In the decades since Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s first and only fair presidential election victory in 1994, two Belaruses have coexisted inside the same borders. One is authoritarian, and to this day is represented by the official government and its supporters. The other strives for freedom and democracy, and survives under constant pressure and persecution from the first. These two Belaruses have never stood on an equal footing, and the latter had not been a substantial international player, despite regular efforts by activists and expats. This changed dramatically last year, when “free Belarus” finally attained a status that carries with it geopolitical weight. It did not supplant its authoritarian competitor, but nevertheless won de facto international recognition.
Belarus has now transformed into a two-headed creature. Neither can swallow the other, but each keeps endlessly trying. In the international arena today, Belarus is no longer represented by just Lukashenka and the foreign ministry loyal to him, but increasingly so by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the diaspora, and even by the 631 political prisoners inside Belarus who bravely challenged the regime last summer. All international partners are now having to learn how to approach this unpredictable beast – regardless of which of these two Belaruses they really support.
Moscow fears that the free Belarus, which has recently grown in strength and stature, will come to replace Lukashenka, jeopardising Russian political and economic investments in the country. Russia is betting on the politicians who are using force to hold onto power in Belarus; on those who are now personae non grata for the democratic world. But, however much it may wish otherwise, the Kremlin is unable to simply pretend that the free Belarus does not exist. Russia now has to deal with the reality that Belarusian society has fundamentally changed over the past year and is not going to return to its previous pre-crisis state. Lukashenka’s internal illegitimacy will only deepen with time and could lead to his sudden overthrow, bloody civil war, or a political transition on the people’s, rather than Russia’s, terms. This will cause – if it has not done so already – Moscow to draw up alternatives rather than blindly support the unpopular dictator as it does now.
The situation is similar for Western countries. The European Union and the United States can deny Lukashenka’s legitimacy as much as they want, but they cannot ignore him because it is he who intercepts planes with EU citizens on board and incites artificial migration crises at NATO’s borders. In their struggle with Minsk, both Brussels and Washington have to take into account the consequences of their choices for those who oppose Lukashenka but who will inevitably suffer from their tough economic actions. The regime has been responding to Western sanctions by punishing members of the already weakened civil society.
In countries such as Belarus, located along a major geopolitical fault line, large-scale political transformations inevitably provoke crises and often external intervention. But Belarus has not become a bargaining chip in the wider confrontation between Russia and the West. Neither can really make their ‘allies’ inside Belarus do something contrary to what they understand their interests to be. Despite the catastrophic deepening of Lukashenka’s dependence on Russia over the last year, he has not handed the metaphorical keys to the country to Moscow and continues to fiercely patrol the boundaries of his power against Russian intrusions. In the same way, he does not want to retreat one inch under pressure from the West, and even finds the courage and strength to go on the attack.
At the same time, Belarusian civil society has also acquired a new and important role in internal and foreign political processes. This is certainly manifest in the dozens of meetings Tsikhanouskaya is having with leaders around the world. But it is also manifest in the Belarusian diaspora, whose initiatives and active lobbying for economic pressure on the Belarusian authorities are preventing foreign governments from returning to a comfortable ‘business as usual’ with the regime. Does this part of Belarus depend on the West? Yes, and it counts on its political support. But will it follow the EU and US if they suddenly sue for peace with Lukashenka? No, it will not. The head belongs to Belarus, not the West.
None of this is leading to an easy resolution. One side is unable to keep Lukashenka from his disruptive and even destructive activities – from closing embassies of the countries that have offended him to his dirty schemes of smuggling and people trafficking. Meanwhile, Lukashenka himself, despite all his power, is unable to stop his rivals from continuing to expand their new web of international contacts. Even the West’s sanctions against his regime, which are now tougher than ever, are also the result of this parallel Belarusian foreign policy, which is beyond Lukashenka’s control.
The emergence of this new two-headed international actor is perhaps the most important result of the political crisis so far. The struggle between the two has raised the international visibility of Belarus, forcing foreign governments to engage. But the heads’ very existence is why no behind-the-scenes international negotiations, as some experts expected from the meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, are even taking place to try to end the crisis. The implementation of any agreements will become possible only if they take into account the interests of both Belaruses. Yet the stalemate exists because it is only with an engaged West and Russia that a solution can be found. Until that time comes, the two heads will continue to merely snap at each other. Neither Belarus will be able to defeat the other on their own – but equally neither the West nor Russia will be able to resolve the crisis without accounting for both sides of the country.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.