This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
After the election, Belarus is likely to set foot into unknown territories, but cautiously.
On 11 October, Belarus held the fifth presidential election in its sovereign history, and for the fifth time the same man – Alyaksandr Lukashenka – emerged as their triumphalist winner. However, as Belarus observers pointed out before the voting day, the volatile internal and external environment made the otherwise routine electoral exercise a bit different this time.
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Because of growing socio-economic and geopolitical challenges, the re-elected president and the whole country are being forced to enter many uncharted waters, which necessitates new approaches to foreign and domestic policies. Symbolically, a day after the official election results had been announced Lukashenka said: “a new stage in my life and probably in the life of our society as a whole is about to begin”.
While certain reforms look unavoidable in Belarus today, restraints to a systemic transformation are numerous and the Belarusian regime is highly cautious about stepping into unknown territory. Even in the most difficult of times, Belarus prefers “muddling through” to decisive reform.
Results and Reactions
According to the official election results, the incumbent president won with 83.49 percent of the votes in his favour, whereas his next closest contender achieved only 4.42 percent. Many expected that this time the Belarusian regime would try to produce less shocking results; especially after the only internationally trusted poll agency operating in Belarus - IISEPS - forecast that Lukashenka would receive between 55 and 65 percent in the first round.
But as we now see, there were no surprises. The Central Elections Commission released a results figure that is in the same range as in the previous presidential elections (e.g. 79.65 percent in 2010 and 83 percent in 2006) and seems to reflect the regime’s security perceptions. On the polling day, Lukashenka explained the logic: “It will be bad if fewer people cast their votes in comparison with the previous election. It will mean that people are starting to abandon me and some people are dissatisfied with my policy”.
The day after the vote, international monitors presented their preliminary report. The gist of which is summarised in the following paragraph:
The 11 October election once again indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. This underscores the need for the political will to engage in a comprehensive reform process. Some specific improvements and a welcoming attitude were noted. Significant problems, particularly during the counting and tabulation, undermined the integrity of the election. The campaign and election day were peaceful.
Relations with the West
While the overall assessment of the election is negative, some minor improvements were observed. Most importantly, there was no violence in the streets of Minsk before or after the polling stations closed. This is the most visible difference to the 2010 presidential election, which ended in a fierce government crackdown on mass demonstrations in the centre of Minsk.
Already on 12 October EU foreign ministers reached a political agreement to suspend sanctions on Belarus for four months. However, the decision will not be made official before 31 October, when current sanctions expire. This step should be seen as part of the broader negotiation process between Minsk and Brussels that has been ongoing since the end of 2012. After Lukashenka pardoned six political prisoners in August and the elections took place without incident, the suspension of sanctions is, at this point, a way for the EU to sustain its negotiation process with Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities expect similar moves on the part of Washington. As of now, the US Department of State has welcomed the peaceful conduct of the election but expressed disappointment that it “fell significantly short of Belarus’ international obligations”. But, like the EU, American diplomats will have to find a way to demonstrate their appreciation of the political prisoners’ release and the peaceful election. However, bigger progress is blocked by the “Belarus Democracy and Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015”. The act is the prerogative of the Congress, which is less keen to soften its policy before significant change occurs in Belarus.
Under these circumstances, Belarus’ relations with the West are set (in the absence of unpredictable developments) to further develop within the unofficial strategy of “mutually beneficial small steps”. Substantively, it will be filled with more political contacts and new initiatives in the fields of business and economy, infrastructure, and cross-border cooperation. The expected pragmatic turn in the EU’s eastern policy, as a result of the current ENP review, will further strengthen the trend; as well as Lukashenka’s vital interest in continued rapprochement with the West. At the same time, given the deeply ingrained mutual distrust and the volatile geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe, chances of a rollback remain permanently high.
Relations with Russia and Unavoidable Reforms
Despite some alarmist predictions, Russia did not attempt to interfere with the Belarusian election. Its monitors and political leadership have been quick to recognise the official results and congratulate Lukashenka. However, it is no secret that the relationship between the two states is going through difficult times. Russia’s economic crisis is having serious repercussions for the Belarusian economy and the Kremlin’s increasingly assertive geopolitical posturing brings discomfort to Minsk’s foreign policy balancing act.
With a view to diversifying its external economic relations and hedging against the risks of being dragged into Russia’s confrontation with the West, Belarusian diplomats have started developing a new foreign policy strategy – a kind of “active neutrality”. Its underlying idea is to be an active member of as many integration groupings as possible while adhering to a neutral stance on regional conflicts. Minsk’s role in resolving the Ukraine crisis serves as the most obvious example.
In this regard, Russia’s idea of establishing its airbase in Belarus clearly goes against Belarusian interests. Lukashenka has already said that the country does not need such a base, but the fact that the Kremlin made the issue public a few weeks before the election indicates Russian pressure. It remains to be seen whether Minsk will have enough arguments and the strength to withstand it.
The complexities of Belarus-Russia relations lead directly to the most important post-election question: will the government launch socio-economic reforms?
As the current economic model no longer seems capable of sustaining Lukashenka’s social model, reforms, increasingly, seem unavoidable. And the government has demonstrated that it sees the problem and is ready to act. On the polling day, even Lukashenka said that he is “ready for reforms and transformations, including revolutionary ones”. The need for essential external financing, which can come either from the IMF or the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, should further strengthen Belarus’ readiness.
However, potential reforms touch upon the political system’s bedrock – Lukashenka’s popularity. Security and sovereignty slogans, which the incumbent exploited in this election, will not suffice to sustain high levels of public support if reforms inflict more social pain. Therefore, reformers in the government will have to operate within very restricted and constantly shifting limits. Certain steps might be easily possible (e.g. stricter monetary policy or trimming of social benefits) but any measures leading to a noticeable rise in unemployment will remain a taboo.
Whichever way you look at Belarus, it seems that this is the beginning of a new chapter. While the government is prepared to assume the role of an “eastern European Switzerland”, it is not willing or capable of becoming an “eastern European Singapore”. The country is set to step on unknown territories, and that should open the door for new possibilities.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.