclusively because of the American side. Belarusian diplomats stay in Washington, while Americans have abandoned their embassy in Minsk and stay in Vilnius.

On the other hand, the provisional cabinet headed by Tikhanovskaya tries its best to hog the covers. A Radio Liberty article on her cabinet’s relations with the West maintains, quite seriously, that “Western leaders now resolve Belarusian issues” almost exclusively with Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet, whereas contacts with official Belarusian diplomats are “devoid of depth” and are more “thematical than political,” whatever that means. One analyst even suggested that Lukashenko “would love to be in Tikhanovskaya’s place” because she has met with so many Western leaders, whereas Lukashenko is shunned by them.

Considering, however, that Tikhanovskaya has no way of affecting anything in Belarus, the latter remark is bizarre. Tikhanovskaya’s meetings with Western leaders are replete in symbolism (“we support democracy”) but offer nothing in terms of practicality. In the meantime, Western journalists keep on soliciting interviews with Lukashenko to make up for the deficiency of contacts that really matter.

But even on formal grounds, the claim that it is Tikhanovskaya’s government that matters, while Lukashenka’s is “devoid of depth” is invalid. As Pavel Matsukevich, a former charge d’affaires of Belarus in Switzerland, now an opposition analyst, showed , since Lukashenko’s post-election inauguration in October 2020, 54 ambassadors have already presented their credentials to him, representing all continents but Australia. This repudiates the idea of the regime’s isolation, an idea that continues to be promoted, nonetheless.

The Belarusian diplomacy is also setting up new routes for goods to be shipped to faraway countries, in particular using the International North-South Transport Corridor, involving Iran. This brings Minsk closer to solving the trade issues with the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America that arose after Belarus lost access to the ports of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in the Baltic and Ukraine in the Black Sea. Belarus has just been accepted by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applied for membership in BRICS, and established trading ties with many African countries.

Above all, however, it is Russia that has been absorbing more Belarusian export products. In 2022, Belarusian exports to Russia exceeded those of previous year by whopping 40%, which compensated for half of the losses incurred due to access to Western markets being cut off. Minsk is making efforts to offset the rest through its trade with other countries.

In late May, Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik visited Pakistan. At the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement’s Coordinating Bureau in Baku in early July, Aleinik held meetings with deputy heads of the foreign ministries of Azerbaijan, Uganda, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, India, Algeria, Kuwait, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. This shows that
“Diplomatic isolation of Minsk is wishful thinking on the part of the exiled opposition.
Matsukevich, himself an exile, is now appealing to Western leaders to face reality and bring back their high-level diplomats to Minsk so they could negotiate the release of political prisoners.

In summary, while badly damaging Belarus’s ability to act on its own and not achieving any positive results, the blockade of Belarus by its Western neighbors has been manifestly counterproductive, leading to excessive dependency on Russia. On top of that, conducting Belarus-related talks primarily with entities that have little to no clout in Belarus itself only makes matters worse. If this conclusion was worth substantiating despite being overly straightforward, it is primarily because Western foreign policymakers are not on friendly terms with common sense. Not always at the very least.
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